There are hundreds of thousands of press, wire, original, and publicity photos available on eBay at any given point in time. With such a large market there are bound to be thousands of fakes. I’ve been there myself. A seller will advertise something as being an original snapshot or press photo only for you to get it an a) realize that it’s fake, b) question its authenticity, or c) believe it’s real. But how can you tell?
That plastic coating on the back of your modern photos? That came out in the late 1960’s. If you have a photo that claims to be before that but it has that coating, it is not authentic. Some people claim that photo paper branding, the name of the paper company printed on the back of the photo paper, came around in the 1970’s. This process actually started in the 1940’s with Velox. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Kobak/Velox/Paper stated appearing on the back of photos. A Kodak Paper will date your photo to the late 1960s and early 70’s. This Paper/Manufactured by Kodak was used in the 1970’s and 80’s. I haven’t seen a legitimate press photo with this but original snapshots can have branding. Original press photos’ backs will feel more like paper being that’s exactly what they are.
I’m going to say this one time, press photos came from working newspaper archives. They were usually thrown in a file and pulled out when a story ran on someone to have a visual aid. They are very rarely in pristine condition because of this. Dings, small rips, scratches, and dents are not uncommon with these pictures. There will be age on your photograph, regardless of how it was cared for. Yellowing and foxing are common on press photo backs from the 1920’s-1960’s.
Prints vs. Photographs
This can be confusing but there are significant differences. A print is just that, a print of a photograph. The print was not created using chemicals and light exposures, it was printed off of a machine. Lithograph, giclee, half-tone, laser print, digital prints, etc. are all different types of prints. Photographers will sometimes have prints and photographs made of the same image, with the prints selling for much less. Magazine and newspaper images are prints as well. An easy way to tell is to look at your image very closely. Magazines are a good place to start being you can see the dots (fuzzy but visible) that make up the image. You can also do this with help from a magnifying glass or microscope.
Original vs Not
Originals are the most collectible and hardest to obtain. These were printed from the original negative and are from the first (or only!) printing. Do note that the photographer may or may not have had anything to do with the actual process of developing the film (those that they were involved with usually will have their initials or a stamp).
Vintage photos are photos that were printed shortly after the photo was taken. My rule of thumb is within five years of the photo being taken if it was within the last century (This changes with the subject and time. A photo from the 70’s fits with this but a 1930’s reprint of a photo from the 20’s would be vintage). These don’t come up as often.
Printed later photos are just that, photos that were printed significantly later. You see a lot of these used for obituaries but this is also the number one category of fakes being it includes home prints or scans. I know I once received pictures that were claimed to be press photos but were instead home prints with horrible pixelation by a seller off of Etsy. I never received my money back and they claimed they didn’t know they were fakes. Beware of printed later photos that look too good to be true!
Original printed later photos are photos printed much later from the original negative. They can be released by the photographer or company that owns the copyright or someone who has bought a negative. They are remarkably popular on eBay and are usually priced around $9.99-$14.99. Most sellers will tell you that they are selling reprints from the original negative although I have seen some who post these as being original and it’s not until you read the listing that you see it is from the original negative. These are usually printed on demand. I have mixed feelings on these. You can find some beautiful rare photos if you are looking for something to frame and don’t want to worry about sun exposure, UV blocking glass, etc.. Yet they aren’t nearly as valuable and, depending on the subject you are looking for, can be priced about the same as an original.
Later generation and second generation photos are photos that aren’t vintage and are usually a photo of a photo (like one that I received from the Etsy order I talked about earlier) or a copy of the original negative. Their quality isn’t great. You see these on cheap illegal prints and in magazines. While magazines can be valuable, these photos are not. If you find a print or magazine you’re absolutely in love with for the photo, have at it, but realize that your chances of making a profit strictly based off of the photographs inside is nil.
Nearly all of the photos above can fall into one of two categories, official and unofficial. Press photos are official. The copyright holder allowed the newspaper, magazine, etc. to print it (or printed it themselves). These photos are usually stamped. Unofficial prints are the people I talked about in original printed later photos or someone printing them from their home. Unofficial prints are almost always illegal.
Stamping is another way to make sure your photo is real but do note that stamps have been faked in the past. Stamps might contain the photographer’s name, as seen on the top right of the photo on the right or they may have the copyright holding company’s name, as seen on the top left Associated Press photo. Most companies used the same stamp font and wording for long stretches of time. They usually also stayed with the same color although you may find legitimate photos with different color stamps.
Another thing to look for is the zip code on the back of a photo. If it’s the US 5-digit, the photo was taken after 1962. Also note that some photos will have multiple stamps. Some will have the photographer and the news service while others will have multiple newspaper photo department stamps as archives have been bought and sold over the years. Look for the earliest date for help on figuring out when the photo was used and/or taken. Some photos will only have the date printed on the back. I tend to stay away from these unless it shows some of the other tell-tell signs of being a vintage photo or if it has a snipe (the photo’s caption) copied on the front. Some photos will only have a handwritten caption on the back. This was common with collector’s or small newspapers. Again, look for other signs but it’s okay to be weary.
Wire Photos vs. Press Photos
A lot of press photos you see on eBay were actually wire photos. These photos were sent over a wire and printed on a newspaper’s machine. Press photos were actually sent out by the copyright owner and were run in evening editions of newspapers or the next day. Wire photos tend to have a date stamp or the stamp from the archive. They also are usually less clear and “grainy” when compared to a press photo. Wire photos will have a look of being copied and include the snipe on the front being it would have been too expensive to send front and back.
Editing marks are common. A lot of times, a newspaper might only want to run the face of a subject for their story, like in obituaries or gossip columns. These marks don’t personally bug me but some collectors find them to be unnecessary or ugly. I haven’t seen a fake with marking because this limits who will buy the picture.
Note that most press photos come in 8×10, 7×5, and 9×7. 11x14s are rare and their price will reflect that.
Look for silvering on silver gelatin prints. This is when the originally black tones on a photograph look silver from age. This is a natural process and is (one of the only) well received discoloration by collectors. Silvering will not be on all photos but if it’s on them, you have a winner.
Companies to look for: ACME 1923-1952, Associated Press (AP) 1926-1993, International News 1909-1957, UP & UPA late 1800’s-1958, UPI 1958-Present, various studios.
The most obvious date is the stamped date on the back of a photo but not every photo has this. My main advice is to really know the subject you’re looking to buy pictures of. Women tend to be easier because of changes in hairstyle, makeup, and clothing. This can at least help you find a range for a photo and will require further dating. Another thing to look for on publicity photos is the studio number. Recently I was in a Joan Crawford group where a photo of Joan was posted. Dates were narrowed down from 1932-1934. I noticed the publicity number and looked for a known picture of her with a similar number. Sure enough, there was a famous picture of her with Jackie Cooper from 1933 that was dated roughly 100 photos after the photo in question. With how many photos Joan was taking (around 5,000 a year at this point) so we know that the photo had to be taken soon before. Note that every photo was dated by a studio but not every photo was released. Stars would have a number attached to them. This usually was their initials or another letter identification that was used on only their photos. There are exceptions such as younger starlet photos with a bigger actress or actor. These photos will have the number of the bigger personality or a movie’s number if it was a publicity still but you will likely know when it was taken if you know your subject’s history.