Sadie Phifer was nine years old and working in a cotton mill in 1908 when she was photographed by Lewis Wickes Hine. She started working eleven-hour shifts at the age of seven. It was around this time that Hine became a one-man National Geographic. He stormed around the country using ruses to sneak into factories and onto fields and streets to photograph children working at all hours of the day and night.
Lewis Hine was an American Charles Dickens, using a camera instead of a pen to expose the heartbreaking conditions endured by child laborers.
He also took famous photographs of immigrants, and you’ve undoubtedly seen his breathtaking images of construction on the Empire State building. Hine was a member of the famed Photo League of New York, as well as an inspiration to the group, which received his photographs and negatives upon his passing.
There are two great mysteries involving the photographs of Lewis Hine.
You see, Hine managed to sign some of his photographs on photographic paper that wasn’t manufactured until decades after his death. And, even though those photographs were sold as authentic Lewis Hine prints—potentially creating millions of dollars in fraudulent sales—the person responsible never faced criminal consequences.
Those are our mysteries.
THE BEGINNING OF AN INVESTIGATION
The daughter of a member of the famed Photo League of New York asked me to investigate the Lewis Hine matter. She had known the participants in this drama, and yet she didn’t know how the play ended. It had been a news story from 1999 through 2001 that caught the attention of The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in its “Art & Money” section.
But it was a story with no ending ...
… just a beginning and the start of a middle. Allegations had been levied. The FBI became involved. Attorneys were hired. Stories had been written and printed. But nothing has been published about what happened, or didn’t happen, since then.
What I needed was the FBI file.
THE FBI FILE
Using a Freedom of Information Act request, I acquired the FBI file. The allegation that formed the basis of the complaint was that another photographer, Walter Rosenblum, obtained an assortment of Lewis Hine negatives and prints after Hine’s death, and that Rosenblum subsequently created and sold new prints claiming that they had been created (and sometimes signed) by Hine himself.
Collectors of Art and History pay a premium for works produced by the hand of the Master. More so, if those works are signed by that same hand. Walter Rosenblum had worked with Lewis Hine, and he had received Hine’s prints and negatives from the photographer’s son when Hine passed. So, his sale of Hine prints seemed akin to a golden provenance to the vintage photography market. This is what the redacted allegations looked like in the FBI file:
The FBI file contained a number of other items, including newspaper articles that had already been written by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. It also held a very curious and exhaustive and conclusory forensic study of the allegedly fake prints.
And yet the FBI file, like all of the newspaper reports, lacked one essential element: A conclusion. What happened to the Lewis Hine prints? What happened to Walter Rosenblum? What was the outcome of the “very large civil law suit against subject Rosenblum,” as described in the FBI complaint?
THE VERY LARGE CIVIL LAW SUIT AGAINST SUBJECT ROSENBLUM
The next step in my investigation was to find what the FBI complaint described as a “very large civil law suit.” Since most of the key participants were located in New York, New Mexico, California and Michigan, this would be easy. However, a comprehensive search of court filings in those states turned up nothing. All that I could find was a control group for my search: A couple of the New York galleries that had purchased fake Hine prints had filed suit against other individuals but in unrelated matters. They would sue, it seems, if necessary.
And yet a civil lawsuit was never filed against Walter Rosenblum.
Like the FBI file and the news reporting and the criminal case, there would be a beginning to civil lawfare but nothing beyond that except for a dead end. So, why did the FBI and these private litigants choose not to prosecute their allegations in criminal and civil courts? The answer must lie in the FBI file and news reporting from the time.
A PAIR OF YOUNG VINTAGE PHOTOGRAPHY COLLECTORS
It was clear from the media reports and the FBI file that the reason anything at all was done about the Lewis Hine fakes was because a pair of young collectors bought a number of the prints and became suspicious. Doctors Judith Hochberg and Michael Mattis purchased the Hine prints from one of the best photography galleries in the country owned by Andrew Smith and, at the time, headquartered in New Mexico.
After becoming suspicious, the gallery owner, Andy Smith, sent an amazing letter directly to Walter Rosenblum. This is what that letter looked like in the FBI file:
“Quite simply put: Did you print Hine prints from his negatives after Hine died, and if so, did you place Hine’s stamp and put a facsimile signature on the backs of the prints?”
This letter served as a first shot across the bow, an immediate attention-grabber. The pressure on Walter Rosenblum would only increase after this.
DOCTORS MATTIS AND HOCHBERG
Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg were graduate students at Stanford studying Physics and Linguistics respectively. Besides both becoming doctors, they shared a love for vintage photography and began collecting old prints.
They admit to buying haphazardly to start, and in the late 1990s, the couple purchased a number of Lewis Hine prints that were incredible in condition. Some were signed by the Photographer. They had added to their collection important pieces like Three Riveters and Powerhouse Mechanic:
But it was too good to be true.
