SALISBURY, MD---Retired Baltimore County Public Schools instructor Ross J. Kelbaugh doesn’t just talk about history. He makes it come alive in the form of vintage photographs.
Such unorthodox preservation has its surprises. For instance, when he encouraged his students to bring in old photos for him to evaluate, he never anticipated opening one student’s Civil War-era album and finding a signed photograph of confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Neither the teenager nor her family realized the picture was among many others mounted in the book in the 1860s. Lee was known for autographing photos—going so far as keeping stacks of them in his desk to fulfill requests while president of what is today Washington and Lee University—and his signed images are highly desirable, selling for as much as $6,000.
Kelbaugh comes to Salisbury University to share his knowledge of old photographs during an Antiques Roadshow-style vintage photo evaluation, following a talk on his recent book, Introduction to African American Photographs, 1840-1950: Identification, Research, Care & Collecting, 3:30 p.m. Thursday, February 23, in the Great Hall of Holloway Hall. His appearance is part of SU’s African-American History Month celebration.
During the session, community members are invited to bring two vintage photographs each for evaluation (photos may be from any era and from all ethnic backgrounds). While Kelbaugh collects for historical, not monetary, purposes, some older photos could be worth much more than their owners realize, he said.
He made the purchase of a lifetime when he bought a photo of a 19th century Eastern Shore African-American woman for about $40 in 1980. Today that framed image is worth thousands of dollars. The reason: The photo is matted with part of a bandana she was wearing, and authenticated African-American textiles of that era are highly valued!
Similarly, collectors who bought a rare daguerreotype of famous Maryland abolitionist Frederick Douglass for $20,000 at auction re-sold the photo to the Art Institute of Chicago for $184,000. It is believed to be one of the earliest images of the historic American.
Vintage photograph collecting has grown in popularity over the years. According to Kelbaugh, those interested in the subject include musician Graham Nash of the rock group Crosby, Stills and Nash, against whom Kelbaugh has bid at auction. Sometimes Kelbaugh wins, but usually larger money prevails: “He’s had more hit records than I have,” the collector said.
Money, however, is just one of three major components of collecting: “You’ve got to have the knowledge, you’ve got to have the money to take advantage of that, and you’ve got to have the luck to be in the right place at the right time,” said Kelbaugh.
Celebrity aside, perhaps the biggest change in vintage photograph collecting Kelbaugh has seen since the 1970s has been ways of acquiring historic images. In the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s, flea markets, yard sales and antique stores were the best bet, and bargains were available when an informed collector came up against an uninformed seller. Today, online auction sites such as eBay allow collectors from all over the world—not just the ones in the store—to compete for the most prized photos, often driving up prices.
Most collectors purchase and preserve photos not for money, however, but to preserve their—and America’s—heritage. Kelbaugh recounted meeting a man at a chain business supply store who was having photographs of his grandparents enlarged for a display for his children to teach them about their family and their roots. This, said Kelbaugh, is what collecting vintage photographs is about.
In May he curates the exhibit “The Civil War in Maryland—Rare Photographs from the Collections of the Maryland Historical Society and its Members” at the society’s headquarters in Baltimore. On exhibit through October, the display features more than 200 images of the war in Maryland, the largest such collection ever made available for public viewing. Kelbaugh contributes many of his own images to the exhibit.
Sponsored by the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture, Kelbaugh’s appearance at SU is made possible through a grant by Nabb Research Center members Niel and Helen Carey of Ellicott City, MD. His evaluation and talk are free and the public is invited. For more information call 410-543-6312 or visit the Nabb Research Center Web site at http://nabbhistory.salisbury.edu. "