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.


 
  • pixeljammer

    Where exactly does he live?

  • http://www.ivanmakarov.com/ Ivan Makarov

    Amazing. One of the many reasons it’s good to help parents clean their stuff.

  • Brian Fulda

    Awesome story.

  • Rita Norton

    Fantastic find. I love that you kept the photo and that you made copies for everyone to enjoy.

  • Cathy

    a pushpin? In a $45,000 photo? Are you crazy?

  • http://www.josephbayot.com Joseph Bayot

    Pushpin in one of the copies =)

  • http://www.josephbayot.com Joseph Bayot

    Wow. What an amazing story. Now I need to go clean out my basement…

  • pgh6j77

    Of course in reading the article you’d discover that the author describes making several high quality reproductions, for himself and family. And hanging his, on his bulleting board, with a push pin. But why bother with all those pesky words when you can just look at the pretty pictures?

  • K S B

    Expect to have your home visited by burglars soon.

  • VillyJean

    Perhaps it would behoove you to learn some reading comprehension skills. His very last sentence starts with “My copy…” It couldn’t really be much clearer than that.

  • Piblo

    Whats the point of keeping the original? Make a few copies and get the original in a protected museum or something and take the money. Silly to lose a piece of history to a robbery, or house fire for bragging rights.

  • kasenyee

    What’s the pointing of owning a nice home, or decent clothes, one day they’ll just get ruined in one way or another. Shame to waist your money for bragging rights.

  • Me

    Apparently the best way to appreciate art is to make unlicensed (aka stolen) copies and distribute them to everyone you know (at least according to this article anyway).

  • http://noisychaos.com/ Nick

    If he were selling copies, that would be violating the copyright of the photographer. Non-commercial reproductions for family members probably falls under fair use.

  • sleeplessinva

    Another example how priceless art is for the lack of a better term, priceless. Good for you to keep it and to share it with friends and family. :)

  • Wendy

    Even after you knew the author of the photograph and monitory value, you still went ahead and disregarded the copyright laws and disrespected Kertesz by making copies. So typical of modern times. Shame (on you).

  • harumph

    Well…it’s not priceless. It’s worth $30,000 to $45,000.

  • Me

    So noncommercial reproductions of family portraits are A-OK too then as long as I’m not selling them? I guess I only have to buy one single 8×10 and just push out copies of that from now on, too huh?

  • Fred

    It’s a nice art education and congrats to the find. Anyone interested in photography or pursuing a career in photography should know who André Kertesz is and know of his work. He is def. one of the masters.

  • Thomas Casey

    I don’t think it takes an art expert to see that you had a great picture on your hands. Even if it were by an unknown photographer you can see from the execution of it that it is worth hanging on the wall, regardless of the financial aspect.

  • Burnin Biomass

    I was wondering about the copies he made myself.

  • ben

    Farmington, CT! I went to high school with this kid.

  • Keith Willoughby

    Nonsense. “Fair use” is a term of law, and it doesn’t mean the same as the plain English meaning of those words.

    “[...] for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.

    You don’t have to charge for copies to be in violation of copyright law, and you don’t have a blanket fair use defence simply because you’re not selling them. The finder of this print owns the physical medium, but he has no right at all to reproduce it as he describes it in his article. (The photo he took to send to the expert is probably research/scholarship, though)

    In additional news, I bet dollars to donuts that PetaPixel don’t have any rights to reproduce it in this article, either.

  • Tzctplus -

    “aka stolen” is inaccurate, copyright infringement isn’t theft.

    As if copyright infringement is taking place the situation is a bit more complicated: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/107

    The following is particularly interesting:

    “the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.”

    it is clear that the original photograph hasn’t lost any value dues to a few copies being distributed around family and friends.

    I really wonder if a court of law would be so callous as to find somebody guilty of copyright infringement in the alleged situation portrayed in this article.

  • Tzctplus -

    As if copyright infringement is taking place the situation is a bit more complicated: http://www.law.cornell.edu/usc

    The following is particularly interesting:

    “the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.”

    it is clear that the original photograph hasn’t lost any value due to a few copies being distributed around family and friends.

    I really wonder if a court of law would be so callous as to find somebody guilty of copyright infringement in the alleged situation portrayed in this article.

    As for PetaPixel, they can legitimately claim that they are using the copy of the photograph for a news item.

  • jmco

    25 years ago I bought a paperback architecture book for $16. It now sells used for $1000! Things gain value and it is impossible to know what unless you check.

  • Tzctplus -

    Copyright law is very nuanced, the situation isn’t clear cut in this case as you seem to think.

    The person owning the photograph now isn’t making photographs indiscriminately to profit himself, and also the original hasn’t lost any value due to the existence of these few copies.

    Kertesz has been dead for 28 years, so he won’t mind, as for his state I think they wont be foolish enough to try to sue the owner of the photograph for making copies for friends and family.

  • Mike

    Check out HIS website (linked). Mr. Van Beckum’s work is very nice

  • Final_Word

    That is fine actually.

