Lost for nearly a century and a half, a grainy black and white portrait of John Quincy Adams has reemerged — and it’s now considered the oldest surviving original photograph of a US president in existence.
Since the mid-19th century, this photo has been unknowingly stored at the family home of the late Horace Everett, a Vermont congressman who served in the House from 1829 to 1843. John Quincy Adams gave the portrait to Everett as a gift, and it has languished in his home ever since. The anonymous seller, a descendant of Everett, mistakenly assumed the photo was of Horace Everett, and only recently realised its true historical significance. The photo will be going up for auction at Sotheby’s on 5 October 2017.
President Adams had already completed his stint as president and was serving as a Massachusetts congressman when the photo was taken. It shows him perched cross-legged on a chair, gazing intently into the camera (nice socks btw). He diligently kept a diary, documenting two photo shoots taken in Washington DC at the studio of photographer Philip Hass on March 8 and 16 March 1843.
The recently rediscovered silver plate portrait was produced by a process known as the daguerreotype method — the first photo process that was made available to the public. The technique was the most common photography method for several decades during the mid-19th century.
“This recently rediscovered plate — the only one currently known to have survived from the Haas sessions — is believed to be the earliest photograph of an American president to come to market in many years and the earliest extant photograph of the man himself,” notes Sotheby’s in its auction preview. “An invaluable document, this daguerreotype crystallises a remarkable moment in the history of photography and American politics.”
Importantly, this is not the first photograph ever taken of a US president. That distinction goes to William Henry Harrison (he died of pneumonia on 4 April 1841, just 31 days into his term) who had his likeness taken around the time of his inauguration in March 1841. The original plate of this photo no longer exists, but a copy exists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An older photo of Adams was also taken, but that’s also lost.
Sotheby’s estimates that the newly uncovered photo of Adams will sell somewhere between $US150,00 ($19,014) to $US250,000 ($316,907), but it could go for much higher given its uniqueness.