Some of the most valuable and sought after baseball cards in the hobby are the 1880s sepia photo cards N172 Old Judges, Lone Jack, Four Base Hits, Kalamazoo Bats, Gypsy Queen, SH Hess, Yum Yum Tobacco and G & B Gum Tobacco. This article shows how these cards are authenticated. Even if you chose not to become an expert on the subject or are scared to authenticate one of these cards on your own, you can still pick up quick tips for identifying common reprints.
These cards are photographs. They weren't printed with ink and printing presses, but were developed by a photography studio. That they are actual photographs made with period technology is the key to their authentication.
The pictures in a newspaper or magazine or on modern baseball cards are photomechanical reproductions of photographs. While a mechanical print, such as a lithograph or photoengraving, is made by a printing press pressing ink against paper or cardstock, a photograph is made by the subtle interaction of light with chemicals. A photographic image is made by a chemical process.
A handheld microscope will allow one to easily distinguish between a photograph and a non-photograph. Close examination of a photograph will reveal great subtly in tones and shades. The tones can be so subtle that they seem as if you can't get the microscope into focus. Under the microscope, the photomechanical print will be made up of tiny dots or similar ink patterns. Take a strong magnifying glass and examine a newspaper or magazine picture or recent baseball card to see what these dots look like.
Most reprints of these 1880s photo cards have the dot pattern
The vast majority of reprints of known real photo cards are quickly identified due to the dot pattern in the player's image. If you see a multi color dot pattern in the image of an Old Judge or Four Base Hits, you know it's a reprint. It's as simple as that. A beginner with a strong magnifying glass should have no trouble identifying the average reprint of these cards.
As counterfeits and reprints occasionally (though rarely) exist in real photo form, the following is a more in depth look at the processes used to make these early real photo cards.
1800s real photo baseball cards : albumen prints
1800s real photo baseball cards were made with the albumen photographic processes. They are often called albumen photographs or albumen prints. In photography, a photographic image on a piece of paper is commonly called a print, even though it wasn't made with a printing press.
While there were other types of photographs in the 1800s, the albumen print was by far the most common form of paper photograph in the United States and around the world. Nearly all post-1850s paper photographs, baseball cards or otherwise, are albumen. Even non-collectors associate horse-and-buggy pictures with the soft, sentimental tones that were produced by the albumen process.
During its 1800s century heyday, the albumen process was used by a wide range of photographers and for a wide range of photos. It was used by famous photographers and unknown small town studios. It was used to make the priceless photo hung today in a Paris or New York museum and the Joseph Hall cabinet card sold by Heritage Auctions, official portraits of Queen Victoria and many of the photos in your family collection. This means that, by studying the cabinet card of your great great uncle or that $2 cabinet you bought at a flea market, you are also studying the qualities of the Old Judge.
The albumen process was time-consuming and difficult in the extreme compared to modern photography. Most practitioners were well-trained professionals with a working knowledge of chemistry. Except for a few technically gifted and wealthy hobbyists, there were no amateur photographers as today.
The process required a unique kind of chemically treated paper that was mostly imported from France and Germany. Photography is a chemical process and the photographer couldn't use any old typing or writing paper he got at the local dime store. Only a few factories in the world made albumen paper. This is lucky for us today, because this albumen paper has distinct qualities that are usually straightforward to identify.
One of the distinct qualities of 1800s albumen prints is that they are on super thin paper. The paper was so thin and delicate that the prints had to be mounted. This means that the photographic print was pasted to a heavy backing. Usually the backing is a sheet of cardboard, but albumen prints can also be found mounted in or on books, programs and other items. All unaltered 1800s albumen baseball cards have a cardboard backing. With the N172 Old Judges, the albumen print is the same size as the backing. With the N173 Old Judge, Police Gazette Cabinet Cards and other 1800s baseball cabinets cards the print is pasted to a larger backing. As these cards have the thin photographic print pasted to cardboard, the front images and backs will have different glosses. The fronts often have a gloss, while the backs are often matte.
The albumen images are usually well aged. This includes the common sepia or yellowish tone, often along with fading of the image details in areas and foxing (brownish redish age spots). Foxing can sometimes be found on the back of the cards. Particularly due to different storage, the severity and type of aging will vary. For collectors, albumen photos are best stored away from light, excessive heat and humidity. An example of excessive heat is storing them next to a radiator. When originally made, albumen images were not sepia but closer to black and white. You will sometimes find examples that were well stored and retain these colors. Albumen images are often glossy.
Many albumen images have very fine web-like pattern of cracking. This is often seen up close with the naked eye. Sometimes a normal magnifying glass or loupe is needed. The cracking, which does not appear on all albumen prints, can be throughout the entire image or in isolated areas.
One of the keys to authenticating albumen prints is examining the image area under a microscope. Unlike with the later gelatin silver or Kodak photos, the paper fibers can be seen on the albumen print. It takes some practice, but with experience it's not difficult to see the paper fibers with a microscope of 50X or more power. When judging the authenticity of an expensive albumen photograph, for myself or others, I always take my trusty microscope and look for paper fibers in the image.
Though uncommon, it is possible to find 1880s albumen prints that are pink (by far the most common), blue, green, yellow and other bright colors. The process to add dye to the albumen paper was invented at this time. The pink old judges are commonly underdeveloped (images too light). You will see pink N172 Old Judges from time to time.
Some albumen prints have a distinct effect called 'silvering.' Silvering is when it appears as if the silver has come to surface of the image. Sort of like a silver patina. If it exists, it is more noticeable at the edges and in the dark areas of the image, and when viewed at a specific angle to the light. If you change the angle of the photo to a light source, the silvering will be come stronger and darker, sometimes disappearing. It can range in intensity. Sometimes it is only revealed under close examination when holding the photo nearing a 180 degree to a light. Sometimes it is obvious in an online auction image. Importantly for collectors, silvering is an aging process. In simple words, a photograph with natural silvering wasn't made yesterday.
Quick summary of key points of this article:
Most reprints and counterfeits of these cards are quickly identified by the dot pattern in the image seen under magnification. As they are photographs, the original cards have no ink dot pattern. The genuine cards have very thin paper photos attached to a piece of cardboard. The image fronts will have a different gloss (shinier) than the backs back. You can see the paper fibers through a microscope. Some cards will have silvering in the images and foxing on front or back.
As touched on, the circa 1880s cabinet card issues N173 Old Judge, Police Gazette, 1890s Newsboy Tobacco and Kalamazoo Bats Cabinets are albumen photos. The Peck & Snyder cards are also albumen photos. This means they are authenticated the same way.
The N172 Old Judges, Four Base Hits and other small albumen photocards are sometimes found skinned or rebacked. Skinned means the thin paper photographic print was pealed off from the backing. Rebacked means the thin paper print has been reatached to a new backing.
Though they may at first resemble the albumen photo cards, the 1890s Just So and N300 Mayo baseball card issues are not albumen photos, but mechanical prints. Authentication of these and related card issues will be covered in a later column.
To see graded and authenticated 19th century baseball cards on eBay, click here.