Facial Features Determine

The Value of Historic Photos

by Joelle Steele

To learn more about analyzing faces in photographs, check out Joelle Steele's book, Face to Face: Analysis and Comparison of Facial Features to Authenticate Identities of People in Photographs.

Everyone wants to get their hands on that as yet undiscovered old Daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln at the age of 34. What an amazing find that would be! And many people have desperately tried to sell their old photos of men who they think are young Abe. And who wouldn't when you consider that a very poor condition tintype of the only known image of Billy the Kid sold for $2.6 million at auction in 2011. It's a tremendous score for the owner and the auction house, as well as the lucky bidder.


Unfortunately, photographs of historic figures in any format or condition are actually quite scarce. Of those that do exist, many – like an authentic Billy the Kid that I've seen in a private collection – are not for sale or public viewing. What you see on the Internet are the hundreds of wanna-be Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, Ulysses S. Grant, etc., none of which are of the person their owners would like them to be. Most of the time these photos are in the hands of amateur collectors who don't have a trained eye for faces, and so they buy an old Daguerreotype or carte de visite that they think looks like a famous person. And in some cases, auctioneers and collectors alike accept provenance over the reality of the face.

I am an anthropometrist specializing in the analysis and comparison of facial features for the purpose of confirming or authenticating identities of people in photographs. I have seen a lot of photographs — I've analyzed thousands. But, while I agree that provenance can be important, it is not nearly enough when you're dealing with historic faces in photos. If a photo came from a collection belonging to the family of outlaw Sam Bass, then maybe the photo in question is of Sam Bass. But, in my experience, most photos from old family albums are not of a famous relative or ancestor at all. They are just great old photos of people who may bear a slight resemblance to a famous person but were probably never known outside of the little towns where they spent their entire lives. And the only way to know for sure is to examine the face and compare it to known photos of the person in question. This is important because the reputation of the seller and auctioneer is on the line.


Once provenance is established, examining the face in the photo is what will determine the photo's value. As a facial features analyst specializing in photographic portraits, I have been analyzing and comparing faces since 1975, professionally since 1980. Most of my clients are people who have inherited a lot of photos, usually in an album, and they want to know who's who. I also work with private investigators and library archives. And then there are appraisers. To help them authenticate the identity of people in photos, I have amassed enormous digital collections of old photos of famous people for use in making comparisons. There is rarely a photo that comes my way for which I do not have at least two or three exemplars (known photos of the person my client thinks is in their photo). In some cases, I use exemplars that are digital images from private collections that have never been seen by the public. For some historic figures I have as many as 20 photos. In the case of Abraham Lincoln, I have more than 70.


Many people today like to rely on biometric software to make comparisons of faces in photographs, but these are actually not very accurate for this purpose. I've tried almost every kind of software that is released for making facial comparisons, and they all come up short. In fact, on four occasions, I have successfully disputed the results of computer comparisons that were very obviously inaccurate, despite what the software program said. On the other end of technology are those people who try to measure two photos with a ruler and then compare them to each other. That can appear to be what I do at first, but I measure facial proportions and compare the proportions. I do it using a system I developed for use with photographs back in 1978. It works perfectly well today and stands up against any computer-generated analysis as far as its accuracy is concerned. The basics of my system are included in my book, Face to Face: Analysis and Comparison of Facial Features to Authenticate Identities of People in Photographs.


Before you try to sell a photo of a famous or historic person, be sure that it's the real deal. Hire a facial features analyst to analyze the face and compare it to known images of the person in question. Until the face of the person is authenticated, it's just a nice old photo. If it turns out to be the real deal, it could be worth thousands, maybe millions.

This article last updated: 07/10/2013.

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