buyers focus on 'the world's oldest photo'

A 200-year-old faded picture of a leaf, stylish shots of glamorous fashion models, an array of long-lost freak-show snaps - all could make big money at next week's photography sales in New York, where more than 1,000 lots convey the enormous diversity of taste for which this market now caters.

Irving Penn, Mouth for L'Oréal, New York
Sophisticated: Mouth for L’Oréal (1986) by Irving Penn

The most intriguing is the picture of the leaf. Bought in London in 1984 for about £6,000, it was thought by the buyer, New York dealer Hans P Kraus, to be a photogenic drawing (an image traced by solar rays of an object placed on light-sensitive paper) of c.1839 by William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the founding fathers of photography. As such it would now be worth between £50,000 and £75,000, according to Sotheby's photography expert Denise Bethel.

But independent scholar Dr Larry J Schaaf, who has written the sale catalogue entry, thinks it might have been made more than 20 years earlier, possibly by Thomas Wedgwood, a member of the Wedgwood china family, who first started experimenting with primitive forms of photography in the 1790s. This would make it the oldest photograph in existence.

No examples of Wedgwood's photographs are known to have survived, so this, says Bethel, might be "one of the most important discoveries in the history of photography". As such, she adds, "the sky could be the limit" in terms of prices, so no price guide has been given. The record for a photograph was set two years ago when Edward Steichen's The Pond-Moonlight (1904) sold for £1.4m.

The leaf picture is part of the sale of the Quillan collection, formed by an investment group during the late Eighties to "represent photography's achievements from its beginnings to the near present". Especially strong on 19th-century photographs, it also includes rare experimental 20th-century works and just touches on celebrity pictures with Richard Avedon's understated 1957 portrait of Marilyn Monroe (£35,000 to £50,000).

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