A picture of history

1840s daguerreotype of city's monument up for auction today

October 16, 2007|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN REPORTER

The Washington Monument stands like a chess piece on a barren board. Three buildings - the houses of Greenway, Howard and Tiffany Fisher - are the monument's only neighbors. There are no cars, no people, no Peabody, no Donna's in the picture.

This is Baltimore's Mount Vernon, circa 1845.

And it's for sale.

One of the earliest photographs of Mount Vernon and the Washington Monument is up for auction today in New York at Sotheby's sale of photographs. The 1845 daguerreotype (photographer unknown) is a little expensive piece of Baltimore history. Lot No. 115 won't have the cachet of, say, Jackie O's diamond flower brooch, but the 19th-century view from East Charles Street of the undeveloped Mount Vernon landscape is a rare find, according to Sotheby's officials.

"It's a real tangible piece of Maryland history and photographic history," says Christopher Mahoney, senior vice president at Sotheby's. "There hasn't been anything like this on the market before."

The photograph is expected to bring between $50,000 and $70,000 - a price range essentially set by the item's quality and rarity." An anonymous private collector took the print to the auction house last spring.

"We were thrilled to see an early Baltimore view like this," Mahoney says.

The Mount Vernon daguerreotype is so clear the individual bricks on the buildings are visible. The Washington Monument, just 19 years old, dominates the frame. There are so few surviving daguerreotypes of Baltimore from that era, Mahoney says. It was rare also for daguerreotypists to photograph outdoors. Portraits were more common - an 1848 daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe is one famous example.

Daguerreotypes emerged in the primitive days of photography in the 1840s. Pictures were created by exposing silver-coated copper plates with light, producing images of mirror-like quality. No duplicate images were possible, and the survival rate of daguerreotypes is considered low.

So, who might spend $50,000 or more today for a very old landscape of a room-to-grow, monument-marked Mount Vernon?

Maryland Historical Society officials last week noticed the "Mount Vernon Print" in their copy of Sotheby's fall photography catalog. The price certainly got their attention. But more than that, the society already has more than 400,000 Maryland photographs, says Anne Garside, the group's communications director.

"We have equally good photographs from the same era," Garside says.

The society passed on the bidding, which leaves Lot No. 115 in the hands of another possible collector who might just want to invest in a little piece of Baltimore history.

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com

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