The doctors and the owner of the gallery from whom they had purchased the prints began to question the stated provenance of the photographs, especially the signatures. Andy Smith wrote the letter above to Walter Rosenblum, and Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg retained Paul Messier, a young Photography Conservator, asking him to examine the prints.
PAUL MESSIER, PHOTOGRAPHY CONSERVATOR
After an education that included a degree in Art History and advanced degrees in paper conservation, Paul Messier obtained an apprenticeship position with one of America’s leading photography conservators. Eventually, he set up his own shop in Boston and began taking private clients.
That’s when Doctors Mattis and Hochberg sent him twenty Hine prints for evaluation. Messier’s charge was to determine if the prints were manufactured during the lifetime of Lewis Hine, who had died in 1940.
Messier devised a protocol to test the photographs. It included (1) ultraviolet examination of the prints, which would indicate the presence of optical brighteners, a chemical process used to treat photograph paper after 1950, (2) watermark examination that compared the manufacturing marks made by the paper manufacturers during specific time frames, and (3) paper fiber examination to determine if substances were included in the paper that were distinct to certain time periods.
Three of the prints failed these examinations and could not have been produced before the 1950s. One of those prints contained the Hine signature. This is from Paul Messier’s amazing final report, which was found in the FBI file:
I was able to interview this remarkable person, who is now the Chair of Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, as well as the Director of that school’s Lens Media Lab. I told him that when I discovered his report in the FBI file, I knew the only recourse for Walter Rosenblum was to settle the civil matter. Messier’s report was so devastating, so comprehensive, and so pointed, it must have fell like a meteor upon Walter Rosenblum.
He modestly replied, “When it comes to the physical evidence … there really was no ambiguity….” But without the efforts of Mr. Messier, there may have never been a resolution of the matter. Here is the short version of our interview:
”They thought they were buying genuine prints. And so, when you have new paper, and an artist’s signature, it does imply strongly, I think, that there was an intention to deceive.” — Paul Messier
Out of the scandal, a new tool was created to help future generations uncover photographic fakes and forgeries. Paul Messier thought to collect unopened packages of photographic paper from the various eras. Now he, and others, can use this very large and very unique library as a means to match an unknown print with known papers.
THE REASON FOR NO ARRESTS OR CIVIL LAWSUITS
The FBI will hesitate before initiating criminal proceedings when a civil remedy is available. From what I saw in its file, the FBI didn’t appear to be gung-ho to prosecute. That was also the opinion of Doctor Mattis, who wrote this to me:
“I honestly don’t know anything about the FBI’s involvement, they never contacted me, I think because there ultimately was a civil settlement with Rosenblum, that put an end to any possible criminal inquiry. I have a feeling the FBI never got past square one frankly. In other words their investigation was ‘open’ in name only and they didn’t actually commence it.”
With prints sold across the country that potentially involved millions of dollars in fraudulent sales, the FBI had jurisdiction, but they elected not to proceed. The case, you see, did not involve the running of guns or the robbing of banks. It didn’t involve anything as scary as an African-American protesting the over-policing of her neighborhood.
It involved photographs.
Moreover, it also involved as the subject of the investigation an individual who seemed completely out of place as such. Walter Rosenblum was an unlikely defendant.
Rosenblum went to work as a young man in the office of the Photo League in New York City. It was there that he met Lewis Wickes Hine, and at least according to Rosenblum, worked with him on photography projects. Rosenblum would subsequently become a President of the Photo League, and then go off to war, earning a Purple Heart and taking famous pictures of the invasion on D-Day.
He returned after the war to another term as President of the Photo League. After the death of Lewis Hine, his son donated his father’s prints and negatives to the Photo League in the care of Walter Rosenblum.
Later, Rosenblum became a distinguished professor, and his wife became a recognized authority on the social reform movement among photographers, including Lewis Wickes Hine. Rosenblum was an upper-middle-class and comfortable gentleman in his 80s at the time of the scandal.
A MESSY COMPLICATION
As a trial attorney in a previous life, I can say without reservation that the evidence presented in the FBI file, especially the exhaustive forensic report from Paul Messier, was completely damning. Hine signatures exist on photographic prints that were developed on paper that was manufactured at least fifteen years after his death. Walter Rosenblum had control over those items.
I would have advised a hasty settlement with all parties.
Yet, Rosenblum drew out the matter for months. Finally, Michael Mattis paid him a visit in New York and confronted him with the evidence. When I asked Dr. Mattis what Rosenblum said in his defense, I received this response: “He said that possibly he’d accidentally plucked a few prints from the ‘wrong pile’, not very convincing.”
