Thursday, August 19, 2010


I'm doing research on some "autograph cards," also known variously as "cartes de visite," "albumen prints," "albumen cards," and "cabinet cards." They were popular during the latter half of the 1800s, and often showed pictures of famous people and places. Cartes de visite tended to be small, like a driver's license, while albumen/cabinet cards tended to be 4.25 inches by 6.5 inches. Their early popularity snowballed into a fad that became known as "cardomania," with people on either side of the Atlantic happily collecting, trading, and displaying their cards. The cards in our possession are from the 1890s, when the fad was on the wane.

The cards were found-- once again-- in a pile of antique knick-knacks given to us by my late great-aunt Gertrude. We have boxes and boxes of old items, many of which were already old when Aunt Gertrude was young. This particular find, a collection of cabinet cards featuring musical luminaries from the 1890s, is quite a trove. Almost every card is autographed; some in pencil, most in pen; some with musical notation, most without; some with dates and notes, others with no dates or notes. I had given these cards to my brother Sean for safe keeping, but curiosity killed the cat, so I asked for them back and have been trying to figure out just who these folks are. One card has me stumped. It depicts a plump man (possibly an opera singer), and the back of the card is signed simply, "Sedelmeyer." Online research shows there's a certain Charles Sedelmeyer, an Austrian art dealer and collector who spent much of his time in Paris. Consistent with Murphy's Law, the pictures of Charles Sedelmeyer look nothing like the Sedelmeyer on the cabinet card, and I'm left to wonder... who is this Sedelmeyer?

For what it's worth: if Sean were to auction these cards off to a target audience that appreciated them (fans of music history, for example), he could probably net more than $100-$300 per card, based on what I've seen at various auction sites featuring albumen/cabinet cards. There are 19 of them, all in decent condition except for one, which is missing a corner. Sedelmeyer is one of five cards that I can't immediately identify.

Two of the cards might be of interest even to the layman:

1. Adèle Aus der Ohe, child-prodigy and student of Franz Liszt. Her autograph is done in a tentative, timid hand, in what appears to be pencil.

2. Theodore Thomas ("Sept. 1889" noted on card), founder of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

These two cards alone could probably sell for a bundle, Sean willing. My project, over the next few days, will be to track down the identities of the five mysterious cards. We'll soon know who this troublesome Sedelmeyer is. Oh, yes... we'll soon know.



jeanie oliver said...

Hi Kevin,
Most days, I treat you like I do Professor Jeff Hodges and sit in the back of the class reading your respective posts and learning.
However, this post has captured my interest in more than an educational manner. I believe that I can now identify some cards that were in my grandmother's things. They belonged to her mother and grandmother. If I can find them, I may have a new project!
Many thanks,


Maven said...

Is that ghost house still in existence. I think of you telling me of your great aunt Gertrude and wonder still about that house's haunted nature.

Kevin Kim said...


I think the Spy House is still around, but I haven't been there in ages. Yeah, Aunt Gertrude was convinced that over thirty ghosts inhabited the place. That used to creep me out. Might make for a great episode of "Ghost Hunters," though-- a show I never watch (and which, in my opinion, has been perfectly placed on the SyFy Channel). I'd watch a Spy House-related episode, though.