Antique Daguerreotype Pictures: Their History, Values and Collectibility

January 9, 2024

A Complete Guide to Daguerreotype Pictures

In the mid-19th century, as technology advanced, a captivating new form of photography, known as the daguerreotype, emerged.

Daguerreotypes and early photographs marked the initial strides in capturing images during this era. These pictures were important in the history of early photography, but daguerreotypes can also be incredibly valuable today.

In this guide, we’ll look at the history and process of making a daguerreotype, as well as the characteristics that distinguish them from other types of early photography. Finally, we’ll discuss the daguerreotype’s worth and how to care for them.

A quick overview of what we’ll cover:

History of the daguerreotype
The process of creating a daguerreotype
How to identify a daguerreotype
The value of daguerreotypes
How to care for a daguerreotype

The History of Daguerreotypes

Daguerreotypes (pronounced duh-GARE-oh-type) were first introduced in 1839 by French artist and inventor Louis Daguerre.

Daguerre had worked for several years to perfect the revolutionary process. Prior to his invention of daguerreotypes, the only way to capture an image was through a time-consuming procedure using a camera obscura, or by commissioning a professional artist to paint or draw a portrait.

Daguerre’s novelty became the first commercially available form of photography, and it quickly became popular all over the world, though access was usually limited to the middle and upper classes due to cost, making daguerreotypes a symbol of wealth and prestige.

The Process of Creating a Daguerreotype

Is a daguerreotype a photograph? Not exactly. The daguerreotype is a photographic process that involved capturing an image on a polished sheet of metal, usually silver plated copper.

The resulting image was incredibly sharp and detailed, but also incredibly fragile.

The process of creating a daguerreotype involved a number of steps, starting with the preparation of a metal plate. The daguerreotype plate was coated with a light-sensitive chemical, and then placed inside a camera. The image was captured by exposing the plate to light for a certain amount of time, depending on the lighting conditions and the desired result.

Once the exposure was complete, the plate was processed in a chemical bath to fix the image. This involved washing the plate in a solution of salt water and alcohol, and then exposing it to mercury vapor. The mercury vapor reacted with the light-sensitive chemical, creating a visible image on the daguerreotype plate.

One of the most difficult aspects of this stage of the process was ensuring that the image was properly exposed. This required a high level of expertise and experience, as well as the use of specialized equipment.

The final step was to polish the plate, which gave it its unique, mirror-like finish. The resulting daguerreotype was then placed inside a protective case, and could be viewed by tilting it at different angles to catch the light.

How to Identify a Daguerreotype

If you’re wondering whether the picture you have is indeed a daguerreotype, here are a few unique characteristics to check for which set daguerreotypes apart from other forms of antique photography. Some of these include:

Does it have a mirror-like finish?

The highly polished silver surface of the plate gives daguerreotypes a unique mirror-like quality that sets them apart from other forms of early photography. Tilt the picture and hold it at various angles in the light – if the image looks a lot like a mirror, you’ve got a daguerreotype.

Does it have a high degree of detail?

Daguerreotypes were known for their high level of detail, making them ideal for portrait photography. These images will have a lot of fine detail and crispness.

Is it in a case?

To safeguard these delicate images, daguerreotypes were sold in protective cases, so if your image is in a case, it is most likely a daguerreotype. The cases are often made of leather and lined with silk or velvet, which not only provides a secure and attractive storage solution but also helps to protect the images from scratches, dust, and other forms of damage.

The Value of Antique Daguerreotypes

Select daguerreotypes are highly valued by collectors, and continue to be a popular area of photography collecting and are often popular at antique photography auctions. The value of a daguerreotype is determined by a number of factors, including its age, condition, rarity, and historical significance.

Just because a picture is a daguerreotype doesn’t automatically mean it is valuable.

They’re one of a kind pictures

Because each daguerreotype was created using a unique process, each image was truly one-of-a-kind and could not be replicated. That sets the daguerreotype apart from later forms of photography which allowed for multiple prints to be made from a single negative, and also is one of the reasons why these images can be so collectible – there’s really only one of each.

Their condition matters

One of the most important factors in determining the value of a daguerreotype is its condition. A daguerreotype that is well-preserved and in good condition is likely to be worth more than one that has been damaged or is in poor condition. As these were very fragile pieces, it is not uncommon to find them in rough shape.

