National Portrait Gallery Buys Earliest Photo of US First Lady for $456K

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.

The National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, has purchased a daguerreotype of Dolley Madison for $456,000 — the early known photograph of a First Lady.

The staggering price was six times more than what the auctioneers estimated and it will become part of the Smithosnian’s permanent collection. It is slated to go on exhibit in 2026.

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.

The photo, taken in 1846, shows Madison in a turban and part of the intrigue is because she is known for being the first First Lady of the United States. Madison is credited by historians for creating the soft-power role that is not officially codified.

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.

It shows Madison age 78 years old, some 30 years after she had been First Lady when her husband James Madison had been the fourth president of the United States.

Sotheby’s valued the daguerreotype at $50,00 to $70,000. Its £456,000 selling price is notable for being more than what the Smithsonian paid for a half-plate daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams — the earliest-known photo of a president — which sold for $360,500 in 2017.

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.
The daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams.

“This artifact will provide the Smithsonian another opportunity to tell a more robust American story and illuminate the vital role women like [Dolley] have played in the nation’s progress,” says Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III.

“The National Portrait Gallery is delighted to have acquired this exceptional work on behalf of the nation,” adds Ann Shumard, senior curator of photographs at the museum. “It will now be preserved in perpetuity for the public.”

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.

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.