PetaPixel

How I Discovered a $30,000 Photo in My Family’s Storage Unit

Or: Valuable art appreciation 101

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


 
  • Vin Weathermon

    Silly to have it sold to someone who would never show it to anyone anyway, filed away in a archive. Keeping the print is like keeping Grandpa’s Model T Ford…the family gets to appreciate its history. The value a collector puts on it is just a number…the value the family puts on it is priceless.

  • Vin Weathermon

    So, if I take a copy for insurance purposes…then what? If I choose to show copies rather than originals am I infringing? He does own that “original” work.

  • Vin Weathermon

    Idiotic is not reading.

  • 10010101101011

    so if the photo hadn’t any value, he’d not originally cared for it ? but then that’s a popular opinion of value before true and genuine art appreciation

  • 10010101101011

    jesus…

  • aa

    where was the image produced is the issue here. If it was in europe, there are diferent copyright laws that apply

  • harumph

    Courageous? I’d say it’s a safe bet that a family with a storage unit full of antiques and equestrian equipment is rich in the monetary sense of the word as well. Nobody passes up a $45000 payday if they can’t afford to. I don’t understand where courage comes into it.

  • Me

    I wasn’t saying that the lawyers need to get involved (although they probably could now that all the people that the photo was distributed to presumably will be less likely to buy an original piece now that they have a copy thereby diluting the pool of potential buyers and devaluing the piece itself just slightly) as it will not be worth pursuing. This does not make the action any less illegal, kinda like speeding when no police are present – it’s still against the law, but you get away with it.

    What I did want to point out was how ridiculous it is to say “I appreciate art, but not enough to pay for it.” Does the writer of this story work for free? No. They are compensated for the work performed. The creators of photographs are doing work and should be fairly compensated for their work. That is why copyright exists. So while copying the work may not get you in trouble – this time – it does show a massive amount of disregard for the individual that created the work and I found that lack of respect very disturbing in this article about “appreciating” art.

  • aaa

    not really. the copyright applies till 70 years after the authors death. 1985 + 70 is in 2055

  • Phroureo

    I dunno about you, but I waist my money by eating a lot of fatty foods.

  • Milos

    Great story! I enjoyed every word of it. Then I saw your website and may I say that Andre Kertesz would be very happy that you kept it, since you are an excellent photographer in your own right! Thank you for sharing!

  • Kara

    Here’s the catch to the copyright conversation going on:
    Will didn’t copy and distribute the photograph to his family members because they wanted the particular photograph. Let’s not forget how this was found in a storage unit, deemed “valueless”, and almost sent to the dumpster. Will copied the photograph because of it’s “physical-ness”. So they could all have a “valueless” copy, with the same wrinkles and imperfections that Bruce pointed out to Will in NYC, of their special print. They certainly aren’t going to juggle the original back and forth across the country so everyone can enjoy it.

  • Kathy Hawley

    This photo should be archived, out of the light, in archival paper or it will deteriorate and be worth much, much less. Treat it as a valuable piece of art–which it is–rather than as a snapshot. You will be disappointed and feel foolish if you go to turn it in for your $30,000 and be told that, due to its poor condition, it is worth much, much less. I love this gentleman’s work. I wish I had a Kertesz to care for.

  • CKDexterHaven

    A lovely story.
    Have you considered lending it to a museum for a specified period of time? Get a high-res scan made and print yourself a top quality version for the new house, but lend the original to a museum so that many others can view it. You could get your (family) name on a little plate beneath the photo or somesuch….

  • Linda Kessler

    Even people with money may not choose to keep it. It is brave to forego the cash regardless if you can afford it. Thanks to people like you who choose to have original work on their walls to look at and look at, and look at… Enjoy!

  • harumph

    He’s keeping it to hang for family and friends to enjoy. If he archived it in an envelope, then he might as well have cashed it in already.

  • harumph

    I don’t disagree with your basic sentiment, but your concept of courage and bravery is just odd. I mean, it’s nice that he didn’t throw it in the dumpster, but his decision to hang it rather than selling it didn’t require any bravery or courage. It only required an appreciation for the image and an absence of any pressing need for $30,000.

  • Linda Kessler

    it’s all about interpretation.

  • Guest

    Funny when you find out more about a deceased ancestor by the possessions they leave behind… My grandfather was apparently an AP journalist / photographer for the Soviet Union. I never knew until I found some pictures of Che Guevara brother and asked my mom.

  • http://www.jrdeputyaccountant.com Jr Deputy Accountant

    You’ve done anything BUT get it straight, but nice attempt.

  • David Eslick

    Indeed. His blog has some very nice content as well.

  • Stephanie

    He put the copy on the bulletin board

  • Stephanie

    What an amazing story :)

  • Latray

    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.

  • chris

    “seem kind of idiotic to put an original print up like that”…

    look who’s talking lol

  • steve

    Great story, congrats on finding the photo, and thank you for sharing with us!

  • Judi Taylor

    An absolutely lovely photo. Congrats on your find.

  • Eric John Wordal

    Great story & very well written too! Enjoyable reading!