Fake fairy photographs sell for ten times the estimate
Two photographs which famously fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle into believing in fairies have sold at auction for more than ten times their estimated value.
The images of the Cottingley Fairies, as they became known, were taken in 1917 by 16-year-old Elsie Wright and her nine-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths in the village of Cottingley in Yorkshire, England.
The girls used hat pins and paper cutouts to stage the magical scenes near a stream in Elsie’s garden. She borrowed her father’s camera to capture the images on film.
While Elsie’s father, a keen amateur photographer who developed the prints, never doubted they were fakes, his wife Polly was a believer and in 1919 she took prints of the two photographs to show members of the Theosophical Society in Bradford where they were giving a lecture on fairy life.
Auctioneers estimated that the two prints would sell for between £700 ($916) and £1,000 ($1,309) each, but huge international interest led them to fetching £20,400 ($26,674).
Alice and the Fairies, which shows Frances surrounded by four fairies, sold for £15,000 ($19,620), while Iris and the Gnome — which features a gnome dancing towards Elsie — reached £5,400 ($7,062).
The famous pictures provoked much debate when they first captured the public imagination. The Sherlock Holmes author, who was a leading spiritualist of the time, wrote an article about the pictures and sought to convince the girls to take more.
According to the auctioneers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle concluded that a point made by one of the hat pins on the gnome’s stomach was a navel – leading to a bizarre debate on methods of birth in the fairy kingdom. It was only in the 1980s that the then elderly hoaxers admitted the pictures had been staged.
Chris Albury, senior auctioneer and valuer for Dominic Winter Auctioneers in Cirencester, England, said the photographs “are surprisingly rare and much sought after.”
He added: “These two photographs are from 1917, but were likely printed for sale in 1920, to be sold at theosophical lectures advocating a belief in spiritualism.”
“While there was a lot of skepticism in the authenticity of the photographs at the time, the story never went away and Elsie and Frances only confessed that the photographs had been faked in 1983.”
“I imagine these photographs were printed and sold in fairly modest numbers and as the story faded from public interest most would have been thrown out as junk, so survivals are few and far between.”
Thursday’s sale attracted much interest worldwide, according to Albury.
“We had seven phone lines open but in the end it was the online bidding that went ballistic. I had thought that if it went completely mad they might make £10,000 for the two of them, but they sold for far, far more,” he said.
“It just shows you that the story behind the Cottingley Fairies is still so attractive and important to so many people. One hundred years on, it remains a haunting story.”
The sepia gelatin silver prints were sold by an English dealer who specializes in books and photographs. Both buyers are based in the UK, according to Albury.