A Vernon Hills man preparing for an estate sale found a trove of black-and-white prints that captured the period around the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the four-day aftermath.
The man, who wished to remain anonymous due to privacy concerns, came across the binder containing the photos in his family’s garage last November after his father died.
The photos include the work of James W. Altgens. The Associated Press photographer was near Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas and captured what is believed to be one of the last professional photographs taken of Kennedy, according to Christie’s, as well as the only professional photo of the shooting as it was occurring.
The photos were part of a collection submitted for awards consideration in 1963 to Sigma Delta Chi, a journalism organization now called the Society of Professional Journalists.
The man who found the photos said he doesn’t know how the binder came into his mother’s possession, but he guessed it had something to do with her love of the president, She was a devoted supporter who volunteered on Kennedy’s 1960 election campaign. She also worked for Sigma Delta Chi, which had an office in downtown Chicago.
At first he thought it was a school project. But as he flipped through the binder he saw high-quality black-and-white photos in “near-perfect condition” of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and nightclub owner Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated Kennedy.
There was also a typewritten document titled, “A Pictorial Presentation,” which described the photos that chronicled “the four tragic days that began when a cruelly-aimed bullet struck down the President of the United States.”
The photos are gelatin silver prints, a term to describe images created using the most common process for making black-and-white photos since the 1890s. Photos using this process have a smooth, even image surface. The Kennedy photos were printed from the negatives and are not a copy of a copy, the owner said, adding that “They’re the real deal.”
“That’s when I knew that this was something special,” the man said, and he reached out to Christie’s to find out more about their authenticity. The photos are on auction now on Christie’s website with a starting bid of $7,000 and are estimated to fetch between $10,000 and $15,000.
“I frankly found it to be a fascinating time capsule of a very tragic period in American history. And it’s a fascinating photographic record,” said Peter Klarnet, senior specialist of Americana, with Christie’s. He added that the photos include the “only professional photos of the assassination,” pointing out that these being “contemporary prints” from the original negatives that haven’t been touched up would be of particular interest to collectors.
“I’ve never seen an archive like this. And the fact that it’s submitted by the Associated Press, the best work they did on this, I think is a pretty compelling narrative,” Klarnet said.
The photo believed to be the only professional photograph of the shooting was taken after Altgens ran down the plaza toward the Elm Street overpass and captured on film the moment when Kennedy slumped forward in his seat with his hands to his throat after he was struck by the first shot.
As he prepared for his next photo, Altgens heard the next shot as another bullet hit the president, this time in his head. As the president’s limo started to race toward Parkland Memorial Hospital, Altgens photographed the moment Secret Service agent Clint Hill climbs onto the back of the car as the first lady appears to stand up. Kennedy was pronounced dead at the hospital not long after that.
The collection also includes photos of Oswald right before Ruby fatally shot him point blank in the abdomen as Oswald was being moved to the county jail two days after the assassination. The photographer, Bob Jackson of the Associated Press, was honored with the Sigma Delta Chi award for news photography for these photos.
Other photos include one of Jacqueline Kennedy opening the door of a Navy ambulance after arriving from Dallas at Andrews Air Force Base. The president’s blood can be seen splattered on her dress and stockings. Another photo is of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father as his casket leaves St. Matthew’s Cathedral on its way to the president’s final resting place. It was the younger Kennedy’s 3rd birthday.
These photos capture “these really poignant emotional moments, the sense of this incident,” Klarnet said.
The auction ends Oct. 19.