A photo to go on display at the Ned Kelly Vault later this year is likely the only one of both the famous bushranger and his brother Dan.
Descendants of the Kelly family have passed the picture, believed to be of the pair chopping wood, down through generations and approached the vault’s founder Matt Shore two years ago.
“They knew as kids it was very special and not to touch it, and when they contacted us they said they had always known it to be Uncle Ned and Uncle Dan, but wanted to get it examined,” he said.
“The State Library suggested it was an early copy of another photo from the 1880s.
“Someone has mounted it and given it to Ellen Kelly as a keepsake of her two boys, and on the back there’s an inscription written in ballpoint pen; we don’t know who wrote it or when.”
Mr Shore used a photo of Ned Kelly from just before his execution as a reference which “matched up perfectly”, before contacting RMIT University for expert advice.
“Gale Spring, a professor in forensic photography, said it was highly likely it was Ned and we’ve had a copy on display at the vault since November 2016,” he said.
“It is unique; there’s no photo of Ned and Dan together and of the five known photos of Ned – this would be the 6th – it’s one of two that weren’t taken by police.
“It’s a candid snapshot in time which I think shows what Ned Kelly looked like on a normal working day.
“He has his left hand on his hip, his right hand holding an axe, and he’s looking directly at the camera and has a slight smile on his face.”
Mr Shore believes the photo was taken in 1878, which would fit with Dan’s apparent age in the photo and the fact Ned was working in a Greta saw mill at the time.
But the greater mystery behind the photo is the inscription on the back – Mr Shore has now put it out to social media for ideas.
“It starts with either ‘Our Ned and Dan’, or ‘Dear Ned and Dan’, and the third line is what we can’t quite work out,” he said.
Burke Museum manager Cameron Auty hopes, with the descendants’ permission, to put the actual photo on display later this year.
“There’s been a huge response online; everybody has been talking about what they think it says,” he said.
“We recently ticked over 70,000 visitors to the Ned Kelly Vault.”
Mr Auty began in his role six months ago and has long-term plans to digitise the collections of the Vault and Burke Museum.
“Prior to this I was running a project where I travelled across Victoria working with community museums and of the hundreds, the Burke Museum really stood out as one of the amazing ones,” he said.