Photograph Identification Guide
by David Rudd Cycleback


Sophia Loren and fish: 1950s Italian real photo postcard

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Something is authentic if its true identity is described accurately and sincerely.

If you pay good money for an "original 1930 Babe Ruth photo by the famous photographer Charles Conlon," you expect to get an original 1930 Babe Ruth photo by the famous photographer Charles Conlon. You don't expect a 1970 reprint of a Conlon photo or a 1930 photo taken by an unknown photographer.

A photo does not have to be rare or expensive or vintage or made by someone famous to be authentic. It just has to accurately described. A cheapo reprint can be authentic if described as a cheapo reprint.

Errors in the description of a photograph are considered significant when they significantly affect the financial value or reasonable non-financial expectations of the buyer. An example of the reasonable non-financial expectations would involve a collector who specializes in real photo post cards of her home state of Iowa and makes it clear to the seller that she only wants postcards depicting Iowa. Even if there is no financial issue, she would have reason to be disappointed if the purchased postcard turned out to show Oklahoma or Minnesota.

Many errors in description are minor and have little to no material effect. If a 1930 photo turns out to be from 1933, it may not lower the value or make any difference to the buyer.


It's about making judgments
This guide isn't about becoming omniscient or gaining supernatural authentication powers. It's about forming sound opinions based on your knowledge, experience, tools, resources and common sense.

With many photographs you will be confident to certain of their authenticity.

With many photographs you will be confident to certain they are fakes or otherwise have significant errors in description.

A percentage of photographs you won't be able to confirm their identity or age. Perhaps the photo is not stamped so you can't be certain it was by the photographer. Perhaps the photo is stamped, but you aren't certain whether it is a first or second generation image.

Many photos will be outside your area of expertise. If you specialize in American Civil War photos, you may be ignorant about current fashion photo styles and prices. An avid rock 'n roll fan may not know the personalities or levels or rarity for silent era Hollywood photos. Even top dealers and museum curators are specialists and seek the input and advice from others when looking at photos outside their area of experience.


Judging authenticity is rarely done in a vacuum

For the collector, making judgments is usually done within a context. Usually the context is deciding whether or not to purchase and how much to pay.

The degree of certainty needed to purchase a $4,000 photo likely will be higher than needed for a $20 photo. To some, a fake photo may still be worth the $20 purchase price if it looks great hung from the wall.

An expert in 1930s political photos may be certain that the 1930 Greta Garbo photo is vintage, but hesitates to place an expensive bid as she doesn't know what are the going rates for Garbo photos.

You never have to buy a photograph. If you are uncomfortable with the looks of a photograph, the price or the reliability of the seller, you can choose not to bid or buy. main

(c) david rudd cycleback, all rights reserved