This is what I would call the “Uncle Leo Defense”:
The messy complication mentioned in the subheading is that Rosenblum could’ve claimed that Hine’s son had forged the names before handing over the prints to him. Desperate criminal and civil defendants will throw a lifeline in any direction. Hine’s son had passed away by that time.
The defense would not be very convincing, though, because there was evidence that Rosenblum had sold his own prints that he claimed to have developed years before on paper of a more recent vintage. Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, this would be admissible to prove “motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident.” Fed. R. Evid. 404(b)(2).
THE RED SCARE
There is also the possibility that the FBI didn’t want to pick at a scab. You see, during the McCarthyism era, the United States government publicly and officially and sadly listed The Photo League of New York as a “subversive” organization.
Lewis Hine had been a member of the Photo League until his death in 1940, and at or near the time of the publication of the Federal Register (above), Walter Rosenblum was its President. If criminal charges were filed against Rosenblum, the FBI would inevitably be attacked, fairly or not, for continuing their red scare ways.
I don’t believe this was part of the calculus. The matter never rose to the level that would’ve garnered the attention of any political appointees. Still, it is something to consider.
WHERE WE STAND TODAY
In my interviews with the doctors and Paul Messier, I found them to be upbeat about the current state of the vintage photography market. Forgery and fakes are something to be cognizant of, but with proper awareness and procedures, a collector can avoid most of the pitfalls. Mr. Messier did indicate that he was always looking to hone his skills to keep ahead of the spy vs. spy game.
”There’s a Spy vs. Spy component for all of this. As you get better tools, sometimes the forgery techniques become more refined.” — Paul Messier
If I were to combine their advice to collectors of vintage photographs and those who want to begin collections, they would suggest that you develop a network of experts—and not just the deep connoisseur—but also the conservation expert, the trade expert and others. Also, avoid eBay. Instead, buy from a reputable gallery. Learn how to use a UV light safely and correctly. And steer clear of anything that looks too good to be true. The doctors provided this as a good start to collecting:
“Start by building a library of monographs and classic histories of photography; a fantastic first book to acquire is John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs. In parallel to this, browse the on-line archive of past photo sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips and Swann Galleries to get an idea of the varied marketplace for vintage photos.”
I believe that we have solved our mysteries.
Walter Rosenblum did create those fake prints. The evidence is compelling and meets the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard. Additionally, I think it is safe to say that he was not prosecuted and didn’t face civil trial because he settled with the injured parties and because of who he was. In my opinion as a former trial attorney, Rosenblum settled because there was an astonishing amount of evidence to prove his guilt/liability.
He had to settle.
According to Dr. Mattis and an article in The Atlantic, the pressure on Walter Rosenblum saw him create an escrow of a million dollars to pay for any “problematic” Hine prints sold to photography galleries. This was apparently a satisfactory settlement for the gallery owners, all of whom signed a confidential settlement agreement.
I also believe that the vintage photograph community owe a forever-debt to Paul Messier and his clients, Doctors Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg. As I discussed in a previous article entitled, “An Art Mystery: How Did Anybody Fall for Those Vermeer Forgeries,” the forger is aided by the psychology that inhibits people, even museums, from admitting that they were victims of fraud because of pride and the money involved.
Our young doctors, on the other hand, saw a problem and immediately resolved it.
Their actions, I would argue, not only benefited all of vintage photography, but they also, in the end, ensured that their collection bears an unimpeachable imprimatur of genuineness. Paul Messier, for his part, pioneered techniques that will be used for a long time to root out photographic fakes and forgeries.
There are still an unknown number of Rosenblum-donated Hine prints in museums across the country, and that raises a final question: What manner of tax benefits did the Rosenblums obtain from those donations?
I attempted to contact the estate of Walter Rosenblum through his daughter, documentarian Nina Rosenblum, but received no response. Additionally, I contacted a number of museums around the country with a request to use a blacklight (UV device) to inspect their Lewis Hine prints donated by Walter Rosenblum. From a list of eight such museums, I received permission from zero of them.
That’s a problem.
As Paul Messier stated in his interview, “Is the connection that’s being made between the viewer and the artist … is that real? Is it reliable? That’s pretty fundamental.” It is also a responsibility that museums must assume.
But there is also some very good news.
The Lewis Hine photographs titled Three Riveters and Power House Mechanic shown above are described by the Carnegie Museum of Art as having been “printed posthumously.” That is commendably fair labeling.
And most importantly, the American Charles Dickens, Lewis Hine, is receiving his due.
A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal published a review of an exhibit of Lewis Hine photographs showing the “Faces of America.” The exhibit is ongoing at the Asheville Art Museum and contains 65 authentic Lewis Hine prints showing construction workers crawling over the Empire State Building, immigrants and child laborers.
All of the prints come from the collection of Doctors Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg.
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