WHAT: When a circa 1860s carte-de-visite (French for “visiting card’) album compiled by Quaker abolitionist/teacher Emily Howland came to sale at Swann Galleries in New York, it was thought to be of interest because it included photographic portraits of important politicians and abolitionists.
Two photographs featured noted abolitionist Harriet Tubman. One, showing Tubman in her late 40s, had never before been seen by the public. In it, she is considerably younger than in known photos. The unique find drove the album result to $161,000, far above pre-sale estimate of $20,000 to $30,000.
MORE: Before the advent of business cards, 19th century social calls involved dropping off a carte de visite with the visitor’s photo for the host or hostess. Many homes kept a silver card tray by the door expressly for the cards.
SMART COLLECTORS KNOW: Cartes de visite have been collected since their 19th century heyday, with buyers seeking by category or interest. As example, some go for specific professions, affiliations or social status, perhaps area of origin, etc.
HOT TIP: Imagine the shock and elation when Wyatt Day, Swann’s longtime specialist in African-American literature, first examined the album brought by a collector and found the unknown Tubman photo.
BOTTOM LINE: The studio photo was probably taken in Auburn, New York, where Tubman settled and is buried. The winning bid came by phone from a Manhattan autograph dealer bidding for the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The institutions will own it jointly, digitize it and make it available to scholars and the public.