Navigating the pitfalls of collecting historic photographs is not for the faint of heart. 

This albumen print of a steamboat at dry dock in Yuma, Arizona, was acquired on eBay by collector Jeremy Rowe. The poor quality of the image with the listing kept it from exceeding its opening bid, which made it a bargain for Rowe. Courtesy Jeremy Rowe Vintage Photography


The sale at auction of a tintype of Billy the Kid for $2.3 million in 2011 was sensational, sparking a reaction not unlike the gold rush of 1849. People rushed to eBay and other sources hoping to find a photo that would make them rich. But, just like the gold seekers, most people found themselves empty-handed. Thousands of portraits were taken in the 19th-century West and few are gold nuggets. 

But there still are photographic nuggets waiting to be found. The nugget might be a rare historical scene, like the steamboat in drydock in Yuma, Arizona, discovered by Jeremy Rowe on eBay. Or an $18 image of a steam-powered electric generator used by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, also purchased on eBay. With a bit of digging, the careful collector can find interesting, rare and inexpensive historical photographs.


Buffalo Bill was photographed in front of the White House circa 1913 by the prolific photography firm of Harris and Ewing. This print was made from the original glass plate negative and, with its caption, was released to the media by Harris and Ewing. It went for $30 on eBay in 2021, perhaps because potential buyers thought it was a reproduction. Courtesy Steve Friesen


But there are pitfalls. eBay is a tremendous resource to the collector, bringing together artifacts from many sources. But Jeremy Rowe, a collector from Arizona, points out that the algorithms used by eBay have changed over the years. Today a search might not reveal all of the historic images in your area of interest. Rowe suggests doing multiple searches with specific search terms. 

Photographs listed on eBay and other auctions can also have misinformation, either by mistake or on purpose. Brian Lebel, whose company handled the sale of the Billy the Kid photo, warns that collectors have to do their homework. That includes learning a photograph’s provenance, something that Lebel says is critical. There is also information that is intrinsic to the photograph. If you have a photograph of Billy the Kid in front of a building that wasn’t built until 1885, it’s not Billy the Kid. Intrinsic information includes the composition of the photo itself. Learn about the history of photography and photographic processes. Is it a cyanotype, daguerreotype, tintype or something else? If you bought an “old” photograph of Butch Cassidy and it’s on resin-coated paper, you’ve been robbed. 

But what if you do buy a fake? Some sellers will refund your purchase and some won’t. Years ago, chief curator at the National Park Service Harold Peterson wrote “The chance that you will buy a fake is a fact of life.” The serious collector learns from such mistakes. Doing your homework will help you distinguish the gold nuggets from the fool’s gold. 



June 5, 2022

Antique Firearms, Armor,
  Militaria & Civil War Memorabilia

Heritage Auctions (Dallas, TX) • 214-528-3500

July 12-14, 2022

Collectible Firearms & Militaria

Morphy Auctions (Denver, PA) • 877-968-8880

July 23, 2022

The 2022 Coeur d’Alene Art Auction

Grand Sierra Resort, Reno, Nevada • 208-772-9009


This photo shows Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, just outside of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and with the world’s first Ferris wheel visible in the background. The photo, purchased for $132 on eBay, is of such high resolution that a scan reveals a variety of details ranging from the prices for admission to the names of hotels surrounding the show. Courtesy Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, Golden, Colorado


This tintype is reportedly a photograph of William F. Cody as an infant. But Cody was born in 1846, and the tintype process was not perfected until 1856, when he was 10 years old. Courtesy Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, Golden, Colorado


Originally listed on eBay as a fire engine named after Buffalo Bill, this was actually one of the electric plants used to illuminate Buffalo Bill’s Wild West during nighttime shows. Misidentification of an image can be to the collector’s advantage. That, plus minor damage to the corner, kept it at a low bid of $18. Courtesy Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, Golden, Colorado


Traditional auctions are still a great source of historic photographs. Jeremy Rowe was pleased to acquire this stereoview of John Clum and his San Carlos Apache Police in Tucson at a Cowan’s Auction. Courtesy Jeremy Rowe Vintage Photography


Action shots of Buffalo Bill can be hard to find. This image of him shooting glass target balls thrown in the air by one of the Wild West’s Lakota performers was purchased on eBay for $168. Courtesy Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, Golden, Colorado


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