Treasures in Your Attic: Portrait was part of scheme to sell overpriced frames

This tinted photograph by the Chicago Portrait Company did not require a trip to Chicago to make it.

Dear Helaine and Joe: Enclosed are pictures of a portrait of my paternal grandparents.

My grandfather was a coal miner in War, W.Va., so you can guess that a trip to Chicago and this grand portrait was something special for them. The story I was told is that it was a gift from “the company.” They lived in a company house and shopped at a company store. This has sentimental value, but does it have any monetary value?

— G.W., Norfolk, Va.

Dear G.W.: The back of the piece has an impressive plaquelike label that tells us in flowery language that the image was made from a photograph in 1941 and that it was meant to be passed on as a “priceless heirloom.” It is also stated the image was from the Chicago Portrait Co.

We need to make it clear that we feel this is a priceless heirloom that should be treasured by the family of the people in the photograph. But when the piece was made, it was basically a fraud perpetrated upon G.W.’s grandparents as a scheme to sell overpriced picture frames.

It appears the Chicago Portrait Studio’s modus operandi was to have salesmen go to rural Americans and send ordinary photographs of people both living and dead to Chicago, where they were enlarged and turned into impressive-looking portraits.

The portraits were printed on curved card stock and were not suitable to be framed in ordinary flat frames. Typically, the photographs were also enhanced with watercolor, India ink, oil paint, pastels or crayons. They were said to be hand-painted but were not.

When the newly enlarged and tinted portraits were returned to the customer, the picture was routinely housed in a striped frame that looked something like burled wood and had bubble glass over the image. The customer was presented with the choice of just getting the portrait and paying a few dollars or paying significantly more for photograph and frame.

The Chicago Portrait Co. was in business from 1893 to the early 1940s, and the description above is what happened during much of the company’s history. The frame in today’s question has what appears to be an attractive rope-twisted brass frame that, according to a certificate, was electroplated with a minuscule amount of 14-carat gold. It cost G.W.’s grandparents $27.50, which at the time was probably close to the cost of a month’s worth of groceries for a family of three or four.

We cannot tell from the photographs whether the portrait itself is on curved cardboard, but we do know the glass covering was protected by a design patent No. 65031, which is for bubble glass. It is possible your paternal grandfather did something noteworthy and the mining company rewarded him with the picture and the $27.50 frame. But there is no way of knowing for sure.

Sentimentally the piece is priceless, but monetarily it is worth in the $45 to $65 range.

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