First photo of a First Lady sells for $456,000

The photo was discovered when the consignors cleaned out the basement of a deceased relative

Cover Image for First photo of a First Lady sells for $456,000
President Zachary Taylor coined the term “First Lady” in Madison's eulogy. (Credit: Sotheby's)

A recently discovered photograph of Dolley Madison was purchased at auction by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery for $456,000 at Sotheby’s, more than six times its pre-sale estimate.

The daguerreotype — the first widely used photographic method, involving a sheet of copper plated in silver — is believed to be “the earliest extant photographic portrait of a First Lady,” according to the auction house.

It will join the 1843 photo of John Quincy Adams, the first known photo taken of a U.S. President, in the National Portrait Gallery. Sotheby’s also sold that photo of President Adams for $360,500 in 2017.

“The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is delighted to have acquired this exceptional work on behalf of the nation. It will now be preserved in perpetuity for the public,” Ann Shumard, Senior Curator of Photographs at Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, said in a release.

The Dolley Madison photo was taken in 1846, when she was 78, decades after her husband, James Madison, concluded his term as the fourth U.S. President in 1817.

Previously unknown to the collector world, the photo was only uncovered when the unidentified consignors found it cleaning out the basement of a deceased relative.

Dolley Madison is credited with creating the role of First Lady as we now know it, becoming the first wife of a President to associate herself formally with a charity project — a home for orphaned girls — and earning a reputation as a powerful figure in Washington, using relationships to influence political decisions.

Her most famous moment came in the War of 1812. As British troops set fire to the city, she stayed behind, ensuring to safely remove and protect vital historical documents such as a famous portrait of George Washington.

Upon her 1849 death, the procession was attended by thousands in the streets of Washington and President Zachary Taylor coined the term “First Lady” in her eulogy.

Some of the most valuable historic photos feature President Abraham Lincoln, such as the first image taken of Lincoln as president, which sold for $206,500 in 2009.

Also from that era, one of the only surviving portrait of Billy the Kid, originally purchased for $10 at a flea market in 2011, was sold in 2015 for more than $2 million.

Will Stern is a reporter and editor for cllct.