Photographer Finds Ultra Rare Stieglitz Prints Hiding at Estate Sale

In December 2021, photographer Jeff Sedlik bid on an old, faded, framed print at an estate sale in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. He opened the frame immediately to inspect the photograph upon receiving it. He was amazed to discover that two copies of the same photo were in his frame. They turned out both to be rare platinum classic prints from Alfred Stieglitz .

Sedlik has been hunting for photographs at estate sales, flea markets, swap meets, auctions, galleries, and online sales sites for 37 years, and he says that this has been his greatest find thus far.

“When I stumbled onto the estate sale, I paged through it, looking for photographs, and finding none,” says Sedlik, who teaches photography courses at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. Then, I saw a frame photograph that I recognized immediately as the image I would use in my lecture on history of photography.

“I use this image and others created by Stieglitz during that period to illustrate the extent to which photographers liberally ‘borrowed’ from the work of painters during the formative period of pictorialism in photography. Ironically, this is because photographers tried to create photography to be an art form that was more artistic and closely resembled the scenes of painters.

“I knew that this was one of at least two different photographs of women drawing water from wells, created by Stieglitz in Venice during his failed honeymoon (his wife was none too happy that he spent their honeymoon making images).

I knew there were no other prints of this photo in public or private collections than those at the National Gallery. Also, the prints that Stieglitz displayed to the public are different from the one he chose. To make it easier for himself artistically, Stieglitz would often destroy his negatives or prints.

Photograph of the front of the framed print, from the estate sale auction. Photo courtesy Schwenke Auctioneers

“I knew that his negatives from his honeymoon had been stored under the sink in his office at the New York Camera Club and that leaking water had destroyed all or nearly all of those negatives. Yes, I knew what I had found.

“I love the history of the Stieglitz photograph and the story behind it – the only known platinum print of this photograph ever exhibited by Stieglitz, and the fact that this image was among a handful of photographs that established Stieglitz as the leader of the movement to elevate the perception of photography as an art form.”

Rolling the Dice by Winning the Auction

“I was unable to inspect the print [before the auction] personally, and the seller had not removed the print from the frame for inspection,” remembers Sedlik. I recognized the possibility that this print might be a reproduction.

“I was concerned the item might be a photogravure, but from the limited information available to me by inspecting the photograph of the framed print, it did not appear that the image had any of the hallmarks of a photogravure, such as a differential gloss in the shadows, surface relief, or ink resting above the paper.

“It was not possible to make a conclusive determination from an online photograph. Based on my experiences, however, I believe the odds in my favor and that the chance was worth the risk.

Photograph of the back of the framed print, from the estate sale auction. The top of the frame still has a remnant of Stieglitz’s label, George F. Of. Photo courtesy Schwenke Auctioneers

The name of Alfred Stieglitz and The Philadelphia Photographic Salon 1899 label with the office address at the Camera Club of New York was attached to the back of the frame. This did not raise any flags as this estate sale was not a photography sale – the items were mostly furniture and decorative items. A sale like this is unlikely to be a time-waster for collectors and gallerists. The auction house mispelled Stieglitz’s name as Philadelphia. Sedlik was the only bidder interested, along with one other.

A bid of $2,200 (upped by $100 from the last bid) resulted in the only other bidder dropping out, and A Venetian Courtyard entered Sedlik’s collection. The estate sale auction house, Schwenke Auctioneers, did not inspect the print out of the frame and estimated the value at $100 to $200. Bidding started at $25.

An Unexpected Discovery

On receipt of the framed print, all of Sedlik’s fears were put to rest. He found that the faded print appeared to be a platinum print and had none of the hallmarks of a photogravure or other reproduction.

To his surprise, when he removed the faded image from the frame, he found a second, platinum-colored print hidden behind the backing board by Stieglitz. This hidden print, which is perfect in condition, has subtle transitions and rich tones typical of a platinum print.

Stieglitz used to attach spare copies of his photos to the backs of framed prints to strengthen the print.

