Count John Quincy Adams among those who could be grumpy about having their picture taken.
In August 1843, the former president, then 76, sat for a photographer during a visit to upstate New York and pronounced the results “all hideous.” Unfortunately for him, a daguerreotypefrom that sitting surfaced at an antiques shop in 1970, priced at 50 cents, and currently sits in the National Portrait Gallery, where it laid claim to being the oldest surviving original photograph of an American president.
But now, an older — and more flattering — daguerreotype of Adams, America’s sixth president, has surfaced, and will be sold at auction at Sotheby’s in October.
The daguerreotype, which carries an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000, was taken in a Washington portrait studio in March 1843, when Adams was in the middle of his post-presidential career in Congress. He gave it as a gift to a fellow representative, whose descendants kept it in the family while apparently losing track of its significance.
Emily Bierman, the head of Sotheby’s photographs department, called it “without a doubt the most important historical photo portrait to be offered at auction in the last 20 years.”
“Not only is it an incredibly important historical record,” she said, “it’s also a stunning composition. You really get a sense of who Adams was.”
Claims of historical precedence tend to come with caveats and asterisks, and it must be noted that the daguerreotype, a so-called half plate measuring about 5 inches by 4 inches, is not, technically, the earliest photographic image of an American president.
That honor, if few others, belongs to William Henry Harrison, who had his likeness taken in 1841, around the time of his inauguration. He died of an uncertain illness 32 days into his term, and the original daguerreotype is not known to survive, though the Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a copy, made by the Boston firm Southworth and Hawes around 1850. And Adams himself was first photographed in 1842, by the Boston photographer John Plumbe Jr., though the images appear to be lost.
The newly surfaced Adams daguerreotype also does not offer an entirely fresh view of the man. The same penetrating gaze, heavily whiskered jaw and elegant parlor backdrop are visible in a famous image also owned by the Met.
But that image is also a reproduction by Southworth and Hawes from an original daguerreotype that has apparently been lost. And it shows Adams sitting in a slightly different pose.
“I keep getting caught on his cute socks,” Ms. Bierman said, noting the white patch peeking out from a trouser cuff in the newly surfaced daguerreotype (and less visible in the image at the Met). “There is something so human about that.”
Adams, who sat for more than 60 portraits over the course of his life, was intrigued by the uncanny likenesses produced by the new medium of photography, even if he wasn’t always charmed by the results. In his diary on March 8, 1843, he recorded his first visit to the Washington studio of Philip Haas, where he sat for three daguerreotypes. (Daguerreotypes, which are made directly onto chemically treated plates, are unique objects; no negatives are involved.)
“The operation is performed in half a minute; but is yet altogether incomprehensible to me,” Adams wrote. “It would seem as easy to stamp a fixed portrait from the reflection of a mirror; but how wonderful would that reflection itself be, if we were not familiarized to it from childhood.”
He returned a week later, interrupting a sitting of his friend Horace Everett, a congressman from Vermont. Adams sat for three more daguerreotypes, according to his diary, and at some point gave one of them to Everett. (Haas used one of the images as a basis for a lithograph.)
A patchwork of labels on the back of the newly discovered daguerreotype, which is in a simple ebonized wood frame, attests to that personal connection. There’s a piece of brown paper, apparently clipped from an envelope, with “J.Q. Adams” in the return address space, in what appears to be the former president’s handwriting. “He had a distinctive way of making his H’s,” Ms. Bierman said.
There’s also a bookplate with the Everett family crest, on which someone else wrote “Presented by J.Q.A. to his Kinsman H.E. 1843,” and noted that it was said to be “one of the earliest daguerreotypes.”
The seller, a great-great-grandson of Everett who did not want to be named to preserve his family’s privacy, found it among his parents’ belongings after they died in the 1990s. He said he assumed it was an image of his forebear, and only realized it was Adams a few years ago, after he started doing some research on the internet.
The price on the half-plate daguerreotype could go much higher than the estimate. In 2011, a whole-plate daguerreotype portrait of the states-rights advocate and former vice president John C. Calhoun, taken by Mathew Brady, fetched $338,500, including the buyer’s premium — roughly nine times its estimate.
Ms. Bierman said she hoped the emergence of the daguerreotype would prompt people to take a closer look at old photographs in their possession. Might the other missing Adams daguerreotypes, or even the original plate of poor William Henry Harrison, yet surface in some attic?
“So much is considered lost until it’s found,” she said.