Issue #193  7/11/2012
Isenburg 19th-Century Photo Collection, Rich in Rare Cameras and Dags, Sold to Archive of Modern Conflict For $15 Million

By Alex Novak

The Matthew Isenburg photography collection, which was made up of what is considered to be the most important collection of American daguerreotypes in private hands, rare early cameras, an important library and ephemera collection, and other photographs and photographica, has been purchased for a reported $15 million in what is probably the highest priced single private sale of 19th-century photography and related material. Despite that staggering dollar figure, the collection could easily be valued at a considerably higher amount considering its contents. The parties asked me to hold the story, which we had detected about two months ago.

The purchaser was the Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC). Daguerreian dealer Greg French, a long-time daguerreotype dealer and supplier of some of the material in the collection, broker the deal.

The packing and shipping of the collection took a crew of anywhere from five to nine people--five full weeks to complete, and a cherry picker had to be rented in order to remove the over eight-foot-wide carved American eagle and other objects from the third floor museum.

The task of unpacking, cataloging and photographing every item has begun in Toronto, and is being carried out by AMC's newly-appointed curators of the collection, Jill Offenbeck and Amanda Shear, both of Toronto. The AMC’s chief photography buyer in North America, Neil MacDonald, also from Toronto, was instrumental in convincing AMC that the Isenburg Collection was essential to their vision. Toronto native and Daguerreian Society President Mike Robinson has been recently appointed as AMC's Director of Education and Research Programs and will oversee the organization and cataloging of the collection.

With offices in both London, England and Toronto, AMC's collection of well over three million images contains primarily vernacular photographs that tell mankind's forgotten stories through the personal albums and images created and preserved by the common man; an un-bandaged reality, rarely seen, and too often discarded by ensuing generations.

Images of 20th century conflict, war, political unrest, social revolution, cultural traditions, etc. were AMC's primary focus when they began collecting in the 1990s, but that soon expanded to include 19th-century images as well as manuscripts and objects. The addition of the Isenburg Collection, adds a formidable dimension to AMC's holdings, much as the Gernsheim Collection added early photo-history to the Harry Ransom Center.

One of the primary focuses of the Isenburg collection is its daguerreotypes. There is even a book on the Isenburg collection, "American Daguerreotypes from the Matthew R. Isenburg Collection" by Richard S. Field and Robin Jaffee Frank. The book was published by the Yale University Art Gallery in 1989. Some of the daguerreotype rarities include:

--A full-plate dag by John Plumbe of the U.S. Capitol Building under construction.

--Numerous gold-mining daguerreotypes.

--Probably the most important collection of Southworth & Hawes daguerreotypes in private hands, including many full plates.

--Numerous occupational daguerreotypes.

And much more.

The collection also contains very rare early cameras, camera outfits, daguerreotype cases of all types, and photographic supplies and equipment. There are over two dozen daguerreotype cameras (the most ever assembled by any collector or institution), over three dozen wet plate cameras and a large volume of equipment. Other cameras range from tiny spy cameras to stereo cameras. Manuscripts, magazines, broadsides and books of the period add to the collection. And early photographic ephemera is the final category that fleshes out the non-photograph holdings.

Isenburg has often said, "I paid premium prices for best of breed, best in class." The 85-year-old Isenburg has owned numerous Ford auto dealerships in the past, whose success afforded him the opportunity to collect. He isn't just a collector though; he's a photo historian who's always been more interested in piecing together the story behind an object or image, than he is about just owning something. He's a photographic compendium who's spent the last 50 years seeking out history through photography.

In the third floor museum (now empty) in his home, a priceless daguerreotype would be displayed next to a tattered receipt and a handwritten letter or diary because they relate to one another and tell a compelling story. He owned the posing chair from America's premier daguerreotypists, Southworth and Hawes of Boston, in addition to the largest collection of Southworth and Hawes full-plate daguerreotypes (over 40) in private hands. Along with the chair, many other Southworth and Hawes items--from family photos and letters, to paintings, bills of sale, a partnership agreement, advertisements and ephemera--help to reveal the story of what it was like to be a photographer in the 1850s.

Below is a more complete synopsis of Isenburg's collection, in his own words.