The faded print. “A Venetian Courtyard, 1894” (c) Alfred Stieglitz, courtesy Jeff Sedlik
The hidden print, “A Venetian Courtyard,1894” (c) Alfred Stieglitz, courtesy Jeff Sedlik

Sedlik examined the top print through the glass of the frame to ensure that there was no emulsion stuck to the glass. He then documented the positions of Stieglitz’s nails on the back of the frame and, wearing cotton gloves, carefully removed the back plate to examine the verso (back side) of the print for any inscriptions, markings, or mold.

Sedlik says that he examined the prints with magnification. He confirmed there are hallmarks to platinum printing – a matte surface sheen and long-range mid-tones. The image also rests within the fibres. “In addition, a reversed, ghosted image appears on the verso of the front print, which occurs when a platinum print oxidizes over time, transferring a copy of the image to any paper in contact with the front of the print.”

Examining the Print

The platinum print at the front (viewable through the frame’s glass), unmounted, 7 x 5 3/4 in., is likely the print exhibited twice by Stieglitz in 1899. The yellowing may result from toning with mercury salts, as the print does not appear coated with wax or shellac, which are the common causes of yellowing.

While platinum prints do not deteriorate from sun exposure, they can fade due to problems with their sensitized papers or short cuts in printing processing.

I have spoken with top platinum conservation specialists and was told the front print’s fading wasn’t due to sun exposure,” explained the collector photographer. “But was instead caused by an error in Stieglitz’s use of mercury salts in the sensitizer or developer.”

Stieglitz and other platinum printers used mercury to add a warm, sepia tone to their platinum prints. The print has likely been stable for over a century and is unlikely to continue to fade. In perfect condition, the bottom photo (hidden) is also in great shape. According to Sedlik’s consultations with experts, this can be explained because Stieglitz used mercury correctly in developing the print. It is also not due to how much UV exposure the prints received.

Both the prints are on thin paper, which may explain why he chose to double the prints to stiffen them up so they would lay flat.

The verso of the front print includes a reversed, ghosted image of “A Venetian Courtyard,” caused by oxidization from the second platinum print hidden directly behind it.

A ghosted, reversed image on the back of the visible print, due to platinum oxidization from the hidden print stored behind it. Courtesy Jeff Sedlik

The hidden print is a platinum print, mounted, sheet trimmed to image, 7 x 5 3/4 in., has deep, rich tones, and is in perfect condition, with no fading or yellowing. The verso indicates that the hidden print contains the inscription “Stieglitz”, handwritten by George F. Of., and a Philadelphia Salon entry form.

The back plate of the framed Old Saybrook Print/s, 7 x 5 3/4 in., includes an 1899 Philadelphia Salon entry form handwritten by Stieglitz, with his 29th street office address (the Camera Notes address at the Camera Club), a title of “A Venetian Courtyard,” a price of $15. The January 1899 Journal of the PSP reports, “Forty-two pictures were sold during the exhibition at a total price of $482, the average being $11. 95 each.”

The name “H. [********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************** ********] (*********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************** ***********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

The frame of the Old Saybrook Print/s 8 1/8 x 6 7/8 in., includes a decal at the bottom right corner, with the number “283,” matching the entry number assigned by the Philadelphia Salon to the Old Saybrook Print/s in 1899. This same number decal, adhered to the Old Saybrook Print/s, appears in a photograph of the Old Saybrook Print/s as exhibited with other Stieglitz photographs at the 1899 Philadelphia Salon.

A photograph of “A Venitian Courtyard” exhibited by Stieglitz at the 1899 Philadelphia Photographic Salon. Sedlik purchased this print, in the same frame. Courtesy George Eastman House
A crop of the Kodak photo showing the framed Stieglitz at the center of this story.

A copy of the The Philadelphia Photographic Salon 1899 catalog confirms that the print was #283 at the show.

Cover of the catalog for the 1899 Philadelphia Salon where Stieglitz’s A Venetian Courtyard was displayed.
The 1899 Philadelphia Photo Salon catalog showing Venetian Courtyard as print number 283.

A label remnant adhered to the frame verso is the label of George F. Of, the famed framer who framed the work of Stieglitz, O’Keefe, Marin, and many others in Stieglitz’s circle.

The Stieglitz Key Set identifies three titles for the photograph: “A Venetian Courtyard,” “A Venetian Well,” and “A Well, Venice.” Notably, two known versions of “A Venetian Courtyard” are printed from the same negative. In one version, a woman appears in a window at the top right corner of the image.

