Art Market

The Collecting Couple Who Became Sleuths of Photographic Forgery

Karen Chernick
Mar 22, 2019 9:11PM

D.O. Hill and Robert Adamson. Sandy Linton, his boat and his bairns, New Haven, 1845. Courtesy of The Barnes Foundation, Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg.

Désiré-François Millet. Untitled (Bride), n.d. Courtesy of The Barnes Foundation, Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg.

Many newlywed couples make big purchases in the early years of their marriages, procuring grown-up furniture, upgraded kitchenware, and perhaps a 30-year mortgage. But when Judy Hochberg and Michael Mattis wed in the early 1980s, the items on their wishlist were moderately sized, two-dimensional, and black-and-white. The pair, then doctoral candidates of modest means at Stanford University, started to collect photographs—specifically 19th-century prints, the earliest in the medium’s history.

“We started the collection when we got married and had a little money,” Hochberg, who holds a doctorate in linguistics and teaches Spanish at Fordham University, told Artsy. “Photography seemed like something that we could afford.”

Now more than 30 years into both their marriage and their collecting, the thousands of prints handpicked by Hochberg and Mattis constitute one of the most comprehensive private collections of vintage photography in the United States, and one of the top photography collections in the world. A selection of 250 of their earliest photographs—including hand-tinted erotic daguerreotypes, allegorical portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron, and a Felix Nadar print of writer Victor Hugo on his deathbed—recently went on view at Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation, in the exhibition “From Today, Painting Is Dead: Early Photography in Britain and France.”

Installation view of “From Today, Painting is Dead: Early Photography in Britain and France,” at The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. Courtesy of The Barnes Foundation.


The show’s title refers to French painter Paul Delaroche’s reaction when he first saw a photograph around 1840 (just one year after the medium’s invention was announced simultaneously by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot). “From today,” Delaroche exclaimed, “painting is dead!”

That hasn’t been the case, of course, and certainly has not been the prevailing attitude in the art world. Photography was long considered painting’s far-less-illustrious stepsibling: In the medium’s first hundred years, very few museums had photography departments; at auction, prices for paintings long dwarfed those commanded by photographs. That started to change in the 1970s, when photography took off as a collecting genre.

“We started, to some extent, 10 years late, but our excuse is that in the 1970s, we were in high school,” Hochberg said. “So we had to work a little harder.”

Even so, the standards for collecting photography were still being defined when the couple began visiting dealers and auction houses. A canon of photographic masters had been identified—among them Gustave Le Gray, Hill & Adamson, and Henri Cartier-Bresson (all represented in the pair’s holdings). But even with an awareness of who the greats were, for the first year or so of their collecting, Hochberg and Mattis stumbled to grasp what qualified as a solid purchase.

Pulling focus on rare photographs

William Henry Fox Talbot. Articles of China, 1844. Courtesy of The Barnes Foundation, Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg.

“The first photographs we collected we no longer have,” Hochberg admitted, referring to some posthumous prints produced from the negatives of big-name shutterbugs (such as Eugène Atget). “There was definitely a learning curve.”

They learned fast. After a year or so of what Hochberg calls “making mistakes,” Mattis (formerly a physicist by profession) realized that 19th-century photographs were incredibly undervalued. These were early experimentals with a now–incredibly pervasive medium—rare and trailblazing exemplars of new photographic processes.

“We decided we would move in on it, in a big way,” Hochberg recalled. “We were beginning collectors, we didn’t have a big budget, but as much as we could, we tried to be aggressive.”

Anonymous, Ferns, 1850s. Courtesy of The Barnes Foundation, Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg.

Julia Margaret Cameron. King David and Bathsheba (Henry Taylor and Mary Hillier), 1869. Courtesy of The Barnes Foundation, Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg.

Mattis’s hunch proved correct: Recognizing the value of 19th-century prints helped the couple create something singular out of a market focused, by definition, on easily reproducible multiples. But beyond targeting the earliest decades of the medium, their strictest guiding principle was to buy exclusively vintage photographs. Vintage photographs (as opposed to posthumous prints) are the few prints created by a photographer immediately or soon after shooting the negative. On rare occasions, they’re also signed.

“We’re really into the vintage thing,” Hochberg says. “We feel that the vintage print reflects the artist’s intention when they made the photograph.” As photography collectors have become more numerous, knowledgeable, and sophisticated, vintage photographs have commanded significantly higher prices than later prints made from the same negative, even in cases when the photographer reprinted them themselves. As early as the 1990s, the price for a vintage photograph could be exponentially higher than the value of a later print of the same image.

By insisting on vintage, Hochberg and Mattis have had a major impact on the field, helping to develop ways to detect photographic forgeries. When the duo started their collection, prices were rising at a fever pitch, but the market had few safeguards for determining whether or not a photograph was actually vintage. The need for dating tools became evident in the late 1990s, when a suspicious number of purportedly vintage prints by Lewis Hine—an American photographer who recorded child labor conditions and made portraits on Ellis Island—flooded onto the market.

A toolkit for photography collectors

Adolphe Braun. Vallee de Chamonix, c. 1870. Courtesy of The Barnes Foundation, Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg.

“It just started to fail the smell test,” Hochberg said of that period. The couple worked with Paul Messier, a paper conservator they had used in the past, to develop scientific tests. The results of their collaborative research can now be found in just about any auction house or major photography gallery.

“Let’s say you go to an auction preview today, and there’s something being offered, and it says ‘1930,’” explained Hochberg. “You’ll ask, ‘Have you black-lit that picture?’ and they’ll say, ‘Why, of course. Do you want to black-light it yourself?’ And maybe you’ll take it to a back room where it’s dark, and you hold it under a black light to see if the paper fluoresces. That is standard talk today, and nobody used those words before the Lewis Hine thing.”

The couple determined that their purportedly vintage Hine photographs were posthumous in part because the paper was bleached, a practice that only began in the 1950s when manufacturers began adding optical brighteners to paper.

Gustave Le Gray. The Great Wave, Sète, 1857. Courtesy of The Barnes Foundation, Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg.

Messier, Hochberg and Mattis’s collaborator on the scientific tests, also developed a watermark cheat-sheet to help determine the age of photographic paper. The Agfa logo, for example, has changed over the years, and knowing the year range for a particular version can help date a photograph. The tools Messier helped the couple develop for their own collecting purposes have now become industry standard.

But in directing their focus two centuries backwards, Hochberg laments that she and Mattis have overlooked some things. As they amassed calotype negatives and early albumen prints, photography crept into present day fine-art collecting, and they missed out on buying the early work of contemporary artists.

“Our collection basically starts with Talbot and goes to Mapplethorpe, and pretty much ends there. We have a few Nan Goldins, but we don’t have the very large contemporary photographs, which would have been the smartest things to invest in,” Hochberg said. “They’re the ones now going for huge sums of money because they crossed over from the photography world into contemporary collecting.”

Still, Hochberg added, she and her husband are happily committed to their collecting habits. “We wanted photographs that would drive us wild in a visual sense,” she said. “You do what you do. Did I mention [that we have] Ansel Adams?”

Karen Chernick

Thumbnail Image: Anonymous, Young Frenchman with gilt background, 1847. Courtesy of The Barnes Foundation, Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg.