Photograph Identification Guide
by David Rudd Cycleback


1940s snapshot of Joe Louis playing with dog. From the estate of Louis' trainer Mannie Seamon

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Provenance is where an item came from. Who made it, who were the owners, who else significant handled it along the way.
Though not needed for most photos, documentation of provenance can be important for expensive photos or photos where ownership is an integral part of its value. Important provenance can raise the value of a photo. Many collectors would pay a premium if document showed a photo was displayed in the Museum of Modern Art, Pro Football Hall of Fame or Tiger Wood's living room.

Documentation of provenance can include sales receipts, letters about ownership and history, magazine and newspaper articles, auction catalogs and similar documents. Provenance can include an expert's letter of authenticity or other testimony about the item's identity. If you purchase a photo from the photographer, keep the mailing envelope with the photographer's return address. There's no better provenance than that.

Authentic stamping on the photo's back helps document provenance. If a photo has a United Press International stamp and caption tag, it would seem more than likely that the photo came from the famed news and photo service.

Provenance does not in and of itself authenticate a photograph, but can be an integral part of authentication. It is a piece in the puzzle. If a photo looks authentic (appears to be the right age, has correct stamping, your collecting friends agree it looks good), that it was sold by a top dealer or appeared in a reputable auction may seal the deal.

If there is no stamping or other identification marks, provenance might be essential for identification of the photo's issuer and photographer. For example, you may purchase an unstamped photo knowing it originated from a magazine editor's estate or a newspaper's archives.

A practical example of good provenance is buying a rare or esoteric photo from a respected and well known dealer. This is making your own good provenance. The fact that a top dealer believes the photo to be genuine is significant- especially if you, as an experienced collector, agree with her verdict. Save the receipt or other documentation of sale. When you turn to resell the photo, you will have documentation that it came from a reliable source.

Beware that provenance can be embellished and forged. For every expensive forged James Dean autographed baseball that offered on eBay, there is an accompanying bogus history of where the ball came from. The collector should use a critical eye. One reason to buy from sellers who you know to be honest is that the history they give about the item for sale is reliable. main

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