ALBANY, N.Y. — Photographers from Brown Brothers hauled their cameras from Ellis Island to Broadway to Yankee Stadium to snap pictures of street urchins and socialites, hardhats and mobsters, athletes and entertainers, capturing nearly every aspect of New York City life in the first six decades of the 20th century.
Now, the more than 1 million photographs and negatives the company compiled are up for sale.
While the collection includes tens of thousands of images of the Big Apple, the bulk of the photographs capture "every conceivable historical personality and event and place" across the U.S. and beyond from the turn of the previous century through the 1950s, said Eric Caren, a prominent historic documents collector who has been contracted to sell the collection.
"It was like I walked into a time capsule," said Caren, who noted some photos date to the 1880s because the brothers acquired other photo companies' stock.
While some photography collections held by institutions number in the millions of images, few, if any, in private hands can approach the Brown Brothers' in terms of quality and scope, Caren said.
Images of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911 and the sinking of the Titanic the following year are part of the collection. Celebrities and other headliners of the day are well-represented, from Mark Twain and the Wright Brothers to Teddy Roosevelt and Babe Ruth.
Stored in more than 7,000 boxes, most of the vintage prints have information written on the back in pencil, providing vital information on the date and subject of the photographs.
The sale price starts at $5 million, and Caren said he has already gotten interest in the collection from such major institutions such as Columbia and Yale universities, California's Huntington Library and the New York Public Library.
The massive collection's ultimate sale price is hard to determine. Caren previously sold 300 items from his own collection of rare newspapers, photographs and documents dating back to the 17th century that fetched more than $1.3 million at auction. And in 2012 a collection of 20,000 daguerreotypes and other early photographic equipment sold for $15 million to a Toronto museum.
Raymond Collins, a managing partner at Sterling, Pennsylvania-based Brown Brothers, said as much as 30 percent of the photographs were taken in New York City.
According to the company's website, the Brown brothers were photographers who provided pictures to New York newspapers at a time when the technology for publishing photos in daily publications was still new. Since most dailies didn't have their own staff photographers yet, publications such as The New York Times hired the Browns to cover news events. Brown Brothers eventually grew to a staff of 12 photographers.
"Their credit pops up everywhere, from National Geographic to the Times," said Michael Lorenzini, curator of photography for New York City's Municipal Archives, home to more than 3 million images. "When they started out there wasn't a lot of competition."