National Portrait Gallery Buys Dolley Madison Photo for $456,000

The National Portrait Gallery bought the earliest known photograph of an American first lady for more than six times the estimated auction price, adding the recently surfaced daguerreotype of Dolley Madison to the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.

Sotheby’s had estimated that the daguerreotype, which was taken circa 1846 when Madison was in her 70s, would sell for between $50,000 and $70,000 on Friday. The National Portrait Gallery paid $456,000.

That is also more than the museum paid for what was called the oldest known photograph of a U.S. president, an 1843 portrait of John Quincy Adams, which Sotheby’s auctioned off in 2017 for $360,500.

The Madison daguerreotype was taken by John Plumbe Jr., who sold his photography business in 1847 amid financial ruin and left behind few studio records. It surfaced when its sellers, whom Sotheby’s are not identifying, cleaned out a dead relative’s basement and submitted a scan to the auction house.

The portrait shows the former first lady, whom historians credit with creating the role of hostess and soft power broker as we know it today, in her signature turban.

A spokeswoman for the National Portrait Gallery said Madison’s portrait would be on public view for a 2026 exhibition timed to celebrate both 50 years of the museum’s photography collection and the nation’s semiquincentennial, the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

“This artifact will provide the Smithsonian another opportunity to tell a more robust American story and illuminate the vital role women like Madison have played in the nation’s progress,” Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian, said in a news release.

Ann Shumard, the National Portrait Gallery’s senior curator of photographs, added, “It will now be preserved in perpetuity for the public.”

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