Vintage photos are wild – and so are their values

“Back in the early-to-mid-1990s, I remember people throwing in stacks of original photos and Wirephotos almost as toss-ins to deals. When they were making trades, it’s almost like they weren’t even factoring them in,” said Joe Orlando, president of Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA/DNA).
Boy, the times, they are a changin’.

Slowly, but surely, collectors everywhere are finally taking notice of the significant collectibility that vintage photographs bring to the table.

And who can blame them for noticing? When Babe Ruth photos are selling for more than $26,000, and the largest grading company in the world has a special service dedicated to vintage photograph authentication, it might be time to recognize these masterful pieces right up there with their popular ancestors: trading cards and autographs.

“You look at the prices realized over the last two to three years, and there’s no doubt that the material is selling for many, many times more than what it was 10-15 years ago,” added Orlando.

Longtime vintage photography expert Henry Yee said that around the 1990s a lot of these wonderful photos were destroyed or simply thrown away.

“Easily more than 50 percent of all existing vintage news service photos got destroyed and the reason for this is because of the digital age,” said Yee. “A lot of this stuff takes up a lot of room. Huge universities and such had lots and lots of photographs over the years because they subscribed to the Associated Press Services and United Press International, what have you, so if you had a room of, say, a million photographs, a lot of this stuff takes up a lot of room. So, if you can put a whole room of photographs onto 10 discs and digitalize everything, it just makes more sense. If you’re a university, you don’t care about the collector value. You  just want to get images out there so they can access the images easily.”

Mike Heffner, president of Lelands.com, the auction company responsible for the Ruth photo (below left) that turned many heads in a sale in November 2007, acknowledged there has been a boost in the popularity of vintage photography, but said he isn’t surprised by recent realized prices.

“I think it’s a hobby-wide phenomenon that photos are beginning to appreciate in value,” Heffner said. “If you put it into perspective, we have Babe Ruth cards that are selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and there are more than one of them, why shouldn’t a really great Ruth Wirephoto be worth more than $20,000?

“If you want to compare it to baseball cards, it’s like having a card that’s off center and a little blurred as compared to something that’s Gem Mint that’s going to bring a premium,” added Heffner, whose company purchased more than 500,000 photos from the San Francisco Examiner archives in 2006. “More so than in the past, people are looking at the aesthetic value — the art value — of the photographs and not just the subject matter.

“It used to be where it didn’t matter as long as it is Babe Ruth, that’s why it sold for so much, but now people are realizing that there are different levels of Babe Ruth photos. Some Ruth photos sell for a few hundred dollars, but then there’s the next tier that the better photos are $500-$1,000. And there is another tier of photos where they’re $5,000, and then there’s the upper echelon where only a few of them exist that are going to bring $20,000 and up.”

Bob Lemke, former editor of SCD’s Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, thinks the main reasons prices for vintage photographs have risen so much recently is because of their crossover appeal to vintage sports card collectors and the fact that vintage cards have gotten so expensive.

That’s exactly why vintage photograph collector Mike Campbell got into the Wirephoto niche.

“I’ve been buying baseball cards since I was 5, and I guess cards are getting too expensive,” said Campbell. “For some of the real nice ones, you’re going to pay five or 10 grand. So, photos to me are a much better buy for your money.”

Recently, various Wirephoto lots listed on eBay (auction numbers “170180249096,” “110213322488” and “310014073713) featured huge assortments of great vintage photos. Lots like these might even include the type of photos that most experts refer to as some of the most enticing varieties in the hobby — those that wind up on cardboard.

“Any photos that eventually turned up on cards seem to be in strong demand,” said Lemke. “I think it’s obviously baseball card collectors that are buying those out there.”

Heffner agreed.

“In the past, I don’t think people were paying great attention to those types of photos, but when we have photos in our auctions that are the same images on cards, they go for lots of money,” he said. “I think card collectors are beginning to appreciate photos for those reasons. They see that, ‘Hey, those are the original photos or negative that the cards were made of,’ so they’re starting to buy that sort of stuff.”

Just getting started in vintage photos?

Anytime you venture into new territory in your hobby passion, it can be overwhelming, confusing and downright scary. It’s your hard-earned money at stake, so naturally you want to maximize your dollars and make sure you’re buying authentic, quality material.

Unlike other types of memorabilia, there are really no set values for vintage photographs, which can add to a beginning collector’s confusion. However, like any hobby area, there are some general rules of thumb for making smart photo purchases.

“The difficulty for many collectors is there are more and more people getting into Wirephotos, but there are lots of collectors that have been tentative to jump into that market … When you talk about autographs and trading cards, you know to a certain degree of what they’re worth,” said Orlando. “But there’s no guide for the value of Wirephotos and vintage photography. You almost have to have an artistic approach in understanding how to value them. There’s the content of the photo, the clarity, the eye appeal of the image and condition. All these things play into the value of the photo, in addition to the fact whether it’s a Type 1, versus a Type 2, Type 3 photo.

