Antique photos of California criminals sell twice in four months

Mug shots sell for $31,200 in New York after $2,150 sale in Oregon; may set new record for album of vernacular photography

Readers may recognize this set of scoundrels from a previous entry on the Antique Trader Blog. We featured a book filled with mug shots of early 20th century California prison inmates. The 40-page folio of silver prints sold for $2,150 at a Paige Auction on Oct. 11, 2011, in Portland, Ore.

The fascinating book features 710 photographs and was once owned by the San Francisco Police Department, an early proponent in using photography in identifying criminals. Four months after it was sold and featured, the collection was offered at a Feb. 28, 2012, auction – this time through Swann Auction Galleries in New York with a $4,000 to $6,000 estimate.

“Swann Galleries has built a reputation for offering fascinating and unique photographic items, including vernacular photography,” Swann’s Rebecca Weiss tells Antique Trader. “Buyers seeking that sort of material eagerly await our auction catalogues just to find gems like that one. We had active bidding on that lot from private collectors, dealers and institutions all over the U.S. and overseas, as well. As a result, it sold for $31,200 (including buyer’s premium) to a collector. We believe this is a record auction price for an album of vernacular photography.”

The book represents a number of different ethnicities, including Asian men convicted of murder (which may relate to the major Tong Wars); men with Hispanic surnames, as well as Native and African-Americans. However, Caucasians dominate the album, including a few women. The range of crimes includes: burglary, robbery, forgery, murder (in the first and second degree), rape, arson and manslaughter. Many of the men sport facial hair, especially bushy mustaches.

The appearance of a numeric notation, and use of collage in arranging subjects on the page, serve as a compelling proto-modernist graphic device reflecting the diversity of criminal activity and large number of individuals who spent time “inside.”

According to Swann, American mug shot albums were introduced in the late 19th century and were often modeled on the French scientist Alphone Bertillon’s taxonomic approach. This 20th-century album introduces a new model where the criminal is sometimes depicted from an angle and generally dressed in prison stripes, with an identifying caption in block letters – RAPE, MAYHEN [sic] – documenting the crime.

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