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Oldest Known Photo of a U.S. President Found

John Quincy Adams was photographed in March 1843.

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John Quincy Adams was known for being a strong diarist, who wrote about all the most interesting — and mundane — parts of his life as president. From this, we know that he sat for some portraits and photographs, especially during the last decade of his life.

And now, one of those photographs has resurfaced. It was given to as a gift to a fellow representative, Horace Everett, and it remained in that family until recently, when one of the descendants realized who the photograph was of and decided it was time to find it a worthy home. The daguerreotype will be sold at auction at Sotheby’s in October.

“It is undoubtably the most exciting piece that I have had the opportunity and privilege of handling,” Emily Bierman, the head of Sotheby’s photographs department, told RealClearLife. She has been with the organization for a little over 10 years.

John Quincy Adams portrait
(Sotheby’s)

There are very few comparables to something this “rare, early and important,” says Bierman. The daguerreotype is estimated at $150,000 to $250,000. In it, Adams stares forebodingly at the camera, but you can also see his socked feet and casual pose, which Bierman says makes the extremely commanding man more “human.”

“The first thing I think you notice is his face, because John Quincy Adams is a legendary figure within American History, yet very few people have a sense of what he looks like because a painting is a different way of representing someone,” Bierman said.

In his diary, Adams recorded his first visit to the Washington studio of Philip Haas, writes the New York Times. He sat for three daguerreotypes.

“The operation is performed in half a minute; but is yet altogether incomprehensible to me,” Adams wrote, according to The Times. “It would seem as easy to stamp a fixed portrait from the reflection of a mirror; but how wonderful would that reflection itself be, if we were not familiarized to it from childhood.”

When he returned a week later, he interrupted a sitting of Everett, explained Bierman to RealClearLife, and Adams sat for three more daguerreotypes. At some point he gave one to Everett.

On the back of the recently discovered daguerreotype is a patchwork of labels. One appears to have the former president’s handwriting, and another appears to be a bookplate with the Everett family crest, on which someone else wrote “Presented by J.Q.A. to his Kinsman H.E. 1843,” and noted that it was said to be “one of the earliest daguerreotypes,” reports The Times. 

Bierman hopes that this will cause people to look a little more closely at what they have and think a little more carefully about the history of photography. Maybe some other important photographs will surface in the coming years.

“I think we’re all in agreement that the most important part of the story is the physical photograph and the history it represents,” Bierman said to RealClearLife. “What a special time we’re in to have it be preserved.”