Published in July 9, 2023
Many of the most valuable vintage photos are sports-related, and limited supply and high demand, as well as careful and trusted authentication, are key.
With global financial markets sliding sideways, visionary investors are on the lookout for new asset classes. One tangible subclass you can actually see with your eyes is worth checking out: vintage photos.
Fine art pieces have long been found in the portfolios of high-net-worth individuals and institutions — and even pooled, in recent years, and turned into quasi-securities. The unique digital images known as NFTs (non-fungible tokens) were a massive craze-turned-crash.
Vintage photographs occupy a different space, more closely adjacent to the world of rare collectibles. Many of the most valuable vintage photos are sports-related: In 2020, a 110-year-old photo of legendary baseball player Ty Cobb sold for an eye-popping $390,000. Auction houses like Robert Edward, Heritage, Lelands and even eBay routinely facilitate trades of images for tens of thousands of dollars each.
As with collectibles like sports trading cards and autographs, the key to value in vintage photographs is not only limited supply and high demand but careful and trusted authentication. Investment-grade vintage photographs tend to be authenticated by one of a handful of well-known firms, such as PSA (where Mark Cuban and Kevin Durant are significant investors).
PSA was also instrumental in the creation of a system for grading vintage photographs that has become the market standard. Photos are classified as being one of four types, based on proximity to the original negative. Types III and IV, the least valuable, are produced from duplicate negatives. Type II photos come from the original negative but were made two or more years after the photo was taken. Type I photos are printed from the original negative within two years of the original event.
Most or all investment-grade vintage are either Type I or Type II photos. The $390,000 Cobb image was judged to be a Type I photo, taken and developed on the same day (July 23, 1910) by a known photographer, Charles Conlon of the New York Evening Telegram).
As with all forms of art, the value of a vintage photograph has a subjective element that is dependent on the content and composition of the image itself. Original photos of timeless celebrities will always have value, even if they aren’t particularly vintage. A 1993 print of British model Kate Moss by fashion photographer Albert Watson sold for $25,000 in 2017.
But in a world that is now and will forever be awash in cheap digital content, all types of high-grade vintage photographs have the power to hold collectors’ and investors’ attention.
In line with fine art and collectibles, a driving force in the vintage photo market is a community of passionate enthusiasts and connoisseurs who find satisfaction in owning rare things of beauty or historical significance. But vintage photos have also drawn an increasing number of investors primarily interested in financial return and diversification.
As for how investors can access this market, there’s no single or simple answer, but the more reputable auction houses and well-known dealers are good places to start.
Even for those with a passion for collecting will want to limit asset subclasses like vintage photos to 10% or so of your overall portfolio. (I’m a sports memorabilia collector, and my collection, acquired over several decades, hovers around this mark in mine.)
It’s also good to remember that these aren’t necessarily highly liquid assets and that they’re better suited to longer holding periods. Within your portfolio, I think it’s useful to think in terms of three pools: one up to 10 years, one from 11 to 20 years and a third that’s 20-plus years. All tangible collectible assets should go into the latter two pools.
This also means that serious investors/collectors will have a mindset of buying during market downturns, just as with financial assets. But while collectibles markets will soften during financial downturns, such assets can be surprisingly non-correlated to other markets, in particular the stock market. That’s a useful feature for wealth management planning and may be particularly relevant if today’s sideways trend continues.
The many disruptions on the horizon for our AI-infused world may help stoke the deep-rooted human longing for tangible assets and simpler moments. Together, I see those factors continuing to drive the market for vintage photographs. That means some pictures will be worth not only a thousand words, but tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.