SEARSPORT, Maine - A cache of stolen glass-plate negatives was recovered by the Penobscot Marine Museum hours before they were to be put up for auction.
“As soon as I saw them I recognized them,” museum archivist Kevin Johnson said Wednesday. “We’ re glad to have them back. But the fact of the matter was we didn’ t know they were stolen until after the fact.”
The 300 plate negatives were part of an estimated 75,000 that were made by the Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Co. of Belfast beginning around the turn of the last century and used for postcards. Company photographers went to small towns throughout Maine, New England and upstate New York capturing images of local attractions and everyday life from 1909 to 1950.
Earle Shettleworth Jr. of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission informed Johnson last week that plates were to be auctioned last Saturday in Northport. When Johnson called the auction house and asked for a preview, he immediately determined that the plates were from the original archive. They were packed in archival envelopes and archival boxes.
The plates were mostly images of Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, but there also were some from Camden and Caribou as well.
“It’ s really exciting to reunite them with their siblings,” Johnson said. “I always knew there was a strange gap of certain ones, especially Bar Harbor. To be able to get these back, it’ s really fortunate. People really like to see what Bar Harbor and Acadia looked like in the teens and ‘ 20s. That’ s what makes them so significant.”
When Johnson contacted the owner and told him the 300 plates were stolen, he decided to donate them to the museum. The man, who preferred not to be identified, told Johnson he had purchased the plates at the Wiscasset Flea Market in 1998 for $200. Johnson said the value of the plates today was at least $3,000.
“He’ s out $200 but he’ ll be getting a tax write-off that will be substantial,” he said.
When Eastern Illustrating and Publishing went out of business, the plates were stored in a building in Belfast. As the company changed hands, at some point the new owners began selling some of the plates, Johnson said.
By the time Downeast Magazine obtained them in the 1970s, nearly half of the collection had fallen into other hands. Downeast donated the plates to the Maine Photographic Workshop in Rockport’ s Institute of Photographic Education, which is where the stolen boxes of plates came from, Johnson surmised. He said the institute had summer interns working on the collection, and that “it would have been easy to steal them.”
Johnson, who had worked on the collection at the institute and moved with it when the institute donated the plates to the marine museum, recognized the plates at the auction hall as part of that collection.
Johnson said the museum has approximately 40,000 of the plate negatives, all in their original folders and boxes. Johnson said he found 100 plates on e-Bay a year ago and that Shettleworth donated 50 boxes to the museum that he had collected over the years.
In addition, Johnson said three different Maine antique dealers have another 15,000 of the plates and have offered to sell them to the museum. The dealers obtained their plates legally, he said, and have offered the museum a reasonable price for them.
“We need to find some wealthy person to help us out,” he said. “If we can get 40 grand or so, we’ ll be able to add another 15,000 to the collection.”
The collection is stored in the museum’ s library and Johnson is scanning and cataloging each plate. The only information included with the images is whatever description may have been written on them. Eastern Illustrating employed young women to write the information on the plates in reverse.
The museum has made prints from some of the glass-plate negatives, which will be part of a show that will open in August at the museum and travel in October to the University of Maine. The prints can be purchased at the museum.
Although the museum’ s ultimate goal is to have all of the images online at some point, a selection of the negatives can be viewed at glassplateimages.com.