In 2016, Phillips introduced a new strategy for their London spring photography auction, with two special sections called "Ultimate". The first section consisted of works that had been printed in editions of 1, the result of collaborations between photographers and Phillips. The second consisted of sourcing existing unique works or the only one available on market, the last in an edition or an artist's proof.
A couple of days before the auction Yuka Yamaji, co-head of the European department, told me that the first part of the strategy had been developed to entice contemporary art collectors who will buy unique works only and simply don't feel comfortable with even small editions.
I have heard a range of opinions about this method, an auction house creating scarcity, from "extremely aggressive" to "really quite clever" though many in the latter camp have commented to me that the choice of photographers and images could have been much more interesting.
Last year, that first section was devoted to images that had been published in Vogue. This year it was dubbed, "Ultimate Campaign", with nine images shot for advertising campaigns. Lot 1, "Justin Bieber, Sunset" by Tyrone Lebon went for £8,750; lot 2, "Kate Moss Supreme" by Alasdair McLellan for £21,250; Lot 3, Mikael Jansson's "Kendall Jenner, New York Studio" for £15,000.
Lot 4 was to my mind in a different league altogether, "Alexander McQueen, Snakes 2009", by Nick Knight, with model Raquel Zimmerman lying on a bed of sand, her body merging with a mass of serpents, a great piece and it sold for £50,000. It was followed by a Bruce Webber, "Ric and Natalie, Villa Tejas, Montecito, California", sold for £87,500, a new auction record for Webber. Ellen von Unwerth's "Mission Accomplished", with supermodel Naomi Campbell found a buyer at £27,500. Lot, 7, a Steven Klein image of Gisele Bündchen went for £22,500. Then there were more Kate Moss images, one by Marion Sorrenti which sold for £15,500 and one by Sølve Sundsbø, which sold for £16,250.
Well, that was "Ultimate Campaign". And then we were on to…more Kate Moss…editioned prints by Albert Watson and Patrick Demarchelier. And this being London, they sold. Lot 13-20 were images by Helmut Newton. The most expensive one, "Two Pairs of Legs in Black Stockings", sold for £23,750.
There were three Richard Avedon prints in the sale, one of Twiggy, which went for £35,000; one of Sophia Loren, which failed to find a buyer; but "Dovima with Elephants" did sell, at £87,500, well below its estimate at £100,000-150,000.
Lot 28, the wonderful "Girl in Bath" (Jean Patchett) by Irving Penn went for £118,750. The far less interesting Penn image of Gisele Bündchen, lot 30, went for £106,250. This was followed by another Penn of........Kate Moss! Selling for £43,750.
And then the auction became much more interesting, as far I was concerned. The ultimate group of works started off with lot 32,"Transform (Lipstick)", a unique work by John Baldessari, comprised of two chromogenic prints, made in 1990. It was fantastic. Estimated at £300,000-400,000, it went for £389,000 and should, in my opinion, have gone for more.
Lot 33, Sohei Nishino's London From Diorama Map, 2010", a montage of some 4,000 images, then re-photographed, was a wonderful piece from his series "Diorama Maps". This was number 2 from a sold-out edition of 5, plus 2 APs. Estimated at £30,000 to 50,000, it went for £65,000, a new auction record for the artist.
Lot 37 "The Echoing Portal" by Liz Nielsen, a beautiful and unique color work made in the darkroom went for £12,500, while lot 38m Daisuke Yokota's "Untitled from Color Photographs" sold for £13,750. Lot 39, Seiji Kurata's famous "Tattooed Man", one of two early prints, went for £56,250.
There were seven Henri Cartier-Bresson prints in the sale. Six of them were printed-later versions of the often-seen images. But Lot 59 was something else altogether: a 1947 print of "Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare" (1932), a glossy, ferrotyped print used in LIFE magazine in March 1947 as a full-page reproduction alongside a review of his MoMA exhibition, the first time the image had been published. Only five early prints of this image, printed 1946-47, are known. Estimated at £30,000-50,000, it went for £131,000.
The two William Eggleston prints, Lot 61 Untitled and Lot 62, Untitled (Gingham Woman, Albers Wall) went unsold. The two Robert Mapplethorpe prints faired better. Lot 68, "Orchid" had a band of miscoloring around the upper edges of the prints, a not so insignificant detail which was included in the condition report after I pointed it out. I was the underbidder on this one but set a limit because of the flaw, and it went for £11,250. Lot 69, "Chest" sold for £15,000.
The last lot, number 93, Nobuyoshi Araki's Untitled from Colorscapes, woman eating watermelon sold for £43,750, more than double its high estimate of £20,000.
The auction worked out well for the house with the highest total of the London photography season and the second highest ever for a photography auction at Phillips London.
Michael Diemar is a long-time writer about the photography scene, in addition to being a collector, curator, lecturer and ex-London gallerist (in 2009 opening Diemar/Noble Gallery). He has written extensively for several Scandinavian photography publications, as well as for the E-Photo Newsletter and I Photo Central.