  • Final_Word

    Whaaaaa

  • Final_Word

    Priceless??? WTF are you talking about?

  • Final_Word

    “What’s the pointing of owning a nice home, or decent clothes, one day they’ll just get ruined in one way or another. Shame to waist your money for bragging rights.”

    ESL?

  • MeToo

    Totally depends on whether the copyright for this specific print was
    renewed by his estate or not. If not, at a publishing date of 1954,
    this work falls into public domain.

  • http://blog.chadwestover.com/ Chad Westover

    Awesome story! Might have been wise to leave out the part where you blatantly copy and distribute a valuable work of art though.

  • Jack Reznicki

    Just being a news item, does not give anyone, including a news group, any rights to infringe a copyright. But the story is about this print of this photo specifically, so it does fall under fair use. If it was a general story about Kertesz, then using the photo could be a copyright infringement. But since this is a story about this particular print and image, it’s allowed specifically under commentary. Showing any other Kertesz photo would likely then be a copyright infringement (depending on the specific copyright status).
    Owning a print though does not give you any rights to copy the image for any reason. But I don’t know the copyright status of Kertesz’s images, and unless anyone does, any comment on it is just a guess.

  • Jack Reznicki

    Copyright infringement is a theft, it’s a theft of intellectual property, which in court is viewed the same as a theft of real property. Remember, Bill Gates is the richest man around because of the Intellectual property he owns, not physical property. You don’t own the software on your computer, you are licensed a copy of that software.

  • Jack Reznicki

    Today, copyright exists for 70 years after the copyright owner’s death. That’s the current law. Look up the Sonny Bono Term Extension Act. Thanks Sonny!

  • Sam

    Modern times? In the “ancient times” people would have just stolen it and then stabbed the person after they pillaged their city.

  • Sam

    Legal != Moral

    IP laws are against humanity.

  • FD_Gladiator

    If u are a parent, tell your children this story and I bet u they will help u more in clean ups.

  • Tzctplus -

    Copyright infringement is copyright infringement. Theft is theft. Two different bodies of laws and regulations (not by chance, because people soon realized that to be the case).

    The lobbyists have done a very good job at confounding the issue, but just wishing to be so doesn’t make it true.

    To say that a courts view copyright as theft is a fallacy, in a sense and thanks to the ceaseless lobbying of industries relying on copyright, copyright infringement is punished more harshly than theft. Otherwise try the following experiment: steal a CD or sell 10 illegal copies of same. In the first case you may not even go to jail, in the second case you may be rendered bankrupt by an enterprising lawyer.

    I don’t understand why you bring Bill Gates on the debate. He made a fortune of copyright, we all know the physical medium to deliver his software is worth peanuts, I think pretty much everybody understands the item being sold is the software (under licence as you correctly say).

  • Tzctplus -

    That is correct, but the photograph was produced before that. I am not a lawyer, but that legislation may not actually apply. In any case other provisions in copyright law would make it seriously implausible for the state of the photographer to sue (and if anything, they should be happy that he receives this amount of free publicity, which will translate in interest on his work).

  • Tzctplus -

    I didn’t say that owning something gives you an automatic right to make copies, but the law grants you exceptions and suggests situations in which copyright may not apply, specifically it suggests that “the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.” is an important consideration to ponder when judging if infringement has happened or not.

    In this specific case I find very hard to believe that if a derided lawyer would take to court this person he would have any realistic chance of winning the case. No commercial use of the copies, distributed to very few people and having no damage into the potential value of commercial copies or of the photograph itself.

    Which brings me to the following: if the state wanted to assert copyright I, as the owner of the picture, am not forced to give them access to the print to make any copies. I may even burn it out of spite.

    So legally or by simple common sense, there simply doesn’t look like a strong a case of copyright infringement as some are suggesting.

  • bh

    Let me get this straight: This guy put a $40,000 vintage print up on his bulletin board WITH A PUSHPIN? Seems this might be correct as he said he made “copies” for family but alludes to putting the original up in his apartment. I understand wanting to not sell the image, but it seem kind of idiotic to put an original print up like that, exposed to the elements (and whatever chemicals are leaching out of the corkboard) Yikes.

  • Linda Kessler

    How courageous you and your family are. As I had a discussion yesterday with several of my high school students about the concept/definition of “rich”… you are truly rich to be able to view this magnificent photo of Kertesz whenever you wish…

  • estellahorlacher

    мy coυѕιɴ ιѕ мαĸιɴɢ $51/нoυr oɴlιɴe. υɴeмployed ғor α coυple oғ yeαrѕ αɴd prevιoυѕ yeαr ѕнe ɢoт α $1З619cнecĸ wιтн oɴlιɴe joв ғor α coυple oғ dαyѕ. ѕee мore αт…­ ­
    http://cort&#46­as/5m3N

    I understand wanting to not sell the image.

  • Jack Paxton

    I woulda sold it!

  • Photobhom

    this must be the most peculiarly attentive spam message I have ever seen.

  • jozzy

    You need to pay more attention.

  • aa

    the original is a copy as well