1846 Photo of America’s First First Lady is Set for Auction

A framed, black and white photograph of an elderly woman wearing a headscarf, displayed in an antique case with a purple velvet lining and red trim. The case is open, showcasing the portrait.
The quarter-frame dageurreotype of Dolley Madison taken by John Plumbe.

A daguerreotype of the first First Lady of the United States and the earliest-known photograph of a First Lady is to be auctioned off with the current bid well above the asking price.

The quarter-plate daguerreotype — an early form of photography that involves exposing a silver-coated copper plate to light in a camera — was taken by John Plumbe and discovered by an anonymous seller as they were cleaning out a basement after their relative had died.

The remarkable photographic plate shows Dolley Madison in Washington D.C. age 78 years old some 30 years after she had been First Lady when her husband James Madison was the fourth president of the United States.

Sotheby’s says the photo is “previously unknown and only recently discovered” taken when “photography was still in its infancy”.

A sepia-toned portrait of an older woman with dark curly hair, wearing a white bonnet and a dark dress with a lace shawl. The image is framed in a decorated, antique-looking border with gold floral designs in the corners.

Although not officially codified, the role of First Lady is of great importance and it was Madison who was first referred to as “First Lady” at her funeral in a eulogy read by President Zachary Taylor.

The rare photo of Madison is being auctioned by Sotheby’s with an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000 but as of writing the current bid is at $130,000 with a couple of days to go.

“She’s got this little hint of a smile,” Emily Bierman, the global head of Sotheby’s photography department, tells The New York Times. “You can tell she was a commanding and venerable woman.”

A vintage framed photograph depicts an elderly man seated with his arm resting on a table. The table holds a lamp and books. He is dressed formally, with a stern expression, and the background features a decorated fireplace. The image has an aged, sepia tone.
It’s the most exciting photo portrait on the market since this daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams.

Bierman tells The Times that the daguerreotype of Madison is the most exciting photo portrait to come to market since a half-plate daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams — the earliest-known photo of a president — which sold for $360,500 in 2017.

Who Was the Photographer John Plumbe Jr.?

Plumbe was an entrepreneur photographer who opened a string of photo galleries displaying daguerreotypes which he called the Plumbe National Photographic Gallery. It is considered to be one of the first successful photo businesses in the U.S.

Bierman tells The Times that she discovered a letter from Plumbe to Madison asking for her permission to make a “Plumbeotype” of her images — his own lithographic process he used to reproduce daguerreotypes.

A historic black-and-white photograph of the U.S. Capitol building, showcasing the dome under construction. The foreground features leafless trees and a fence, with the Capitol's columns and partially completed dome prominently visible in the background.
The United States Capitol in 1846 by John Plumbe.

Though he was originally from Wales, U.K., Plumbe is best known for taking a photo of the United States Capitol before it got its iron dome. It is the earliest-known photo of the D.C. landmark.