"The Isenburg Collection covers the first four decades of photo-history in a unique way. As much ephemera and three-dimensional objects are shown concerning the culture of that period - as on its photo-history. Though mostly American, there are some Canadian highlights as well as English, French and German. The collection is very strong in images that show the history of photography. Only three half-plate daguerreotypes of the U. S. Capitol are known: one at the Library of Congress and the other at the Getty Museum with the third now at AMC, as well as the only known daguerreotype of the south face of the White House. Hundreds of letters written in California during the Gold Rush and diaries written by those who travelled by wagon--accompany the largest collection of Gold Rush daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and paper prints formerly in private hands including an 1851 panoramic daguerreotype of San Francisco showing the deserted ships in the harbor as well as a stereo daguerreotype of Portsmouth Square by Robert Vance. The ephemera collection of that time and place is large beyond imagination. The runs of 19th century trade magazines and assorted newspapers are fabulous. Clipper ship cards, gold rush jewelry, stereoviews, diaries, letter sheets, rare lithographs and even rarer paintings depicting life in California abound. Even late-19th-century California cabinet cards make their presence felt.

The Southworth and Hawes collection has rare letters that give us a true glimpse beyond the common perception surrounding the two partners as well as their partnership agreement. Even the posing chair so prominent in many Southworth & Hawes daguerreotypes as well as Nancy Southworth Hawes oil painting in its original frame, and her daguerreotype taken next to the painting still exist. The only four full-plate stereo pairs (in private hands) as viewed in The Grand Parlor Stereoscope are part of this section of the collection which ends with a daguerreotype of J. J. Hawes as a very old man pulling the string on a drop shutter to take his own final self portrait.

"The library of early photography books and periodicals is one of the best in the country. Beside trade catalogues, "how to" books, weekly or twice monthly trade magazines, It includes illustrated weeklies with woodcuts galore from daguerreotypes. And let's not forget the Eagle. Almost an eight and a half foot wingspan polychrome Eagle clutching a whole plate daguerreotype of the Warren Light Guard of Worcester, Massachusetts which lost four soldiers trying to quell the Baltimore riots in the first official engagement of the American Civil War. Also now in Toronto are the two documented earliest daguerreotypes taken in New York City, one of City Hall and the other showing the 1849 paving of Broadway, and they are in 3D!

"The CDV (carte-de-visite) collection is one of the finest ever assembled, much of it emphasizing the history of photography. Tintypes on photo history abound, as well as an amazing collection of stereoviews concerning photo history. The largest display of broadsides from 1841 to the 1860s is another major specialty. Early photos of famous photographers and famous photographers’ business cards are also part of the History of Photography collection. The rarest thermoplastic and MOP (mother of pearl) cases accompany an over three-hundred-piece case collection including both versions of the Henry Clay case and the obverse steel mold used to make one of them.

"There is no other early American camera collection that has the depth that the hardware collection exhibits, from the earliest complete American outfit (featured in an article in Antiques Magazine, September 1932, and displayed at the 1933 and 1939 World’s Fairs), accompanied by more than two dozen daguerreotype cameras and more than thirty wet-plate cameras. Over a dozen of these early cameras are complete outfits including the developing equipment - plus all the equipment, chemicals and labeled bottles and original boxes in which many of these items shipped from the supplier, and last but not least, dozens of invoices describing and itemizing their cost at that time.

"The collection of items directly related to Daguerre include: a 19th century bronze bust of Daguerre by Kaan, the four 19th century first generation copy-portraits of Daguerre including the crystalotype by Whipple, the CDV by Meade, the woodburytype in the 1881 Yearbook of Photography and the heliograph by Dujardin. There are many original 1839 Daguerre manuals in both French and English, and Daguerre’s image on everything from a cigar band to postage stamps, cigarette cards and dozens of advertisements that used his image and story as a hook to get attention, and finally letters written and signed by Daguerre himself."

Novak has over 45 years experience in the photography-collecting arena. He is a long-time member and formally board member of the Daguerreian Society, and, when it was still functioning, he was a member of the American Historical Photographic Society. He organized the 2016 19th-century Photography Show and Conference for the Daguerreian Society. He is also a long-time member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers. Novak has been a member of the board of the nonprofit Photo Review, which publishes both the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector, and is currently on the Photo Review's advisory board. He was a founding member of the Getty Museum Photography Council. He is author of French 19th-Century Master Photographers: Life into Art.

Novak has had photography articles and columns published in several newspapers, the American Photographic Historical Society newsletter, the Photograph Collector and the Daguerreian Society newsletter. He writes and publishes the E-Photo Newsletter, the largest circulation newsletter in the field. Novak is also president and owner of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, a private photography dealer, which sells by appointment and at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Classic Photography LA, Photo LA, Paris Photo, The 19th-century Photography Show, etc.