Or: Valuable art appreciation 101
I grew up in a sleepy New England colonial town turned commuter-suburb. The town’s rich history as one of the first settled towns of the “new world” and later, a major stop on the Underground Railroad, makes it a verdant setting for historic homes and appreciators of historic rarities. George Washington once referred to my birthplace as “the village of pretty houses.”
During my last visit home, I helped my father and stepmother move into their new house. Their storage unit contained an eclectic mix of antique furniture, oil paintings, and other various heirlooms like my stepsister’s antique equestrian saddle. While sorting through a box my dad turned up an old black & white photograph (shown above) in a broken frame. A brief consultation with my stepmom doomed it for the dumpster, but upon reflection my dad decided to pass it to me.
Having studied photography in college, I am currently pursuing a career as a fine art photographer and educator. I was never the most engaged student when it came to the history of photography, but the photograph that my father handed me seemed very familiar. I turned the frame over and read “Keresz” scribbled in pencil on the matte board. The name was not familiar. But a Google search for “Keresz Photographer” autocorrected me to “Andre Kertesz.” A further Google Image Search then brought up the photo that I held in my hands!
The photo depicts a winter scene of a shadowy figure walking through Washington Square Park in New York City. It is a timeless scene whose graphic shapes and shadows illustrate what a New York City winter must feel like. It’s both exceedingly forlorn, and classically beautiful and elegant. The photo is appropriately titled “Washington Square Park, 1954.” Further research would uncover the fascinating story of how Kertesz discovered the perfect vantage point for this photograph by surveying countless apartments surrounding the park until he found the perfect window.
The media would have us believe that when works of art are found in unsuspecting basements they end up with price-tags in the millions, but as a bit of a cynic I told myself that this beautiful print must be fake, or damaged, or SOMETHING that would make my discovery worthless. We dug through some family records, and discovered that the photo had belonged to my stepmother’s parents. When they had passed away the siblings had their estate appraised.
The photo in question reads: “Keresz Photograph, valueless” on the appraisal list. After that the trail runs cold. There is no record of where my step-mother’s parents might have purchased the photo, but the cheap framing job and typo on the back of the frame suggests that they purchased it for its aesthetic appeal rather than its possible value.
My interest piqued, I continued searching around the web for something to validate my discovery, and ended up at a gallery’s website which displayed an assortment of Andre Kertesz photos. I clicked the contact button on the gallery’s website, and composed a brief message explaining my findings.
I heard back from Bruce Silverstein of the Bruce Silverstein Gallery later that day asking for photos and a description of the photograph in question. I took some quick pictures using my phone, laying out the print at the kitchen island where my girlfriend was mixing us gin and tonics. We were still not aware how special the photograph was. So, when Bruce wrote back right away and suggested we talk now, I pinched the very edges of the photograph and moved it far from the messy kitchen counter. This, it would turn out, was not just any old discovery.
When Bruce called I was having beers on the patio with my old high school buddies. Bruce sounded excited too. He told me that he managed the Kertesz family estates, and without bragging explained that he knew A LOT about Andre Kertesz. He proceeded to launch into the history of the photo and more. My friends, just as excited as me, narrated an imaginary version of Antiques Roadshow from across the yard.
Bruce explained how the type of paper could help date the photo and determine its intended use. Many specific questions about the surface of the print determined this was a ferrotype finishing technique printed on thin glossy paper. The photograph would have been originally printed by Kertesz to send to a magazine or book for reproduction. Prints like this would have then been destroyed by the magazine company, making it somewhat unusual for this print to exist. Perhaps I was being too cynical when I first recognized the photo.
Silverstein went on to talk about the backside of the print: the signature, title, date, and stamp. Another unusual characteristic was that Kertesz had signed and titled the photo many years apart. Silverstein explained that Kertesz’s hand tremors drastically changed his penmanship as he got older. Silverstein made an educated guess that Kertesz titled it in the 50’s but signed it in the 70’s. This suggests that Kertesz printed it in the 50s but never sent it to a magazine for reproduction. Perhaps he signed it when he was older and more established in order to add value.
I stood in my fathers backyard with a forgotten cocktail and an open jaw, nodding and saying “uh-huh” like a broken record while Bruce excitedly told me about the photo. I was on information overload, but hanging onto his every word. If only this was how the history of photography could have gone in college! None of that 8am freshmen seminar nap time in a warm dark room and a sleepwalking professor. After a good twenty minutes of Kertesz history, Bruce started talking about pricing.
Kertesz printed a lot of this photograph “Washington Square Park, 1954” in the 1970’s after it gained some notoriety. Based on the neatness in his handwriting on the back, my print was most likely a 1950’s edition. A 1970’s print would most likely sell for $10-15,000. But mine, because of its rarity and date could go for $30,000 or higher! I don’t think I’ve ever really been speechless to the extent that I literally could not speak, but this was one of those moments.
I looked over at my friends who were still chatting on the patio and mouthed “holy s**t!” I then responded to Bruce in a tone that I thought sounded cool and collected. He asked if I would come up to New York to let him take a look at it, and as luck would have it, I was already planning a trip for the weekend.
The next week was a whirlwind of appraisals at high end auction houses and galleries where people called me “Mr. Van Beckum” and brought me sparkling water in glass bottles. I endured terrifying subway rides where I speculated that every hoodie wearing teenager might be a mugger who somehow knew I carried a valuable work of art in my briefcase. I spent hours drafting lengthy emails to family members to decide what to do with the amazing discovery. By the end of my appraisal meetings, numbers as high as $45,000 were being tossed around.
We have decided to keep the photo in our family. Our newly framed treasure will hang in the new home come fall, and we will all look at it with a new appreciation, memories of sticky afternoons in the storage unit, and a tiny twinge of “did we really want to chuck this?” This is the introduction to art appreciation that everyone should receive.
As a Photoshop and printing nerd, I have made high quality reproductions of the photo to send to family members in other states and countries so that we can all have a $30,000 photo hanging in our decidedly “not expensive-art worthy” apartments. My copy hangs over my desk, stuck into a wall of family photos and works in progress, with a pushpin.
About the author: William Van Beckum is a Santa Fe, New Mexico-based photographer who works as the Digital Lab Manager for the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. As a photographer, his goal is to capture the unique beauty that exists in each moment that he experiences. You can find out more and see some of his work on his website here.