If anyone harboured a doubt that
original spirit photographs are valuable objects, it would have been dispelled
by the sale on 11 July of an album of prints at Sotheby’s.The estimate was £2-3,000, and they went for
£10,000, plus buyer’s premium of 25%, making a grand total of £12,500.The lot was described as ‘Spirit
Photographs--Hudson, Frederick (and others) ALBUM
OF 29 PHOTOGRAPHS. [C.1872]’.
Contained in a scrapbook, of the same
vintage, were 29 albumen prints, 24 mounted on card, 2 unmounted and 3
cartes-de-visite, including one by Frederick Hudson, captioned and signed by
Georgiana Houghton on the reverse:
"...I was seated in the place where the figure appears, but my face
was in the opposite direction - I am invisible and the spirit is
apparent...", with a date of 4 April 1872.
In addition there were three press cuttings. The album was described as having ‘green
roan-backed cloth boards, upper cover stamped in gilt 'Scrap Book', spine worn
with loss, covers bowed, some wear.’
A note in the catalogue stated that ‘The
majority of the photographs are evidently the work of a single photographer and
are highly reminiscent of known photographs by F.M. Parkes.’ Parkes was working at the same time as Hudson
but is far less well known today.
Georgiana Houghton was a spirit medium, artist and
writer, and associate of Hudson’s.
A figure well over the estimate for
spirit photographs is by no means unprecedented. In 2013 an album of 27 photographs taken during
Thomas Glendenning Hamilton’s séances at his home in Winnipeg in the 1920s, and
copiously annotated, sold, with buyer’s premium, for the enormous sum of
US$93,750 (estimate $4-6,000) – the kind of number that makes museum curators swallow
nervously as they reassess the security of their collections.
Admittedly that was an unusually large
amount. The following year a series of
lots comprising photographs by Richard Boursnell and J. Evans Sterling, and
Craig and George Falconer, went for more realistic prices: $3,000 with premium
(estimate $2,500-$3,500) for five Boursnell and Sterling images, and the same
for eight Falconer brothers photographs (estimate $1,000-$1,500). Surprisingly ten cartes-de-visite taken by
Hudson and annotated by Houghton remained unsold (estimate $4-6,000).
The market for spirit photography is in
good health, and as the Hamilton sale indicates, post-Victorian images can
achieve high prices. Such sales are not
confined to high-end auctioneers like Sotheby’s either – single original images
occasionally appear on eBay among the junk, though they often struggle to sell
at the prices asked, perhaps because their authenticity (referring to the artefact
rather than the content) is less certain than it would be if sold through a
reputable auction house, with its access to experts.
One unfortunate by-product of these
prices, however, is that it is likely, when good quality material turns up, it
will go back to private collectors with deep pockets and not be available to
researchers. Such collections as those
of the Society for Psychical Research and (especially) the College of Psychic
Studies are rich sources for the serious study of spirit photography but these
institutions do not have the funds to compete for fresh acquisitions. Instead they rely on donations, and for the
owner who can realise a significant sum by selling, the chances are that the
auction house will be the preferred destination.
Over the last few years I have written a large number of pieces, mainly reviews on aspects of the paranormal and of visual culture, but many are no longer available. This blog format is a convenient way of putting my bibliography online and adding some of the old items, plus the occasional new one.
Click on the 'Bibliography' tab above to see my publications.
The Newsletter of the Society for Psychical Research became The Psi Researcher and then The Paranormal Review
Many of the later items are available online, notably those written for nthposition and the SPR website. Those for The Psi Researcher, Paranormal Review and SPR Journal are available in the SPR's online library; see http://www.spr.ac.uk/ for details.