One Museum’s 19th Century Photo Sale Seems to Be the Met’s Gain

One Museum’s 19th Century Photo Sale Seems to Be the Met’s Gain

The images date from the 1880s and include early photographs of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Hotel del Monte in Monterey, Calif., and Yellowstone Park. They were all taken by Carleton Watkins, a pioneering photographer of the American West known for his majestic landscapes.

After being held for almost 100 years by the Hispanic Society of America, the photographs were sold through Christie’s in a sale finalized last month and appear to be headed as a gift from an unknown donor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“We’re thrilled that they’re going to the Met,” said Mitchell Codding, the director and president of the Hispanic Society, a Manhattan museum dedicated to art from Spain, Portugal and former Spanish colonies. “They stay in New York but also they go somewhere where they’ll be cared for and appreciated.”

A Met curator declined to comment on the reported gift but expressed great enthusiasm at the prospect. “These are absolutely stunning works by one of the most important artists of the 19th century,” Jeff Rosenheim, the curator in charge of the Met’s photography department, said in a statement. “It would be a great privilege to have them in The Met’s collection.”

The 130 mammoth-plate photographs by Watkins, 67 of which are believed to be unique, date from a period during which Watkins was trying to rebuild his career after losing his studio and negatives to a creditor during a financial crisis. The Met has a keen interest in Watkins’ work and has staged exhibitions of his photographs in 1999 and 2014. It already owns some 250 of his images.

“It’s a very big deal both in terms of the Met’s collection of 19th century American art and the Met’s collection of photography,” said Tyler Green, the author of “Carleton Watkins: Making the West American,” (University of California Press) published this month. “In one fell swoop they would be getting around 10 percent of the guy’s high end oeuvre, which is an extraordinary percentage.”

In addition to their notable size, 14.5 x 21 inches, the images are also prime examples of the wet-collodion process of creating photographic negatives, a technique that was used less and less frequently in the late 19th century due to the invention of the gelatin process.

The Hispanic Society received the photographs in the 1920s from the museum’s founder, Archer Huntington, whose father, the railroad tycoon Collis Potter Huntington, was a friend of Watkins. The photographs had not been exhibited at the museum and were deaccessioned because they were not part of its core mission. Mr. Codding said the sale garnered more than $1 million for the Hispanic Society, whose doors are now closed because the museum is in the midst of two-year renovation expected to cost about $15 million.

The Hispanic Society retained one set of the Watkins photographs that came from Mr. Huntington, an album of images of Spanish missions in California, because it is relevant to the society’s mission.

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