One-shot #21: No Man’s Collection

If you just clicked on this post based on the title and header photo, expecting an introduction to an exciting new collection of Great War stereo photography, then congratulations! You just fell for the same nonsense I did when I bid on a collection of mostly-unrelated glass-plate negatives that mostly had nothing to do with the First World War, and seemed to have been cobbled together from whatever glass plates some later collector happened to have on hand when the collection passed down to someone who had no use for them and sold them on eBay.

This set was marketed as being the personal collection of a French photographer and Artillery Sergeant during the Great War, apparently on the flimsy assumption made by the seller that the existence within the collection of a few images that might have been taken during the War, and a few portraits of soldiers in uniform, meant that one of the soldiers was in fact an Artillery Sergeant and that the stereo positives in the set featured him leading his battalion in firing a large artillery piece, No Man’s Land imagery, other Great War scenes including hospitals, nurses, etc, self-portraits (described as “selfies” by the seller – that should have, but didn’t, set off warning bells)… basically, any WWI collector’s dream in terms of showing provenance. Photos of the soldier and his family in day-to-day life were also promised: travel scenes, family portraits – he was supposedly a “keen photographer” and, best of all, the condition of the plates was “Good, not badly marked, have been carefully kept in their boxes.”

For £250, this collection was a steal, right?

Well, it would have been, if what arrived was anything like what was described. Sadly, it wasn’t.

About two dozen boxes arrived, containing, as promised, lots of glass-plate negatives and a few positive stereo slides. And that’s the only bit that was in keeping with what was promised. There were portraits of a couple of soldiers, but they hardly came off as “selfies” – they were amongst a set of portraits of various people, children included. There were also many other single-image plates, clearly taken by various photographers – some were of quite good quality; some were blurry, horribly composed, and so on. There were also stereoviews – mostly negatives – almost none of which had anything to do with the War, and most of which were from widely varied locations at various time periods. Most of the stereo negatives were 45x107s; a handful were of 6×13. Subjects ranged from African and Middle Eastern scenes to boxes of family outing stereoviews to one really nice set of landscapes. These were clearly the works of many photographers, cobbled together by some collector who just thought old glass plates were cool. And here’s the kicker – almost none of them were in “good” condition, almost all of them were “badly marked”, and the way they were water-damaged, covered in oily fingerprints, and stuck together without separators, in badly-treated century-old plate boxes meant that they certainly were not “carefully kept in their boxes”.

There were a handful of stereo photographs which probably had something to do with the war, though none seemed to be from the front. For example:

Dodgy shot of a long-abandoned trench which likely came to be a part of No Man’s Land, which was then so far behind the line that telephone or telegraph lines had been installed, with a lone sentry sitting under a tent waiting for something to happen.

This is probably a Great War trench, though lacking any context, it could be from the Second Boer War – they used trenches too, you know! There’s nothing to indicated that the gentleman in the tent…

…is French, worked with artillery, was a Sergeant, was a photographer, or anything else even peripherally related to what was described. This clearly wasn’t “the front line”, as promised – this area had been captured long enough ago that new infrastructure (the lines) had been placed here! The only indication that this guy was a soldier is the helmet, though even that… could it be a construction helmet? This is very possibly some sort of “trench tourism” from a photographer who went to a very safe area far behind the Front to get some photos for their collection, and was thrown in with the rest – then advertised to boost the value of this set. And this was the only negative from the “war” views that was not in completely awful shape – it was only in mostly awful shape.

Not worth nearly £250. I’m a big a fan of random cohesive collections, of analyzing them and trying to figure out where they came from. I’m not a big enough fan to spend that kind of money on over 10 lbs of mostly ruined glass, with no seeming cohesion.

After a volley of emails back and forth, where I was asked to recognize:

  • That the handwriting was the same throughout – which is true, if you’re only considering the English-language handwriting on recent masking tape on top of boxes that clearly display French-language handwriting done by various hands at various times, 80-110 year ago.
  • That he sent more than was listed – which is true, since there were nearly 200 pieces of glass in the set; sadly, since 90% of them are unusable, this argument fails. Sending extra garbage on top of garbage is not a value-add.
  • That it has cost him a lot more to ship these to the USA than he was expecting – which is as may be, but is hardly my problem.

And a number of other fatuous points about how great his box-o’-junk was, I finally issued him an ultimatum: either he refund all but £40 for the lot, which I then keep, or he pay me over $100 to ship it back to him and fully refund my money. He grudgingly accepted the forty quid.

So from time to time, in between scanning and posting much more interesting collections like the Fasser Collection and the Puthon Collection, I might occasionally pop some of the more interesting-looking (and less destroyed) negatives and positives from this collection on the scanner and see what all I have. At the end of the day, it’s at least interesting to see what on earth unites all these various boxes of plates. Sadly, they are the work of many anonymous photographers, and not what I was hoping, thus the name – this was No Man’s Collection.


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