Sophia Loren, Walt Disney Portraits Among Rare Photos Revealed by Santa Monica Gallery

Courtesy of Duncan Miller Gallery

Duncan Miller Gallery offers a look at prized celebrity shots — a small portion of 2 million rare photos unearthed in an Arkansas warehouse.

Works by Yousuf Karsh will go on view Feb. 3 at Duncan Miller Gallery in Santa Monica. Known as one of the 20th century’s greatest portrait photographers, Karsh captured icons including Leonard Bernstein, Andy Warhol, Sophia Loren, Anna Magnani, Marc Chagall, Winston Churchill, Jean Cocteau, Walt Disney, Dwight Eisenhower, Henry Fonda, multiple Kennedys and Hemingways and a who’s who of Hollywood.

“I’m always pleasantly surprised by the celebrities and directors,” says gallerist Daniel Miller — whose clients have included James Burrows and Larry Ellison — of his expectations for opening night. The show’s 100 works represent only half of the gallery's Karsh collection, but that’s all that would fit. All 200 photos are for sale, but only as a single lot for $60,000. And as large as it is, the Karsh collection represents just a drop in the bucket of an epic stash acquired by Miller last year from a warehouse in Little Rock, Ark. For an undisclosed figure numbering in the millions, he acquired 2 million photos from the archives of Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, dating from 1910 to 2000 and valued at an estimated $82 million.

Also included in the collection are works by some of the continent’s masters — people like Jeff Carter, who chronicled the working class and life in the bush; modernists Max Dupain and Olive Cotton; and industrial photographer Wolfgang Sievers. The archive’s journey dates to 2013, when a decision was made to digitize the images. With no facility in Australia large enough to handle the job, the newspaper struck a deal with the Rogers Photo Archive in Arkansas. The archive was stowed in five shipping containers, eventually landing in the warehouse where the photos now sit. In 2014, within months of the acquisition, the FBI raided Rogers for charges unrelated to the photos, and the operation was shut down (Miller purchased the photos from a local bank that had foreclosed on a loan against the collection).

Miller maintains a team at the Little Rock warehouse, continually poring through and sorting photos, searching for diamonds in the rough like two never-before-seen images of Noel Coward, featured in the Karsh show. “They were hidden away for 40 to 70 years. These great photos had no light because they have been filed away in a cold warehouse. Nobody knew they were even there. It took us six months of mining through thousands and thousands of the photos to get the gems.”

Miller has been meeting with Australian Consul General, Los Angeles, Chelsey Martin, as well as with Australian government officials, about finding organizations interested in purchasing lots pertaining to specific subjects. The "Actors" collection numbers 60,000 photos, "Musicians" 52,000; a collection of 61,000 rugby photos was sold to an organization in Australia last week, and a cricket museum just ordered 26,000 images.

“On a given week, we get about a dozen organizations that want something,” Miller notes. As for the Karsh collection, he already has buyers circling. So far, he has sold more than 100,000 photos back to various buyers in Australia, including a few hundred via a December auction that generated roughly $100,000 in sales.

Some Australians might take issue with a Yank selling a part of their country’s heritage back to them bit by bit, but not L.A.-based Australian artist Paul Davies. “On one hand, these could be distributed via eBay and broken up and never seen again. So I wonder if it’s kind of a finder’s, or curator’s, fee. I wonder if a dollar value has been placed on the time it’s taken to sort and bring them to market,” he says of Miller's efforts. “The actual tactileness of those make the history somehow seem so tangible,” he adds of the vintage silver gelatin prints.

Davies, whose own work was recently acquired by the Palm Springs Art Museum, plans to be at Duncan Miller Gallery opening night. “To the Australians, it’s a really big deal because it’s their heritage,” Miller notes. “We literally saved their heritage. We’re doing the right thing by getting it back there.”