A discovery in a dusty attic may change the history of commercial photography. Westlicht, a private photo gallery and auction house in Vienna, plans to auction off on May 26 what is most likely the world's oldest commercially manufactured camera.
Up to now, experts said that apart from some documents there was no proof that the so-called "Daguerreotype", a wooden sliding box camera produced by the Paris company Susse Freres in 1839, really existed. Discovered as part of an inheritance in Germany, the antique piece will allow photography enthusiasts rewrite history.
Peter Coeln, owner of Westlicht, is convinced of the camera's authenticity. "We showed images of the camera to leading experts in the field, who all confirmed its authenticity," he told. "Also, the provenance is clear."
He admitted the story sounded improbable, but said he would not risk his company's reputation for a fake. "We know the ice is very thin in such cases," Coeln said.
Invented by French chemist Lois Daguerre, a daguerreotype is an early type of photograph. It produces a direct image on a polished silver surface that bears a coating of silver halide particles, deposited by iodine bromide or chlorine vapours. As there was no negative original like in modern photography, no copies of pictures could be made.
The process was widespread in Europe and the US for about one decade after its initial development before it was supplanted by different techniques.
The camera on auction in Vienna was first advertised for sale on Sep 5, 1839, weeks before another Daguerreotype, produced by Daguerre's brother-in-law, Alphonse Giroux was commercially available. The Giroux Daguerreotype is widely regarded as the first commercially produced camera. Around 10 of those cameras still exist in museums worldwide.
Westlicht said the Vienna camera has never been restored. It is currently owned by a US-based scholar, who inherited it from his father, who taught technical photography at Munich University in Germany.
The starting bid for the camera is 100,000 euros ($132,900) — "a symbolic price," Coeln says.
The auction house expects it will fetch around 1 million euros, one of the highest prices ever for antique camera equipment, Westlicht said.
A Giroux Daguerreotype in a collection recently acquired by a photography museum in Qatar was estimated to be worth 1.5 million euros.