The Cottingley Fairies are famous (or infamous) in the history of photography as one of the earlier cases of photo fakery. Perhaps then, it’s not surprising that there has been considerable interest in the auction of original prints and a high sale value.
The Cottingley Fairies have had a relatively long lifespan within the history of photography. Originally photographed in 1917 by cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths as a series of five, they supposedly show fairies in and around Cottingley Beck, Bradford, UK. The photos garnered national attention due to their presentation at the Theosophical Society and subsequent promotion by Edward Gardner, including the assertion that they were genuine photos by photography expert Harold Snelling.
The photos were taken using Elsie’s father’s camera, initially a Midg Quarter plate and subsequently a Quarter-plate Cameo camera (W Butcher and Sons) both manufactured by W Butcher and Sons. They were somewhat primitive when compared to other designs of the time. This was perhaps a good thing, as they could produce distorted images (from the non-braced lens board) and had poor focus. While most contemporary cameras were switching to celluloid film, the Butcher’s stuck to bulk-loaded glass quarter plates (3.25 x 4.25 inches). The camera shown in the previous link was used in the second phase of photos taken by the cousins and now resides in the Science and Media Museum, appropriately in Bradford.
The photos were then picked up upon by Sherlock Holmes author Conan Doyle, himself a spiritualist, and used in a 1920 article on fairies he had been commissioned to write for The Strand magazine. Interest died down and it wasn’t until 1983 that the cousins admitted the photos had been faked. As a result of this history, there has been continued interest in the story, which is the epitome of fake news, that probably went far beyond the expectations of the cousins. This has garnered several books and two films, which makes cameras, plates, and prints associated with the story of increased value.
Against this backdrop, Dominic Winter auctioned two prints from the series of five. Perhaps the most famous and first in the series sold for £15,000, with the second in the series selling for £5,400. Chris Albury, the auctioneer handling the sale, clarified that the prints were likely commercial copies sold by Gardner at Theosophical Society meetings. These would have been negatives made from the prints of two photos loaned by the Wright family to Gardner and subsequently reproduced and mounted. As a result, there would likely have been hundreds produced, making them relatively rare. I asked Chris why the first photo made such a high price and he said: “it’s the better photograph, it’s the iconic one, the one you recognize straight off and tells the story in one shot.” Dominic Winter sold them in reverse order, so selling this photo created quite a surprise in the auction room, although all the bids came in over the Internet.
I finished by asking what was the most interesting item he had sold at auction. Unequivocally, this was an album of prints from the Edinburgh Calotype Club, the first photography club in the world. Founded by David Brewster (Principal of St. Andrews University), a friend of Fox Talbot, he turned to chemist Dr. John Adamson to help with the calotype process. It was John Adamson’s brother that then went on to found the Hill and Adamson studio. An album of prints produced by the society from the early work sold for £190,000 in 2002 and ranks as one of the most exciting photographic sales he has had.
Photographic history is going through an exciting renaissance, and there appears to be no better time to dust of any old albums and check the photos that are in them!
Images courtesy of Dominic Winter.
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