Unearthing the Past: When Exceptionally Rare Photographs and Footage of Renowned People Resurface

From notorious Wild West legend Billy the Kid to diarist and war martyr Anne Frank, discover outstanding archive footage and tintypes of people who made history.

© Randy Guijarro 

Today, people connected to the Internet have unprecedented access to tons of visual materials – some would even say we live in a world built by images from the selfie to the motion billboard to film penetrating new parts of our daily lives. However, there was a time when newsmakers and prominent people barely featured on visual documents, whether because they were outlaws (who preferred to hide rather than pose with local inhabitants) or because we hold – or know of – very few records of them. This article aims at presenting some exceptionally scarce photographs and films of a few personalities who made history.

An invaluable tintype found in a mundane store

One of the greatest discoveries, in terms of historical rarity and capital gain, happened in 2010 when Randy Guijarro purchased three pictures, one of which was a four-by-five-inch tintype, in an antique shop in Fresno, California. While the whole lot cost him $2, the Kagin’s Auction House insured the ordinary tintype, once authenticated, for $5 million.

Though skepticism still surrounds the picture as regards its authenticity, the photograph supposedly represents Billy the Kid and members of his New Mexico gang, named the Regulators, playing croquet all together. The picture, as it is believed, was taken in the fall of 1878 at the Tunstall Ranch (New Mexico). The previous – and only confirmed – picture of Billy the Kid was sold at auction at the record-breaking price of $2.3 million to billionaire William Koch in 2011, so if Guijarro’s photograph reaches $5 million, that would pulverize the former record.

In an interview conducted by the Guardian in 2015, Guijarro declared, “I hope this prompts others out there to look into trunks and attics because there are so many lost treasures out there.” His declaration may indeed encourage people to be more cautious about documents that may be priceless historical gems.

A still image worth millions

Speaking of trunks and lost treasures, the thrilling story of Sandy Mills and of her antique tintype will undoubtedly please the treasure hunters and archive hounds out there. The controversial photograph she owns shows outlaw Jesse James and his former gang member and eventual killer Robert Ford, who pose side by side. According to Mills, the picture was handed down through several generations of her family. Prior to the picture’s authentication made by forensic expert Lois Gibson, no one believed in the tintype’s genuineness. Gibson, who helped the police identify 1,266 people in her career, spent four days analyzing the photograph. Her close examination revealed that Mill’s antique tintype was indeed bona fide. After days of work, Gibson declared: “This is it, just huge, like finding a T-Rex leg bone.” The outcome was a relief for Mills who had previously claimed that her ancestors had harbored Jesse James in the 1870s when the Missouri outlaw was on the run. The picture, presumably acquired by Mills’ forbearer Pauline E. Rountree Higgins, became a valuable heirloom in the family. Now that a Billy the Kid photograph has been sold for $2.3 million and that Guijarro’s tintype has been insured at $5 million, we can only wonder whether Sandy Mills is ready to sell a century-old family treasure for a couple of millions, as recommended by her grandmother. The latest is that Mills auctioned her tintype at the Burley Auction Gallery, Texas, on January 14th, but no paper talks about the outcome of the sale. The outlaw – or at least his photo – might be on the run, once more.

Rare footage of worldwide celebrities

It seems that ‘luck’ is key when one wants to find precious archive materials. Just like Randy Guijarro, Canadian professor Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan recently stumbled upon an extremely rare document. This discovery doesn’t concern a Wild West legend, but rather French writer Marcel Proust. Literary amateurs will surely be delighted to hear that a film in which the author features was discovered last month at the Centre National du Cinéma in Paris. If the film is authenticated, it will be the only known moving picture of Proust we have. Though the news has stirred up the literary world, this story is not as fresh as it seems. In 2014, Laure Hillerin mentioned this footage in her book La Comtesse de Greffuhle: l’ombre des Guermantes. In an interview conducted last month by French magazine Telerama, Hillerin explains how curators at the Archives françaises du film, as well as the Proustian community, did not make much of the discovery.

The black-and-white footage offers a glimpse of the aristocratic wedding of Elaine Greffulhe, daughter of the countess of Greffulhe, and Armand de Guiche. We know that the countess was a close friend of the French writer. Actually, she served as the main model for the creation of Oriane de Guermantes, an aristocratic character in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (1913).

Also, we know that Proust favored bowler hats and pearl-grey suits in the 1900s, and those specific clothes are worn by the very man in the film. All the evidence seems to indicate that the person descending a flight of stairs is indeed Marcel Proust. This film would be a major discovery in the fields of literature and archival footage, especially knowing what Proust thought about moving pictures…

Known for the novels he wrote, particularly The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Mark Twain is far less known for his appearances in motion pictures. Even though the American author has been photographed on several occasions, only one footage of him exist. The motion capture film of 1909, taken by Thomas Edison, shows Twain walking around his residence named “Stormfield” in Redding. Later in the film, Clara and Jean (the author’s daughters), can be seen drinking tea or coffee at a table with their father. This exceptionally scarce footage enables the viewer to see Twain in a new light and enter his intimacy.

One other famous historical figure of whom we have little visual record is Anne Frank, whose diaries during the Holocaust have moved millions. As she was deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp very young, we hold very few visual materials of her. Anne Frank has been photographed several times, but footage where she features is extremely rare. The only known film of young Anne, which only lasts for twenty seconds, gives a small insight into her childhood. A thirteen-year-old Anne Frank can be spotted at the window, all excited because of her neighbor’s wedding taking place outside. The apartment where she stands is located in Amsterdam where she and her family lived between 1934 and 1942. This footage is very emotional due to Anne’s known tragic fate and by the fact that her childish joy contrasts with the terror of the time.

The world of archives is as rich as it is full of surprises. Sometimes, we may acquire cheap pictures, thinking we just bought an ordinary tintype depicting westerners playing croquet, to later discover that it is a rare image of an infamous personality. Hidden in a sequence of film, we may happen to notice that one of the many men descending a stairway is a literary legend. You may have come across valuable content without even knowing it!

Have you ever stumbled on a rare picture or film? Share your best discovery in the comment section below!

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