December 2014 | Rebecca Rego Barry

The $5-Million Brown Brothers Photo Archive

Brown Brothers, the first stock photo agency, was founded in New York City in 1904 by Arthur and Charles Brown. Utilized by major newspapers and presidents, Brown Brothers photographers snapped everything from Titanic survivors to Lyndon Baines Johnson. Now an archive of one million Brown Brothers photographs and negatives are for sale, with offers starting at $5 million. Historic documents collector and dealer Eric Caren, whose "How History Unfolds on Paper" collection was profiled in our Fall 2011 issue, is brokering the sale.

img093--BB--01903--72J--Houdini in chains--W.jpgHoudini in Chains, photographed by Brown Brothers. Courtesy of The Caren Archive.

The archive comprises 7,000 boxes, and the images it contains can be haunting: Ellis Island immigrants, charred bodies from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the Hindenburg disaster, and flag-draped caskets from World War II. There are also the more glamorous shots depicting the likes of Mark Twain, Harry Houdini, and Babe Ruth. It is estimated that 30 percent of the archive focuses on New York City. In fact, one of Caren's favorites is "one circa 1910 showing a bunch of eccentric NY Baseball Giants fans perched in a tree watching the game at The Polo Grounds in NYC."  

Caren, who previously handled the sale of the San Francisco Examiner press photos years ago, found this archive so exciting because they aren't wire photos, of which multiples can be found in the marketplace. He said, "This is likely 'The Last of the Mohicans' for massive and unique photography archives." Or, as the Brown Brothers company history put it, "We have photographs no one else has because we had photographers no one else had...No one--absolutely no one else in the world--has these photographs."

Someone will, soon enough. Prospective buyers can view the archive by appointment, and Caren reports "strong" interest from major institutions, picture agencies, collectors, and dealers. The Associated Press revealed that those institutions included "Columbia and Yale universities, California's Huntington Library, and the New York Public Library." The bidding will end on January 14, 2015.

The Caren Archive is also separately offering, for an undisclosed sum, an en bloc collection of 200,000+ printed, manuscript, and photographic originals dating back to the 1500s.