“You might have a Babe Ruth photo that you and I think is spectacular, and it goes for $9,000 at a Mastro auction. And then a different photo of Babe Ruth that you and I think is a lesser photo may sell for more,” continued Orlando. “There really is a ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ type of an approach to Wirephotos.”

Heffner noted that any collector that would like a second opinion on a photo before a potential purchase can contact him through Lelands.com, and he would look at it free of charge.

“You have to become educated in the market,” Heffner said. “You can read a book, you can look at auction catalogs, but you really have to get out there, like anything else, and start buying the stuff. You’re going to make a few mistakes. Most likely, it’s just that you have to try to make the least amount of mistakes as possible. It basically comes down to feel. You really have to train your eye. And once that process is over, it’s a lot of fun. It’s really not that difficult.”

Books can’t tell you everything about a hobby subject, but Campbell recommended beginning photo collectors read A Portrait of Baseball Photography by Marshall Fogel, Khyber Oser and Yee.

The book is very detailed and the illustrations themselves are worth the $20. You can pick one up on Mastroauctions.com.

*****

If you haven’t started buying vintage photos yet, and have any interest in them at all, now might be the time to take out your wallet. The coolest thing about these treasures is that the vintage photo market is not even close to its peak yet.

“I’ve always preached the potential of this stuff, even back in the ’80s and ’90s,” said Yee. “Unlike cards, there was no large production runs with this stuff. People never mass-issued these to the public. These were basically only sent archives and libraries etc.”

Campbell agreed.

“There are some vintage photos of Prewar Hall of Famers that you can still buy for around $50,” he said. “I think that’s insane. To have an original photograph of a Hall of Famer for $50, I’d buy them all day.

“To me, it’s kind of the last area of sports collectibles that’s still reasonably affordable. It’s nuts.”

Check out Chris Nerat’s blog, Gavel Chat at: gavelchat.sportscollectorsdigest.com. Readers may reach him at Chris.Nerat@fwpubs.com or call him at (800) 726-9966, ext. 452.

10 thoughts on “Vintage photos are wild – and so are their values

  1. kay walker on said:

    hi, i have an orginal pic of babe ruth kneeing with a little boy, by the name of jackie carol. it has been in my family photo album for years and years. i would like to know how to find out what it is worth. it is in perfect condition by the way.
    help, please!!! i can be reached at 239-265-2732
    thanks, kay walker

    • Tom Bartsch on said:

      What’s the size? Is It signed? Is he in uniform? An unsigned photo of Ruth, if original, can run anywhere from $50 to several hundred depending on the content.

  2. manny Cordeiro on said:

    i have a sports shots collector book #1 of michael jorden with his touge out,would you know were i can get more info on it.

  3. manny Cordeiro on said:

    The ISBN is 0-590-45193-6 cant find anywhere only book #7.

  4. Raylene on said:

    I have a photo of babe Ruth pitching to a red sox batter and on the marquee the Yankees are first is it worth anything

  5. RON DEPRISCO on said:

    I have a photo (print)of Roger Maris, Willie Mays, and Mickey Mantle together just wondering the value if any. it is a 11″ x 14″ its in great condition and framed!

    • Tom Bartsch on said:

      If unsigned, you’ll still find willing buyers. I’m guessing it’s not an original photo, as you mentioned print. That said, I’d imagine you could get anywhere from $25-$75 for it depending on condition.

  6. jeff scott on said:

    I really like what orlando is saying about Photos. I have a Type 1 Original photo of Babe Ruth PSA/DNA that i got certified myself. 2 of the corners slightly missing but a I think a GEM in eye appeal. Reverse side stamped Thorne Studios and the fields that are marked Team, Player, and Position written in pencil. Please contact me for further value wich I think holds a premium… 714-883-8112

  7. William Boyd on said:

    My family recently inherited a sports collection and one of the pieces is a newspapers artist proof print of Pie Traynor. The sketch is black and white portrait style, and it is a copy. I know it is a proof print because on the front it sys “7-4 red in lay” and the back has a press stamp dated 6 Oct 1927.
    I do not know what paper used the proof, nor do I know the artist, but I search on line and cannot find a copy like it, nor can I come up with with the newspaper article. (By the way, the Pirates were in the world series when this portrait was drawn).
    Unfortunately, there is some damage to the top of the 14″ x 9″ cardboard stock it is printed on. The damage does not affect the portrait.
    Because this proof was made for the newspapers, then the only print is this proof, and if original is not around anymore,this would be the only copy in existence.
    With the damage, is there still interest in this piece ????

  8. Elaine on said:

    I have a picture of babe Ruth at Briggs statium in Detroit Michigan he is wearing a white button up shirt standing next to Mr. Walter o. Briggs. What would be the value of this picture?

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