Are old glass negatives worth anything? (Money making tips!)

Are old glass negatives worth anything? (Money making tips!)

Disclosure: I earn commissions for purchases made through links in this post. Find out more.

There’s something special about old glass negatives that makes them feel valuable, like you’re holding a piece of history in your hands.

However, if you’re hoping to strike gold with your glass plate negatives, you may be disappointed. Unless your glass negatives feature important people, places or events, a typical valuation of each negative might only be pennies…😔

But don’t look so sad! There are still plenty of ways you can turn your glass plate negatives into cash. These include:

  1. Selling your collection of glass negatives to an auctionhouse or collector
  2. Selling glass plate negatives on Etsy
  3. Scanning old glass negatives and licensing them on stock image websites

In this article, I detail the history of old glass negatives, what they are, how to value them and give you a better idea of what your old glass negatives are really worth.

So whether you’re holding on to old family heirlooms or stumbled across a dusty old box of them at a garage sale, read on to learn more about the value (and potential value) of old glass negatives.

Let’s make some money!

What are glass plate negatives?

Glass plate negatives are pieces of glass with a light-sensitive coating on one side and used in early photography as the medium on which to capture photographs.

Old glass negative showing negative image of Victorian school children

They were considered cutting edge technology and widely used between 1850-1920 before being replaced by celluloid film in the early 20th century. [1]

Other mediums were experimented with on which to capture photos. Paper, for example, was covered with a light-sensitive emulsion to take photographs. However, in the early days, glass plates were preferred to paper.

This was because glass plate negatives were more durable than paper negatives, and they captured a more precise and sharper image because there was no image ‘noise’ from the grain of the paper.

There were two types of glass plate negatives: wet plate negatives and dry plate negatives.

Wet plate negatives

Wet plate negatives are the earlier type and get their name because the light-sensitive emulsion applied to them needed to be still wet when exposed and developed.

The chief ingredients used in the emulsion were either albumen or collodion mixed with light-sensitive silver salts.

Did you know? Collodion is a syrupy solution of nitrocellulose in a mix of alcohol and ether, at the time also used to coat surgical equipment.

However, wet plate negatives could be unreliable and cumbersome for a few reasons:

  • Non-standard wet emulsions used to coat the glass (each photographer would often have their own ‘recipe’)
  • The application of light sensitive emulsion couldn’t be done ahead of time (due to the fact it had to still be wet when exposed and processed. Therefore application had to be done on location in a portable dark room)
  • Uneven application of light sensitive emulsion
  • Thick, heavy glass plates were used, with rough edges

However, dry plate negatives were invented later in the century, which solved many of these problems.

Dry plate negatives

As the name suggests, these were glass plates with a light-sensitive coating that captured photos even when dry. The light-sensitive layer consisted of silver gelatin that would work without having been freshly coated on the glass.

As such, they had a few advantages over their wet-plate counterparts and thus were naturally preferred by photographers for the following reasons:

  • Usable when dry and thus more easily transported
  • Required less exposure to light than wet plates
  • Glass was often thinner and more easily transportable
  • More reliable than wet plate negatives due to the standardised coating process

Dry plate glass negatives were commonly used between the 1880s and the late 1920s. [2]

Are old glass negatives valuable?

This is the million-dollar question, but the truth is that glass negatives vary in value significantly depending on the photograph’s subject.

For example, a glass negative of a Victorian lady is worth pennies. However, if that lady were Queen Victoria, it would be worth several hundred dollars.

Old glass negative of Victorian lady seated (cropped)
This glass plate negative is probably only worth pennies. However, if the lady had have been famous, its value would be much more!

Other factors can influence price for more typical collections, albeit to a much lesser degree. For example:

  • Glass plate image size
  • Quality of the image (clarity, exposure, etc)
  • Condition of the glass plate

While these elements can affect the price, the most significant factor remains the subject matter.

Apart from people, other popular subject matters which generally attract higher price tags include:

  • Sports figures
  • Presidents or royalty
  • Public buildings or other structures
  • News events

So if you have a glass plate negative of your great grandfather, unless your great grandfather was somebody famous (or infamous), its sentimental value will be priceless. Still, monetarily it’s probably only worth pennies.

However, to be sure of their value, it’s always worth getting them appraised by an expert.

How to get your glass negatives appraised?

If you have a collection of old glass negatives and are unsure of their value, it’s worth getting them appraised. There are a few feasible ways of doing this, such as:

  • Local antiques dealers or auction houses
  • Local photograph company
  • Online appraisal websites

Local antiques dealers or auction houses

You can take your glass negatives to a local antique dealer and ask them to appraise them for you. Antique dealers tend to have a broad knowledge of different antiques, including old photographs. However, they may not be specialised in glass plate negatives and so shop around until you find one with experience of old glass negatives.

