Why some Victorian photographs fetch high prices on eBay

PLUS: Sell ornate antique fans on eBay

Very high-value Victorian photographs can be found at boot sales, flea markets, jumble sales and in charity shops. You’ll even find them selling on eBay, in albums or in bulk, and sometimes containing several really high-price items along with lower-value images.

My own highest-priced Victorian photographs have depicted men and women who made their mark on society and remain well-known today, such as leading doctors and lawyers, top-ranking army officers, famous scientists and writers, and more besides.

Most such people were from privileged backgrounds, due to photography being very expensive, and also because only children from wealthy families were educated for top jobs in medical and legal circles, or in politics and the arts, industry and commerce.

So a large album containing 200–300 small photographs called ‘CDVs’ – cartes de visites – depicting obviously privileged people will more-than-likely include several eminent Victorians whose images fetch high prices today, especially where the person is identified on his image, or you otherwise know who the person is.

People collect photographs of Victorian men and women because of the following reasons:

  • Interest in the subject’s business or job – so dentists today might collect images of famous past dentists, golf enthusiasts might collect images of famous 19th century players, and so on.
  • The person lived or worked in a collectable topographical area. So people collecting postcards and photographs of Castle Eden, for example, close to where I live, might also buy images of the Burdon family who lived in the village and were leading industrialists and politicians in the late 19th century.
  • The buyer collects autographs, not photographs, but the subject just happens to have signed his name beneath his image.
  • And numerous other reasons

Your best hunting ground is local auction salerooms – especially in rural areas, where you’ll often find Victorian photograph albums which, alongside family photographs (cabinet portraits and CDVs), are also home to interesting social history illustrations such as bicycles, prams, and children playing with teddy bears and rocking horses. These additional features are usually worth a premium over their subject-only counterparts.

Small regional auction salerooms are great places to find complete family collections, retained sometimes over 100+ years and featuring vintage alongside more recent photographic images.

This is especially so at sales of rural estates and farms that have passed down through several generations until someone decides to sell up. These can be a goldmine of fabulous photographs from very early times and a positive Aladdin’s Cave of other paper collectibles like postcards and newspapers.

At most buying venues, if you find one potentially record-breaking-priced photograph in an album or collection, you’ll very often find a hoard of similar items in the same lot or selling separately alongside.

Very early albums containing photographs are invariably worth buying in expectation of making higher prices on eBay, but be careful and don’t risk more than you can afford. In the least you should get your money back, and at best you could make £100 or more on some photographs, and you’ll hardly ever lose money on the deal.

Just one very important thing to bear in mind: just because an auction listing reads ‘Victorian photograph album’ it doesn’t mean there are photographs inside. Check the contents, if any, before bidding.

Sell ornate antique fans on eBay

Fans have been around for thousands of years, but it is mainly those from the 1800s and 1900s that are most collectable today. Though many types and styles of fan appeared over the centuries, it’s the folding type that can be splayed out and retracted into a compact stick shape that proves most popular with collectors today.

Fans were not always for staying cool in hot climates; many were used as fashion accessories, to hide blushing and facial blemishes, for flirting and to remain anonymous in public.

For us, they have just one main purpose – to fetch high prices on eBay. Some do fetch high prices, especially the most delicate types covered in lace, or hand-painted or craftsman carved. The more elaborate, generally speaking, the more money a fan will fetch.

Most costly of all are fans encrusted with jewels and precious metals, as well as some art deco and art nouveau types created by hand during the 1920s and ’30s.

Lace fans represent a popular collectible in their own right, especially early hand-woven silk lace filigree types. Lace fans are easily torn and quick to fade, so fetch a high premium in good condition. Silk lace was very rarely used, and being so delicate, few silk lace fans have survived the decades unblemished by use or exposure to sunlight and dampness. Those that have survived in good condition are extremely collectable, very rare and sometimes incredibly expensive.

In recent times some high prices have been paid on eBay for fans that I swear are similar to many I’ve seen selling for just a few pounds in small-town auction salerooms.

On eBay, an antique French lace and mother of pearl fan with box recently fetched £180; a folding paper fan with an advertisement for ‘Parfum Pommeia’ made £75; and several late Victorian fans made from paper and hand-painted with butterflies and flowers raised over £50 each.


  • Fans often attract heavy bidding, not because they are beautiful or collectable, but because they interest people with widely different collecting tastes. Some people want fans per se, for example; while others collect the theme depicted on fans, such as dogs or Japanese art; and some just buy fans with famous past owners.
  • So when you’re selling, remember always to study possible collecting themes associated with each item and consider listing in two eBay categories: vintage fans can be listed under (usually) Collectables > Vanity / Perfume / Grooming > Other Vanity / Grooming, and whatever sub-category attracts the alternative collector.
  • Look for quality fans created on delicate hand-carved structures made from bamboo and finely carved wood (sometimes ivory and horn), embellished with hand-painted paper and silk or impacted with fine jewels and gold leaf.
  • The earliest fans were hand-woven in bobbin and needlelace style, often from silk: these are the rarest and most desirable of all collectable fans, and also the most expensive.
  • Condition is vitally important to the price of fans. Because they were meant to be used, not stored away, most fans either got broken or discarded when they fell out of fashion. Heat and strong sunlight are the worst enemies of these delicate items and both cause colours to fade and lace or paper to disintegrate and grow mouldy.
  • Fans should be stored in acid-free boxes, placed flat and fully opened, with padding below the bottom fan and more padding with acid-free tissue paper between fans placed on top.
  • Fans should not be opened and framed. Stretching causes stress that tugs at the folds and can cause splitting. A glass covering might keep out the dust, but it also leads to foxing and sweating, which destroys and fades the fabric and eventually causes delicate materials to fall away from the fan’s basic structure.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about two of my own best-selling collectibles on eBay.

This article first appeared on Auction Genie. Read more and comment here