The Huntington Library has purchased the extensive photographic trove of Ernest Marquez, a descendant of Mexican land grantees who owned what became Santa Monica and Rustic canyons and parts of Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica.
Amassed over a 50-year period, the 4,600-image compilation includes rare photos of 1870s Santa Monica and Los Angeles.
"The group of photographs is the best and most comprehensive collection of its kind in private hands," said Jennifer A. Watts, curator of photographs at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.
Although she declined to reveal the price, she added that this was the Huntington's costliest purchase of photographs since the time of Henry E. Huntington, who died in 1927.
Marquez, 89, said in an interview that he was relieved that his "obsession" had found a good home. Marquez was profiled in a story in The Times last August.
A largely self-taught researcher and historian, Marquez said that, in retrospect, he wondered how he ever found the time to scour antique stores, postcard shows and flea markets for early Southern California images while working full time as a commercial artist for aerospace companies.
"It became an obsession," he said. "I just had to do it."
After Mexico won its independence from Spain, Marquez's forebears were granted 6,656 acres of the Rancho Boca de Santa Monica (mouth of the Santa Monica). Marquez said he felt compelled as a young man to learn about the connection of his Reyes and Marquez ancestors to the region.
Watts said she met Marquez in 1997 and, through the years, had the impression he would sell off the collection piecemeal.
"I thought we probably couldn't afford to buy it outright," she said.
But last spring Marquez and Michael Dawson, a rare-book dealer, approached her to say Marquez thought the Huntington would be the best home for his legacy. Footing part of the bill is the Huntington Library's collectors council, which provides funds for special purchases too pricey for the institution's regular acquisitions budget.
Marquez's unrivaled collection "records Santa Monica's transformation from rustic hamlet to international symbol of the California good life, with prints from the 1870s to the 1950s," the Huntington said in a statement.
After a thorough check of the Huntington's existing photo collections, Watts said, she was astonished to find "little to no overlap."
In fact, Marquez's photos filled gaps in the museum's stocks of work by such noted photographers as Carleton E. Watkins and William M. Godfrey.
Watts said her favorites include photos made by Watkins in 1877, during what the Santa Monica Evening Outlook called a "flying visit." They include a stereographic view of the Santa Monica Hotel, which Watkins chose to photograph on the diagonal to frame some patrons taking their leisure on the veranda.
She said she also liked the distant view of the beach and bathhouse. Watkins placed his camera at the end of the Los Angeles & Independence Railroad wharf and looked back to shore, putting the wooden bathhouses at the center of the composition.
Watts said the collection was "in fairly good order," and the Huntington would begin digitizing a few highlights right away. She said she hoped the institution could attract grant money to get the entire collection cataloged.
"Given how deep and important it is to 19th century Los Angeles," she said, "at some point we will do an exhibition or publication or both."