A great thing about antique dealers is they may be willing to buy your old glass negatives from you. Or, if it’s an auction house, place them in an auction for a small commission. They’ll be able to advise you on the current market and what price your collection is likely to fetch.

Glass plate negative held up to light showing a negative photograph of a Victorian woman by a river bank
Getting your old glass negatives appraised by an expert is the best way to determine their value

Local photograph company

Another option is to take your old glass negatives to a local photography company. They will often have specialist equipment and knowledge to deal with old photographs and glass negatives.

So seek out a company that offers old photo restoration services or the facility to make prints of your old negatives as they may be able to give you a more accurate estimate of their worth.

Especially if the negatives are dirty or are hard to accurately distinguish due to the inverse values. If they scan them for you and reverse the image, this may help to identify potential valuable subject matters previously obscured.

Online appraisal websites

Alternatively, a few online appraisal websites may offer you a ballpark figure for the value of your old glass negatives.

A great site I have used in the past is:

Simply upload photographs of your old glass negatives and provide as much information about them as possible to use this service. (This may be the next step if you need a photography shop to scan the old glass negatives for you.)

Try to provide as much information about old glass negatives as possible, such as:

  • date and place of photograph
  • any identifying marks or labels on the negative
  • description of the scene or subject matter

If getting your old glass negatives appraised isn’t feasible, read on as I share some DIY tips to help you date them yourself.

How to date glass plate negatives?

Determining the subject matter of your glass plate negatives is the most critical factor when it comes to assigning a valuation. If you’re unsure about the subject, one clue can be the date of the glass negative itself.

So how do you determine the date of your glass plate negatives?

Glass plate negative of wealthy Victorian couple with the Lady wearing a large, flowery hat
Fashion, particularly ladies fashion can be used to date the subject of old photos

As mentioned, photographers used old glass negatives from around 1850 to the 1920s. Whilst they were still in use after this, they had been replaced mainly by celluloid film by this point.

The best tips I can give on dating your glass plate negative is to look at:

  • Thickness of the glass plate negative
  • Subject matter of the glass negative

Thickness of the glass plate negative

Wet plate negatives were often used with thicker sheets of glass (about 5mm thick). This would suggest an earlier date between 1850 – 1880 when wet-plate negatives were more prevalent.

Thinner sheets of glass (roughly 3.5mm) are characteristic of dry plate negatives, suggesting a later period (1880 – 1920+).

These are only subtle variations in glass thickness and are not hard and fast rules. However, it may provide you with a starting point to identify the date and, therefore, the subject of the glass negative.

Subject matter of the glass negative

Mostly you can date your glass negatives from the subject matter.

For example, old photographs of cars would date the glass negative to after 1888 or old buildings in the background of your glass negatives may give you a clue as to their location and hence a possible date range.

Also, people’s clothing and fashion can also offer clues as to the date of a glass negative.

Top Tip: Women’s clothing fashions changed rapidly during the Victorian era, so this can offer you a tight date range for your old glass negative. Cross-reference the fashions with online references such as the Victoria & Albert Museum 19th Century Fashion resource.

I’ll write a dedicated post about dating old photographs and negatives, but I hope this gives you a starting point.

How to preserve glass plate negatives?

Glass plate negatives present unique preservation challenges due to their fragile physical format and highly varied chemical structures.

If you’ve got some glass plate negatives that you think are valuable (either sentimentally or because they contain noteworthy subject matter), they need preserving as best as possible.

Two of the most significant considerations when preserving old glass negatives are cleaning them and storing them.

Cleaning old glass negatives

Cleaning old glass negatives should be done with care and patience. You want to avoid damaging the old glass negative as this will decrease its value.

Follow these tips when cleaning your glass negatives:

  • It’s OK to clean the glass side with water and a mild glass cleaner but be very careful to not get any moisture on the emulsion side.
  • Lightly dust the emulsion side. Do not attempt to clean the emulsion side with anything more than a very light brush to remove dust. Don’t use a hairdryer or any kind of blower as the emulsion is extremely delicate.
  • If you need to make prints and the negative has dirt that you cannot clean, scan it and then have it digital restored.
Glass plate negative being cleaned with cotton wool by photo restoration expert
You can clean the back of glass plate negatives (non-emulsion side) with damp cotton wool. This will help to get a clear scan of the photo.

Storing glass plate negatives

Once you have cleaned your old glass negatives, they need to be stored in a dry, cool and dark place. An old shoe box is not going to cut it when it comes to storing old glass negatives.

You need an archival storage system which will protect them from the elements, dust and damage.

