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Smithsonian buys oldest photo of a U.S. president for $360,000


Philip Haas | Smithsonian

Zelda Caldwell - published on 11/08/17

John Quincy Adams (and socks) posed for his portrait in 1843, almost 15 years after he served as president.

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Last month, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery made a major acquisition. It purchased at auction the oldest known photograph of a U.S. President for $360,000.

Artist Philip Haas made the daguerreotype portrait of President John Quincy Adams in 1843, almost 15 years after Adams served as the country’s sixth President (1825-1829).

The photo was taken only four years after Louis Daguerre went public with his the invention of his revolutionary daguerreotype, which made possible the first permanent camera photographs.

It must have been an unseasonably cold March day in the Washington, D.C., studio of artist Philip Haas. Adams is pictured with his gloved hands clasped together. He later wrote in his diary that he walked to the studio at 9 o’clock in the morning:

“My hands in woolen lined gloves bitterly pinched with cold. Found Horace Everett [U.S. Congressman from Vermont’s third district] there for the same purpose of being facsimiled. Haas took him once, and then with his consent took me three times, the second of which he said was very good—for the operation is delicate: subject to many imperceptible accidents, and fails at least twice out of three times.”

Adams gave the portrait to Congressman Horace Everett, and it remained with the Everett family until a direct descendant put it up for auction with Sotheby’s last month.

The great-great-grandson of Everett found the photograph among his parents’ belongings after they died in the 1990s, and only realized it was Adams a few years ago, the New York Times reported.

Adams is pictured seated, with a flash of light colored socks showing below his trouser cuff.

“I keep getting caught on his cute socks,” Emily Bierman, head of Sotheby’s photography department told the Times when the photograph was listed for auction this summer.

“There is something so human about that.”

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