In the Old Saybrook Print/s, Stieglitz cropped the image to eliminate the woman in the background, simplify the composition and focus attention on the woman and the well in the mid-ground. Before the discovery of the Old Saybrook Print/s, there was only one known print of a cropped version of this photograph. This crop is different from the Old Saybrook Prints that Stieglitz cropped for public display.

The jury of the Second Philadelphia Photographic Salon, 1899. The photograph shows, from left: Frances Benjamin Johnston, Clarence H. White, F. Holland Day, Gertrude Kasebier, and Henry Troth. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Library of Congress

A Venetian Courtyard

Stieglitz made this photograph in 1894 on his European honeymoon with his first wife, Emmeline Obermeyer, in Campiello Santa Marina, Venice, just as “hand cameras” (handheld cameras) were gaining in popularity.

The Campiello Santa Marina Venice location of Stieglitz’s photo in 2021 looks almost the same as it did over 100 years ago as the area has been well preserved. Photo by Abxbay and licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Another view of the Venetian Well as it appears today. Photographs used by permission of Max Bertacchi,

In 1892 Stieglitz bought his first handheld camera, a Folmer & Schwing 4×5 plate camera. Stieglitz was an advocate of the new handheld cameras, which allowed for increased spontaneity and creativity.

The negative was probably a 4×5 inch, and Stieglitz likely made an internegative from which the platinum was made by contact printing.

As he had done with Winter, Fifth Avenue, he made enlarged internegatives that allowed him to retouch his negatives more easily, remove distracting elements such as the anchor-line in Gossip–Katwyk, and make prints as big as fifteen, even occasionally twenty-one inches wide (Key Set numbers 208, 212, and 225). [********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************** **********]-11215477National Gallery of Art[*********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************** — The Key Set: 1884-1901, National Gallery of Art [emphasis ours]

The Key Set referenced above consists of at least one print of every mounted photograph in his possession at the time of his death and was selected by his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe

It is believed that Stieglitz first exhibited A Venetian Courtyard in May 1899 in the “Exhibition of Photographs by Alfred Stieglitz” at the Gallery of the Camera Club of New York. Stieglitz next exhibited the photograph in October 1899 in salon room #5 at “The Second Photographic Salon” of the Photographic Society of Philadelphia.

1899 New York Camera Club Stieglitz exhibition. Venetian Courtyard and Venetian Well side-by-side.

Stieglitz’s framed print may have been purchased by an attendee “H. Duncan” (whose name appears on the backplate beneath the salon label) for $15 (the asking price written on the salon label by Stieglitz and over $500 in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation) at the Philadelphia Salon and remained in a private collection for 122 years until it resurfaced in a December 2021 auction of furniture, lamps, and decorative items in an Old Saybrook, Connecticut estate sale.

The genre scenes Stieglitz was interested in capturing in Venice were often in the center of a piazza. These piazze usually had a well that served as a water supply for the citizens of Venice. …. You can identify the Campiello Santa Marina as its location. 225 In the center of the image is a hexagonal well with large, cross-shaped reliefs on each side. On the right-hand side of the image, a woman is busy turning the crank of a tackle, apparently to draw water from the well’s bottom. Only the woman can be seen in profile. Her arms are extended to control the crank. Her head is slightly blurred, giving her an authentic look of a woman working. She has her hair bound up in a bun and is wearing plain, functional clothing with a dark apron. In accordance with the title of the picture, Stieglitz did not focus on the individuality of the woman, who cannot be clearly recognized. Stieglitz placed the emphasis on the well in the middle of the picture. – Page 116, Chiara Maria Pia Seidl’s 2020 Ph.D. thesis Collaboration and Innovation: Alfred Stieglitz and His European Heritage

Who Was Alfred Stieglitz?

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was an American photographer who helped popularize photography as an art form over his five decades of work. He was an important leader in the Pictorialist movement.

Alfred Steiglitz Frank Eugene, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

“Few individuals have exerted as strong an influence on 20th-century American art and culture as the photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz,” says the National Gallery of Art.

