(from The Cincinnati Enquirer on line, December 1, 2007)
A daguerreotype is an image captured on a thin layer of silver recognizable by its distinctive mirrored surface. It's the earliest type of commercial photography. The value of antique daguerreotypes is driven by the artifact's condition and, even more important, the uniqueness of the subject matter.
An early photograph of the famous abolitionist John Brown by noted photographer Augustus Washington is an excellent example of a rare and highly sought subject. Captured in 1846-47, the image hangs in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and is recognized to be the earliest photograph of Brown.
Recently, a second daguerreotype of Brown taken by Washington surfaced in Cincinnati and is believed to have been captured at the same time as the image in the National Portrait Gallery.
John Brown is best known as the passionate abolitionist who was hanged for treason in 1859. Born in Connecticut, he spent much of his life in Ohio. In 1837, Brown publicly declared, "Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!" He later founded the "Subterranean Pass Way," as the militant counterpart to the Underground Railroad.
Long lost to history, the portrait descended directly from the family of Brown. It was passed from Brown's daughter to her granddaughter and was given to her grandson as a wedding present in 1949.
The identity of the photographer also can add value and desirability to a piece of early photography. The son of a South Asian mother and a man who had been a slave in Virginia, Augustus Washington was born free in Trenton, N.J. He enjoyed reading antislavery literature and attending abolitionist meetings. Thanks to some assistance by abolitionists, Washington attended several colleges in the late 1830s and early 1840s.
While attending Dartmouth College, he supported himself by taking portraits of Dartmouth faculty and citizens of Hanover, N.H. He continued his photography while living in Hartford, Conn., and opened a studio. This studio is the site of the famous images of John Brown.
Washington succeeded in capturing the evangelical character and stubborn rigidity of an independent-minded loner. Both Brown's pious and militant nature is evident in his striking portrait.
Wes Cowan, owner of Cowan's Auctions Inc. , Winton Place, can be seen on PBS' History Detectives and Antiques Roadshow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Research by Theresa Leininger-Miller.