A primitive image believed to have been taken decades before what is widely considered to be the dawn of photography has been pulled from an upcoming auction to allow further research as to its authorship.
The image of a leaf was scheduled to be sold at Sotheby’s next Monday, and was listed in the auction catalog as “Photographer Unknown.” But Sotheby’s said research by a leading photo expert has suggested that several early photo experimenters could have made the image, including Thomas Wedgwood, James Watt and Humphry Davy, who worked in the medium decades before what is believed to be the birth of photography in 1839.
Sotheby’s said Wednesday that it decided to pull the lot because the upcoming auction had generated “a spirited and lively dialogue” among photo scholars “about the possible origins for the ‘Leaf.”’
“This conversation has revealed new areas of research, which will be explored in the coming months,” the auctioneer said.
“Leaf” is a photogenic drawing — a cameraless process in which an object is placed on silver nitrate-coated paper or leather to form a negative image.
It had previously been attributed to William Henry Fox Talbot, considered the father of photography along with Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre.
“Leaf” was among six similar anonymous works that were sold individually at Sotheby’s London in 1984. It was purchased by a dealer for $776, and only later attributed to Talbot. Two of the other six works are now in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and one is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Sotheby’s said the hypothesis that the work could predate Talbot was made by Larry J. Schaaf, a leading photo historian and Talbot expert.
It said Schaaf based his theory on the “W” inscription in the lower corner of the image and the fact that it doesn’t resemble a Talbot, among other things.