Issue #132  8/1/2007
Sotheby's Multi-Owner Sale Caps Off Record Auction Season With Over $5.2 Million and 7.7% Buy-Ins

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector

Sotheby's various-owners sale in the afternoon totaled $5,203,800 with a meager 7.7% buy-in rate. In fact, the auction room was more crowded than the morning session of the Weston sale. A phone bidder started things off by claiming two Ansel Adams pictures--"Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, CA" ($30,000–$50,000) and "Clearing Winter Storm" ($50,000–$80,000)--both for $84,000. James Alinder took a 16"x20" Adams "Moonrise" for $40,800, just below high estimate. A different phone bidder went for Adams's "Aspens, Northern NM" ($20,000–$30,000) at $60,000. Then Alinder was back for an oversize "Moonrise" ($40,000–$60,000) at $114,000 (tied for eighth on the top ten of this sale).

Next was the highlight of the sale: "Nude on Sand", a mounted and fully-signed early print of a particularly rare image from 1936 by Edward Weston from his series of nude studies of Charis on the dunes at Oceano ($200,000–$300,000), which sold for $468,000 to Jeffrey Fraenkel. This print came originally from the collection of famed gossip-columnist and screenwriter Louella Parsons. It was the top lot of the afternoon.

It seemed like the heart of the order was batting next. Edwynn Houk smashed one in the hole past a diving Kevin Moore, grabbing a lated-printed Manuel Álvarez Bravo platinum print of Tina Modotti's "Roses, Mexico" ($20,000–$30,000) for $43,200. Then Peter MacGill sent one over the head of outfielder Spencer Throckmorton, ending up with an early print of Bravo's"El Soñador" ($60,000–$80,000) for $84,000. Next, Howard Greenberg hit another one beyond Throckmorton's reach and off the wall as he made off with Tina Modotti's "Woman Carrying Olla" ($30,000–$50,000) for $108,000 (tied for tenth). Then Jeffrey Fraenkel doubled--or rather, doubled the high estimate--for Dorothea Lange's "Funeral Cortege, End of an Era in a Small Valley Town" at $72,000.

A fine large gravure of Steichen's "Rodin, le Penseur" ($8,000–$12,000), signed by Steichen and coming from the family of Rodin's biographer, was bid up by Hans Kraus, but went to the phones for $48,000. Just after this lot we hit the one hour mark at only lot 40. Many lots had multiple bidders and many times a bidder jumped in just as the hammer was about to fall.

Edwynn Houk reclaimed Bill Brandt's "Parlour Maid Preparing a Bath" ($6,000–$9,000) at a hefty $38,400. Houk had sold this print, originally from the Brandt Estate, to the present owner when his gallery was in Chicago. Michael Mattis swooped in to take László Moholy–Nagy's "Berlin" (From the Radio Tower) under the low estimate at $108,000 (tied for tenth). This was the cover lot of Sotheby's October 1998 sale, estimated then at $120,000–$150,000--and it bought in. A bottom right corner is missing, but was cropped in the catalogue illustration.

A print listed as a 1950s-60s print of Cartier-Bresson's "Seville" sold within estimate for $52,800 to the phone. Robert Klein battled Edwynn Houk for a 1950s print of Paul Strand's "Bacares, France" ($15,000–$25,000). There are four known prints, including two 1960s prints. Klein finally prevailed at $114,000 (tied for eighth).

A phone bidder acted out, bidding $48,000 for Alfred Eisenstaedt's "Children at a Puppet Theatre, Paris" ($20,000–$30,000). It's a charming picture, but how this later print in an edition of 250 commands this price is a conundrum.

Willie Schaefer made a play for W. Eugene Smith's iconic "The Walk to Paradise Garden" ($15,000–$25,000), but fell short as it went for $50,400. A fabulous 1940s album of 291 images of "Los Angeles Service Stations" ($5,000–$7,000) skyrocketed faster than the price of gas as it sold for $25,200. I imagine it can be seen as an art-historical precursor to Ed Ruscha.

Irving Penn's "Cuzco Children" ($200,000–$300,000) was one of only three major lots to pass. But his "Moroccan Child with Lamb" ($30,000–$50,000) brought $55,200 and his "Woman in Moroccan Palace" ($200,000–$300,000) claimed second place in the sale at $336,000. Collector Leon Constantiner went to $180,000 for Penn's "Girl Drinking" (M.J.R.) ($80,000–$120,000) (sixth place). And Peter MacGill paid $204,000, just under high estimate, for a mural-sized, four-section, platinum-palladium print of Penn's "Cigarette No. 37" (fourth place).

Then two vintage, signed Arbus's passed: "Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ" ($400,000–$600,000) and "Triplets, NJ" ($150,000–$250,000). Perhaps in the era of in vitro fertilization, people are beginning to worry about multiple births. But a Neil Selkirk print of Arbus's "Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park" ($100,000–$150,000) sold to Jeffrey Fraenkel for $132,000 (seventh place).

A portfolio of 302 photographs that documents the history of the airplane and its creators, by Bob Seidemann, "The Airplane as Art", 1986–97, flew just under the radar--or rather, just under the low estimate--selling to the phone for $216,000 (third place). A set had sold at Sotheby's in October 2000 for $236,750.

The cover lot of the auction, Richard Avedon's diptych of two mural-sized photographs, "Richard Wheatcroft, Rancher, Jordan, MT", 6/19/81 and 6/27/83, sold to the phones for $192,000, not quite double the high estimate. Jeffrey Fraenkel went for a hometown favorite, paying $55,200 for Lewis Baltz's portfolio "Candlestick Point" (84 prints) ($30,000–$40,000).

Peter Beard 's "Crocodile Skin" ($60,000–$80,000) was snapped up for $72,000. Three Francesca Woodman's sold for above estimate, including "My House" (Providence, Rhode Island) ($8,000–$12,000) for $33,600.

Several contemporary pieces performed well: Susan Derges's "The Observer and the Observed No. 13" ($7,000–$10,000) went for $21,600; Vera Lutter's Untitled (Lower Manhattan Skyline with the WTC) ($7,000–$10,000) sold to Robert Klein for $31,200; and works by Adam Fuss and Hiroshi Sugimoto outperformed their estimates.

The NY auctions' total for the month with Sotheby's Cuvelier sale was a staggering $34,613, 315. Add that to the $4,328,460 from Christie's Solley sale in February, and the $1,362,137 from Swann Galleries' February sale and you get $40,303,912. Plus Swann did over $1 million in their May sale. That's a 33% increase over the record $30 million the four houses did in Fall 2005. And it's almost exactly equal to the entire year of New York sales in 2004.

As our astute observer Michael Mattis exclaimed, "After the Gilman sale, it was widely predicted that an avalanche of top material would roll onto the auction block. It took a while, but this round of sales was it--from early French salt prints to contemporary Chinese color photography, probably the most impressive week of material that I can remember, and it all got absorbed somehow!"

While clearly there were numerous records set, it was the fact that so many dollars changed hands that is the most impressive aspect of the April auctions. It was not that long ago, it seems, that we were remarking when every one of the top ten lots of a sale exceeded $100,000. Now the average for an entire evening sale exceeds that figure--easily. Clearly, we're not in Kansas anymore.

(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.