Issue #131  7/23/2007
Phillips' "27 Exceptional Photographs" Sale Averages $190,000 Per Lot--Highest Ever In Photography Auction; Over $3.6 Million Sold

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector

On the evening of April 24th Phillips de Pury & Co. offered its sale of "27 Exceptional Photographs." We might nitpick and say there were a few truly exceptional photographs and many other really good ones and then report that there were a few truly exceptional prices and a number of disappointing buy-ins (eight--almost 30%), including a major Gursky. Still, the $3,616,800 total averaged over $190,000 per lot sold, the highest-ever achieved at a photography auction.

Harry Callahan's "Weed against Sky, Detroit", 1948/1950s (estimated at $20,000–$30,000) started the evening off at $48,000. His "Weeds in Snow, Detroit", 1943/1950s ($15,000–$25,000) was fought over by Jeffrey Fraenkel and Peter MacGill, sitting next to each other. Fraenkel took it at $84,000, the third highest price for a single work by the photographer. Dealer Richard Morehouse snuck off with Callahan's "Bush in Snow, Downer's Grove", 1948/1950s ($15,000–$25,000) for only $12,000.

A phone bidder roared off with Eugène Atget's "Fête du Trone", a picture of a mural of two tigers emerging from a jungle painted on a wooden fence, at $42,000, just over low estimate.

Next up was Edward Steichen's glorious portrait of Gloria Swanson, 1924, signed and dated 1926 ($250,000–$350,000). Swiss dealer Kaspar Fleischmann held off several bidders, paying $540,000, the highest price of the sale, a record for the image and the third highest price achieved at auction for Steichen. And he was back on the next lot, André Kértesz's "Meudon", 1928, printed 1928–35 ($300,000–$500,000), making a bridesmaid out of Peter MacGill again, this time at $420,000, the second highest price paid for the photographer at auction.

Nadar's "Hermaphrodite" couldn't get a leg up again and passed at $18,000. But Alexander Rodchenko's "Sokolniki Park, Winter, Hockey", 1929, more than doubled its high estimate at $312,000 ($260,000 hammer), a record price for a photograph by the artist. Bidding had almost stopped at $160,000, emphasizing how often the auction market price can be the result of only two bidders.

A phone bidder made off with Brancusi's "Vue de l'Atelier", 1925, at the low estimate, $84,000, but again, a record price for a photograph by the artist. But then the three Moholy-Nagy Fotogramms, with estimates of $200,000–$300,000 and $150,000–$200,000, all passed, as did Paul Outerbridge Jr.'s "Sleepy Negro" ($40,000–$60,000).

Michael Mattis beat collector Jack Hastings to the checkout counter for Edward Weston's "Chard", paying $192,000. And Kaspar Fleischmann came back for Paul Strand's "Fern & Rain Drops", 1927–28, at the low estimate of $240,000, still the third highest price paid for Strand at auction.

A phone bidder drove just over high estimate to $516,000 for Robert Frank's "US 90, en route to Del Rio, Texas", 1956/c. 1960. That was the second highest price of the sale and a record price for the photographer at auction. Then a 1970 print of Frank's "Parade—Hoboken, NJ", also marched above its high estimate to $138,000. Peter MacGill finally won Frank's motorcyclists, "Newburgh, NY", an oversize 1970 print, at $108,000, then snatched Chuck Close's Self-Portrait for $216,000, the low estimate, but the record price for a photograph by the artist.

John Baldessari's "Transform (Lipstick)" ($100,000–$150,000) reaffirmed that prices for his work are taking off to the next level, as it brought $312,000. Duane Michals' classic early sequence "Things Are Queer" brought a strong bid of $33,600, just under the high estimate, and yet another record. Maybe people are starting to catch on to one of the more undervalued photographers in the marketplace.

Next up was Andreas Gursky's extremely large (overall about 6.5 feet by 11 feet) "Toys 'R' Us", estimated at $1,200,000 to $1,800,000. With its minimalist, almost Lewis Baltzian structure of asphalt road, buildings, and sky, with the only color in the Toyota and Toys "R" Us signs on the buildings and on the various "floats" on the electrical wires above, it doesn't have the intricacy or pizzazz of many of Gursky's other works. And while it was the star of this evening sale, it may well have done better in a contemporary art sale where it would have fit in better with the crowd—and where its potential buyers could be seen buying it (in this age of conspicuous art consumption, why buy something expensive if you can't be seen buying it by the people who really matter). Though our earnest auctioneer pleaded, "at $900,000 only," it went unsold. (Editor's note: I don't happen to agree with Steve on this one. I think the reason it went unsold was simply that it was a rather boring image for Gursky with a very reaching estimate. If it brought $600,000 total with buyer's premium, I think that would be a lot.)

The evening closed with Joel Sternfeld's "McLean, VA", burning up the phones at $98,400, a record for a single photograph by the photographer. And contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Huan's nine-print suite, "Family Tree", was adopted at $192,000, the second highest price achieved for the artist at auction and the highest price achieved for this work in this edition. In February, Phillips de Pury & Co.'s contemporary sale in London sold the larger-than-life scaled version of this work for £114,000.

(Copyright ©2007 by The Photograph Collector.)

My thanks to Steve Perloff and The Photograph Collector Newsletter for giving me permission to use this information. The Photograph Collector, which is a wonderful newsletter that I can heartily recommend, is published monthly and is available by subscription for $149.95. You can phone 1-215-891-0214 and charge your subscription or send a check or money order to: The Photograph Collector, 340 East Maple Ave., Suite 200, Langhorne, PA 19047. Or to order The Photograph Collector Newsletter online, go to: http://www.photoreview.org.