Stieglitz was also fascinated by paintings. He operated a few New York Galleries in his lifetime. He introduced European painters to the US through them, organizing the first exhibitions in America of work by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, and Paul Cezanne, among others.

He made several hundred photographs of painter Georgia O’Keeffe – whom he married in 1924 — between 1917 and 1937. His refusal to encapsulate her personality into a single image was consistent with several modernist ideas.

Stieglitz using a handheld Graflex camera, circa 1904. Heinrich Kuhn_Museum of Modern Art in New York. Photo: Note: This was 10 years after he created the Venetian Courtyard image and would not be the same camera.

Stieglitz prints are extremely rare and incredibly valuable. A 1919 palladium print showing O’Keefe’s hands sold at auction in 2006 for $1,472,000. A 1914 print titled From the Back-Window sold at a Christie’s auction in 2013 for $363,750, and another 1915 print titled sold in 2015 for $473,000.

What is a Platinum Print?

Platinum printing (and later palladium as platinum use was diverted to the military during WWI and shot up in price) was patented in the mid-1870s. It has a soft look as the emulsion does not sit on top of the paper, and there is no gelatin coating. When the emulsion has not been washed, it will absorb into the paper. This allows the metals to stay in place.

Platinum prints (aka platinotypes) are made using a mixture of iron and platinum salts. Sensitized paper forms images within fibers when it is processed. Platinum prints are durable if they are properly handled. However, a poor processing will cause the paper to deteriorate faster than the image.

A platinum print offers a wider range of tones than a standard silver print. The prints are also matt and have fewer reflections than silver prints, which also tended to curl due to the use of a gelatin coating.

Alfred Stieglitz’s choice process from the late 1880s to the early 1920s was the platinum print, or “platinotype.” He was an early adopter and appreciated the aesthetic properties and permanence.

Stieglitz liked the matte surface of platinum papers and the rich range of tones. He wrote eighteen articles between 1887 to 1902 in which he wrote reviews of commercial papers and products. He also wrote techniques of hand-sensitizing papers and chemical manipulations, which could alter the image’s tone from neutral grey to sepia. And it is probably one of these manipulations that resulted in the top print’s fading rather than its exposure to UV or light over the last 122 years.

Sedlik: Photographer, Teacher, Collector, Copyright Expert

Sedlik’s father was a military photographer, inspiring him to pursue photography. He presented Sedlik with his first camera at age eight. At age 12, Sedlik built a darkroom in his bedroom closet, making portraits of his friends and family, and shooting for the school paper and yearbook. After studying photography at Santa Barbara University, he earned his BFA in professional photography at Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design.

While studying at the ArtCenter, he learned about the business side of photography and the importance of copyright. He was elected as the national president of the Advertising Photographers of America (now American Photographic Artists). He worked closely with legislators and the copyright office to reform copyright laws as president.

Sedlik has invested the earnings from the sale of his own fine art prints of musicians, monks, matadors, and others to purchase works by Cartier-Bresson, Karsh, Bravo, Penn, Lange, Bullock, Sander, Weston, Cunningham, Kertesz, Iturbide, Bernhard, Rothstein, Emerson, Tress, Boubat, Curtis, Ronis, Lessing, and more.

Over the years, he has developed deep knowledge and expertise in copyright law related to the visual arts. He has been summoned by both the Senate and House to appear before their Judiciary Committees regarding copyright reform. In addition to teaching copyright law and licensing at the ArtCenter College for 25 years, he is frequently hired by law firms to provide litigation strategy consulting and expert witness testimony.

The Future of the Found Stieglitz Prints

The Stieglitz prints have been stored in a secure, climate-controlled facility for safekeeping and to ensure that these historically important prints are preserved.

” After my conversations with conservators to verify and determine whether any preservation action was necessary (none), word quickly spread through the photographic community. Several gallerists and museums have also contacted me to inquire about the prints.” says Sedlik.

But Sedlik is in no hurry.

“I have not had the prints appraised, as I am not actively offering the prints for sale,” says Sedlik. Their unique history and their verifiable display add value. I will need to seek an appraisal for insurance purposes.”

About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him here.

Image credits: Header photos of Venetian Courtyard by Alfred Stieglitz, left is top faded photo and right is bottom unfaded photo, courtesy Jeff Sedlik.