Antiques in our back yard

By Julian Walker
Times Staff Writer

Before there was television, movies, video games and recorded music, entertainment was derived from such pursuits as art appreciation, literature, live theater and textile-based handicrafts.
Over time, these art forms have lost audiences to less-participatory, more mind-numbing exercises, creating a couch-potato culture. And because it seems that movies, video games and home entertainment centers are what hold people’s attention these days, history buffs and art aficionados wised up and realized that one way to force-feed culture to the masses was to put it on television.
PBS was the front-runner in promoting educational programming. Later, cable networks like The Learning Channel, Discovery and the History Channel, to name a few, realized the potential audience for niche programming.
One of the more popular shows on PBS is Antiques Roadshow, which features expert appraisers assessing the values and explaining the stories of hidden treasures and artifacts that everyday folks have discovered in attics, basements and at flea markets.
Several spin-offs, including Find!, featuring the famed Keno brothers of Roadshow, debuted last year. One of the early episodes featured the identical twin (Leigh and Leslie) antique experts’ visit to the Historical Society of Frankford at 1507 Orthodox St.
“That day was incredible,” Leigh Keno recalled of the visit to the Historical Society during a recent phone interview with the Northeast Times. “We could’ve done ten days there. We just scratched the surface of the collection during our visit. Every drawer we opened had something to explore.”
During the taping last October, the Kenos came across a daguerreotype (a type of photograph from the 1850s) in the Frankford collection that they believed had value.
“The one thing that is exciting about the show is that it is fairly spontaneous. You never know what you’ll come across,” added Leigh Keno.
They contacted a colleague from Roadshow, auctioneer and renowned anthropologist Wes Cowan, to confirm that hunch. Based on their description, Cowan informed the duo that they had uncovered a rare daguerreotype by artist Robert H. Vance. He initially estimated the value between $30,000 and $50,0000.
It fetched much more during bidding at a May 20 auction at Cowan’s Auctions Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The daguerreotype went for $143,750. Less taxes and fees, the Historical Society of Frankford netted roughly $110,000.
Those funds are greatly needed at the volunteer-run repository of Northeast history and culture, said board member Debbie Klak. It provides an infusion of cash to a fledgling capital campaign that organizers hope will raise the nearly $1 million needed to completely refurbish the society’s 100-year-old building.
Parting with the artifact wasn’t a difficult decision for the historical society, once it was discovered that the daguerreotype had value but no real relevance to the museum mission statement, which is to collect items of historical significance to Frankford and the Northeast, Klak said.
In fact, the image depicts a banner hung from a landmark San Francisco, Calif., building that reads “The Great Man Has Fallen. We Mourn His Loss.”
The photo was taken on May 15 or 16, 1856. The banner commemorated the death of muckraking newspaper editor James King of William. (King had legally broadened his name to distinguish himself from another James King.)
On May 14, 1856, King was gunned down on a city street by rival newspaper editor and local politician James P. Casey, who was furious after King ran an editorial accusing him of election fraud and being an ex-convict.
Casey, who also served as sheriff of San Francisco, was later lynched by a mob of vigilantes. Such emotional citizen enforcement was common in those days, due to the lawlessness of San Francisco during the years of the California Gold Rush.
Vance, the artist, was one of the premier photographers in San Francisco at the time. Daguerreotype came to prominence in 1839, said Cowan, and was “the most important photographic process in use because it was commercially viable.”
To capture an image, base material, in most cases a copper plate, was covered with a thin layer of silver that was sensitized by using chemicals to reveal the picture, explained Cowan, who, in addition to running an auction house and appearing on Roadshow, is a co-host of History Detectives on PBS.
What is so rare about the Vance daguerreotype discovered in the Frankford Historical Society collection is its size — 6 by 8 inches, as opposed to the normal daguerreotype size of 2 by 4 inches — pristine condition and historical significance.
Asked about the sale price of the image, Cowan said: “It didn’t surprise me that much because of the rarity of the image. I tend to be very conservative in pre-sale auction estimates because it generates more interest.”
Also pleasantly surprised by the sale price was Klak, who traveled to Cincinnati for the auction.
“I thought it was kind of a crapshoot,” she said. “I trusted the Kenos when they said it was valuable, but I was amazed when bidding started at sixty-thousand. I knew right then it was going to be big for us.”
What the Kenos, Cowan and others hope to achieve through their television work is increased awareness among the public of the antique treasures right under our noses.
In its own way, the historical society hopes to be part of that cultural renaissance.
Founded in 1905 by a group of Quaker businessmen and the Society of Free Traders, the Frankford Historical Society sought to catalog and chronicle the effects of a city section whose culture, as the founders saw it, rivaled other parts of Philadelphia but had been largely neglected.
The collection amassed over the years is downright breathtaking, and several pieces of the museum’s collection date to the late 1600s.
In fact, Frankford (and the Northeast by extension) has a rich history. Swedes and Quakers settled the neighborhood, originally a separate borough with its own government, in 1682. Frankford didn’t join the city until 1854 — a result of the Act of Consolidation enacted that year. (The act incorporated all of the towns within the county of Philadelphia into the City of Philadelphia and created its current boundaries.)
The Frankford neighborhood boasts one of the city’s oldest Quaker meetinghouses — it dates to 1775 — and is the onetime home of the Frankford Yellow Jackets, the first pro football club.
To restore its status, the museum recently contracted an archivist to organize its collection and write technical assistance grants to be used for the betterment of the Historical Society of Frankford.
Though it hasn’t operated regularly as a public museum in nearly two decades, monthly lectures still are held at the historical society, and plans are in the works to open it to the public in some capacity, either for research or visitations.
But with limited money and volunteers, expanding activities there is difficult.
“We’re at the very early stages of what will be a long process, but we’re going to do it,” said Klak. “Eventually, it will be open more.” ••
Annual memberships to the Historical Society of Frankford are $15 for individuals, $25 for families and $75 for businesses. Donations can be mailed to the Frankford Historical Society, P.O. Box 4888, Philadelphia, PA 19124. For more information, call 215-743-6030.
Reporter Julian Walker can be reached at 215-354-3038 or jwalker@phillynews.com