Common daguerreotype picture subjects

Another equally important factor in determining the value of a daguerreotype is the subject matter of the image. Daguerreotypes that depict historical events, famous people, or iconic locations are typically worth more than images of everyday subjects. Additionally, images that are signed or have a known provenance (history of ownership) will also be worth more.

Exceptionally rare and incredible daguerreotypes have sold at auction for as much as a whopping $95,600. (Wondering what in the world THAT picture was? It was a half-plate size depicting a traveling photographer’s mobile studio, sold at Heritage Auctions in 2010.)

The most plentiful type of antique daguerreotypes you’ll run across are family portraits. Images of men, women, couples, children and older folks – usually unidentified – are readily available on the market. Next in line are pictures of houses, soldiers and even the dead.

These sorts of daguerreotypes will typically sell at auction or at antique stores for less than $50, with many selling for very little if in poor condition. Post mortem images depicting the dearly departed can be found at a wide range at auction with selling prices anywhere between $5 – $5,000 or more, all dependent upon the factors just discussed.

If you’d like to get an idea of value for daguerreotypes similar to yours, try searching WorthPoint’s price guide which will show you actual sales prices for these pictures and all kinds of other antiques and collectible items.

Daguerreotype plate sizes

The size of the image can also impact its value.

Larger daguerreotypes are generally more valuable than smaller ones, as they offer a more immersive experience and allow for greater detail in the image.

According to American Antiquarian Society, the most commonly produced daguerreotype plate sizes were:

  • Sixteenth Plate – 1 ½” x 1 ¾”
  • Ninth Plate – 2″x 2 ½”
  • Sixth Plate – 2 ¾” x 3 ¼”
  • Quarter Plate – 3 ¼” x 4 ¼”
  • Half Plate – 4 ¼” x 5 ½ “
  • Whole Plate – 6 ½” x 8 ½”
  • Mammoth Plate – Larger than 6 ½” x 8 ½”

Daguerreotype cases

In many cases (no pun intended), the protective case is as much a part of the daguerreotype’s historical significance and potential value as the image itself. These cases are often collected even without an image inside.

The most well known type is the Union case, which was first made available in 1854 is one of the most collected daguerreotype cases. These cases gained popularity in the mid-19th century, particularly during the 1850s and 1860s during the Civil War.

The name “Union case” is not directly related to any political or social union as you might expect from its connection to this time period in American history. Instead, it originates from the fact that many manufacturers and patents incorporated the word “Union” into the names of their products during a time when the term was widely associated with unity and patriotism.

If you pick up a Union case, you might initially assume it is made of leather or wood. Actually, the material used in daguerreotype Union cases is a form of thermoplastic, which is a moldable substance that can be softened with heat and molded into various shapes. This thermoplastic material was a combination of shellac, wood flour, and other agents, which made it durable and well-suited for creating intricate and decorative designs. The process involved molding the material into ornate patterns, often resembling carved wood or intricate metalwork, and then attaching it to the outer surface of a case.

Antique daguerreotype Union cases can range in value from to $5 – $2,000. One of the rarest Union case designs shows an eagle standing atop a globe; an example of this design sold at auction for $2,500 in 2018.

How to Care for Antique Daguerreotypes

To ensure that your daguerreotype remains in good condition and retains its value, it is important to properly care for it. Protect the image from damage by storing it in a safe, dry place away from direct sunlight, moisture, and pollutants like smoke.

While your daguerreotype may have originally had a case, they are sometimes found today uncased or in crudely homemade cases or envelopes. The original case was meant to forever seal the delicate image inside. Without a case to protect it, over time, exposure to the elements can cause the daguerreotype picture to tarnish, fade, or even disintegrate, rendering them worthless.

You may also want to gently clean the daguerreotype occasionally, using a soft, dry cloth to remove any dirt or fingerprints. When handling the pictures, it is recommended to use gloves to prevent fingerprints and oil residue from coming into contact with the surface.

Conclusion: The Legacy of Daguerreotypes and Early Photographs

Despite the fact that daguerreotypes were eventually replaced by more advanced forms of photography, they left a lasting impact on the field. Daguerre’s invention paved the way for future advancements in photography, and daguerreotypes continue to be collected and admired by photography enthusiasts and historians alike.

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