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Diary of a New York dealer, Hans Kraus, Jr: “The old medium has died and digital has taken over”

Why collectors of 19th-century painting are crossing over into photography

Second- and third- generation dealers commonly tread in the footsteps of their forebears, but Hans Kraus, Jr bucks this trend. The son of a famous manuscript dealer, Mr Kraus chose to deal privately in the Old Masters of the photography world. Today, he is widely considered to be New York’s only specialist in 19th- and early-20th-century photography.

This month, Mr Kraus has a show dedicated to early Scottish photography (see What’s On, p.5) and he can be found across the Atlantic at Paris Photo.

The Art Newspaper: What led you to this field at such an early age?

Hans Kraus, Jr: My father was a bookseller and I was a rebel. I didn’t want to be a bookseller but a photographer. Yet I wasn’t a good one, so I began acquiring early Ansel Adams images in my teens. At first I acquired his “Moonrise”, a real bellwether, and then I moved backwards in time to the 20s and early 30s. I purchased from the Light Gallery and Weston as well as at auction. I always got a 10% discount because I was a dealer’s son. My father insisted on it.

In 1980, I went to Christie’s South Kensington, which then was a cowboy place, a real corral with daily sales amid huge commotion. There I was a porter in the photography department. Then early material was resurfacing and William Henry Fox Talbots would fetch only a few hundred pounds each. I was actually buying then. At auction, I would stand in my green smock holding up an album in one hand and bidding with the other. It bothered a few people but basically I was bidding up prices. I was also buying for a friend.

Upon returning from London, I worked at Christie’s here, cataloguing. After three and a half years, I became a private dealer working out of my apartment.

Another stimulus was the late Harrison D. Horblit, a noted collector of history of science books and a friend of my father’s. While my parents would play bridge at the Horblit’s house, I was encouraged to explore his photography library. Later, he became one of my first serious clients. TAN: When you first began in late 1983, how was dealing different?

HK Jr: Requesting condition reports was hardly common. Horblit and others simply went by the catalogue, but when I came on, I provided him with the reports. Buyers were a closed circle of dealers excepting the noted collector Sam Wagstaff and a few others. The London sales were practically a secret here and the New York auction houses didn’t tell others that sales in the UK were cheaper. One could buy an Edward Weston there for 300 pounds and sell it here for $10/15,000 and dealers did buy there and sell here.

TAN: What is the size of this client base?

HK Jr: There are several dozen spending $10,000 and upwards a year and that number is growing. Now, I’m more aware of the growth at the top levels: $200,000 and more. Five years ago, the base was made up of people who were traditional collectors—those who had been buying for 20 years. The last two years have seen new clients abroad.

TAN: Are many of your clients coming from contemporary photography or 19th-century painting?

HK Jr: Some already collect contemporary photography such as Struth and Demand. There are a number of them who are informed about early photographic processes through the work of photographers working today such as Adam Fuss, who employs both daguerreotypes and photograms. Some know the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto who creates large format photographs. Just how consciously that connection is made, I don’t know. While some come from contemporary art, there are crossovers who own Marsden Hartley and Charles Sheeler. There are also those who collect School of Fontainebleau paintings: Corot and Daubigny. They are really collecting light, so photography from that period is an adjunct to what they already own. Others come out of the English landscape painting tradition, such as Constable.

Since crossing over into the new millennium, there has been a significant surge because of the wide understanding that the medium has come to an end. Digital photography is here to stay; many are abandoning wet photography.

TAN: Can you detail the effect on prices?

HK Jr: Prices began to surge in 1998, 1999 and 2000. It was especially noticeable at the first Jammes sale in Paris, where the quality was incomparable.

TAN: What photography is most in demand?

HK Jr: Beginning collectors ask for images they have seen illustrated in important survey books. They want Frederick Evans’s “The sea of steps” of 1903, or Fox Talbot’s scene in the library, which is nearly impossible to find in good condition.

TAN:To what degree is conservation a major issue?

HK Jr: I used to avoid anything needing conservation. Now that material is harder to find, I get as much information as possible; speak to conservators as some go way over the top in their treatment of images. But there are more and more professionals working in conservation and doing accurate work. Key conservation issues are tears in the paper, foxing in the mounts and the degree of retouching.

TAN: So much material is light sensitive and must be hidden away in acid-free boxes, but how many of your collectors do so?

HK Jr: At least 50% do not put the photographs on the walls. I have one collector of calotypes, paper negatives and prints who lives in a beach house in Santa Monica, California where the light is spectacular. He keeps the early material in boxes. The number of collectors who have special rooms with temperature and humidity controls is growing.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as “The old medium has died and digital has taken over