Some of my top recommendations are:

  • Always use acid free paper (read why in this article). You can usually find it at most office supply or craft stores
  • Cut and fold a sheet of paper to make folders for each negative
  • Write notes on the paper for reference (document as much as you can about the people and places in the photos)
  • Keep in a cool and dry location
  • Store the negatives upright on their edge (not stacked)

I also recommend scanning the negatives and making digital copies before putting the originals away.

How long do glass negatives last?

With the proper preservation, old glass negatives can potentially last hundreds of years.

Glass plate negatives are at risk of being damaged by different things over time. Many of the same factors that cause photographs to fade affect old glass negatives in the same way. These include:

  1. Prolonged exposure to UV light
  2. Fungus and mould growth
  3. Water damage and oxidation
  4. Household pollutants
  5. Acidic archival conditions

Read our article on why photos fade and how to prevent it for further reading.

How to make money from old glass negatives?

If you’ve had your glass negatives assessed and they’re not worth an awful lot, don’t be too disheartened. If you’re determined to turn your old glass negatives into cash, there are still a few options you can try:

  1. Sell glass negatives collections to an auctionhouse or collector
  2. Sell glass plate negatives on Etsy
  3. Scan old glass negatives and license them on stock image websites

Sell glass negatives collections to an auctionhouse or collector

If you have an extensive collection of old glass negatives, your best bet is to try and sell them to an auction house or private collector. This is likely to get you the best price for your collection, but it can be tricky to track down a buyer who’s interested in old glass negatives.

An excellent place to start is by contacting local auction houses and asking if they would be interested in appraising your collection. If you’re lucky, you might find an auction house that specialises in old photographs and knows precisely how much your collection is worth.

Top Tip: A great place to source local auction houses or potential collectors is via local Facebook groups. You can post some photos or scans of your collection and you’ll find many people are willing to give their advice.

Sell glass plate negatives on Etsy

If you don’t have an extensive collection of old glass negatives or can’t find a buyer interested in purchasing them, you can try selling them on Etsy. This is a good option if you only have a few old glass negatives that you want to sell, as it’s easy to set up an Etsy shop and list your items for sale.

There are some great examples of people already doing just this. For example:

Some of these Etsy sellers are selling their old glass negatives for fairly significant amounts of money. So if you have a few glass plate negatives lying around, open a free store and turn them into cash!

Scan old glass negatives and license them on stock image websites

If you don’t want to sell your old glass negatives, you could always scan them and license them on stock websites. This is a great way to make some money from your old photos, and it doesn’t require you to part with any of your original glass negatives.

There are a few different stock photography websites that you could use, such as:

All you need to do is create an account (by clicking any of the links above), upload your photos and set a price for each one. When someone buys one of your photos, you’ll receive a commission.

How to dispose of old glass negatives?

Suppose you’ve had your glass plate negatives valued, and they aren’t worth much, and you’re not interested in selling them to local collectors or online via Etsy. In that case, the natural next consideration is to dispose of them.

If you’re not interested in keeping your old photo negatives, you have several options for disposing of them:

  • You can throw them out
  • Recycle them
  • Donate them to an organization (that specializes in sorting through historical items like these)

Can you recycle glass plate negatives?

Yes, you can recycle old glass negatives. However, due to the chemicals that coat them, not every facility can dispose of negatives safely. So, you should check beforehand if you have suitable waste facilities near you and not just mix them with your other recyclables.

If you’re contacting a museum or institution, start by giving them a succinct, organized account of the contents of your glass plate collection. Include:

  • Estimated date range of the subject
  • The subject matter itself
  • Number glass plate negatives
  • Any supplementary materials (letters, notes etc).
  • The collections rough dimensional volume (to give an idea of how much space it will take up)
Wooden box of old photographic glass plate negatives, labelled and organised and stacked neatly
The more organised you are, the better the chance of an institution acquiring your glass plate negatives collection

Reading the mission or vision statement of a large collection might also assist you in determining whether the organization is a good fit for your own collection.


Hopefully, now you have a better understanding of what your old glass negatives may be worth. While it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to retire on the sale, depending on the condition and subject of your negatives, there is a chance that you might be able to make a tidy profit.

  1. Sell glass negatives collections to an auctionhouse or collector
  2. Sell glass plate negatives on Etsy
  3. Scan old glass negatives and license them on stock image websites

But even if you can’t sell them, old negatives are a special piece of photographic history and are worth taking care of. If you don’t want to take care of them yourself, why not donate them; there will always be someone who could enjoy those negatives.

And finally, if you want to dispose of old negatives, make sure to recycle them correctly. Glass is a recyclable material, but old negatives need to be handled with care, so check with your local recycling centre before just throwing them in the bin.