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Case Study: A Dealer’s Wishful Thinking and the Value of a Second Opinion

By Perry M. Frohne

Courtesy of the author.
Courtesy of the author.

At the recent Chicago Civil War show, I was approached by an experienced collector looking for my opinion on a carte de visite. The image was supposedly of Brig. Gen. John Buford, the famous Gettysburg cavalry commander. The collector explained that he was pretty sure it was Buford. But he was confused by what the seller was telling him and about the writing on the back of the image.

He handed the image to me, and it appeared genuine. On first impression the officer sure looked like a younger John Buford. This image could fool most people. But then I turned it over, and written on the back in period ink it read: 

Captain A.W. Putnam 7th Inf’y U.S.A.
Born Feb. 2d, 1826, Rutland, Mass.
Died May 2d, 1863, New Orleans, La.

I told the collector that the mystery was solved on the back of the image. This obviously wasn’t Buford!

The collector didn’t appear to be convinced. He added that the seller had told him that the officer named on the back, Capt. Putnam, had actually owned this Buford carte de visite. Then, after Putnam died, a family member or someone who knew that Putnam had owned this image of Buford wrote Putnam’s name and life dates on the back.

The collector asked me if that was possible? I told him that the seller was telling a falsehood (I did not use those words of course), and that it was actually Capt. Atlee W. Putnam of the 7th U.S. Infantry.  

The collector was still not 100 percent sure. So, I did a quick online search for a Buford image, took a photo of the Putnam carte de visite and compared the faces side by side for him to see. It was obvious it wasn’t Buford! 

Glass negatives of Atlee, left, and Buford. National Portrait Gallery (Atlee) and Library of Congress (Buford).
Glass negatives of Atlee, left, and Buford. National Portrait Gallery (Atlee) and Library of Congress (Buford).

Disappointed, he thanked me for the help and we parted ways. I was disappointed that someone with that many years of experience would fall for this story, and that a dealer would concoct such a tale. I was, however, also pleased that the story set off the collector’s fake radar and he acted wisely to seek a second opinion.

The main lesson of this case study? When in doubt, seek the counsel of others you trust.

Perry Frohne is the owner of Frohne’s Historic Military. He has been investigating fake images for more than 20 years. He is a MI Senior Editor.

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