Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2009 Issue

One of the First Photographs of New York Sold at Auction

Sotheby'snewyorkphoto

1848 Upper Manhattan photograph and close-up, courtesy of Sotheby's.


By Michael Stillman

A remarkable early photograph (daguerreotype) of New York was sold at Sotheby's auction house in that very city on March 30, 2009, over 160 years after it was taken. The photograph sold for $62,500, reflecting both its age and its location. The picture was taken in Manhattan, but that borough looked nothing like it does today.

The time and place of this rare photograph were determined by a note that came with it. Signed by an unknown "L.B." and dated May 1849, it says the photograph was taken the previous October, dating it to 1848. Sotheby's noted that of all the known 1840s and 1850s daguerreotypes of New York City, all of the others are from Lower Manhattan, and only one is older. Lower Manhattan was the city part of New York, while Upper Manhattan, where this picture was taken, was still countryside, dotted by estates of the wealthy, and then farms. This is one of the estates.

The road is described in the note as "a continuation of Broadway." That would be what was then called Bloomingdale Road, which is described in contemporary city directories as an extension of Broadway. This sunken, muddy looking road was one of two main north-south thoroughfares, running up the west side of Manhattan. The road was sunken so that it could remain relatively flat through the hilly Manhattan countryside.

Seen beyond the road and the white picket fence is the country estate. If you click on the thumbnail above left, you will see the complete photograph and a close-up of the house. "L.B." cautions us that because of the angle of the shot, taken from 60 or 70 feet below the building, the lower floor and portico are not visible. In other words, this house was much more impressive than it appears in this shot. The exact location of this house, and the identity of its owner are not known at this time (obviously, there are no other photographs of the area to compare). He certainly must have been one of New York's wealthier and more notable citizens, who would be well known, at least to historians, if he could be identified. Likewise, the photographer is unknown, though his initials may have been L.B.

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