Issue #135  10/31/2007
Swann Has Record Photo Auction, Selling Its 1st Million-Dollar-Plus Lot and Exceeding $2 Million For The First Time

The Fall auctions in New York were considered by some in the field as a test of the strength of the market. If so, they passed with flying colors for the most part. Even Swann, which had the usually unenviable position of first-up, did very well indeed this go-round, including nailing down its first million-dollar-plus lot, the Curtis portfolio.

Swann Galleries' total take for the day was about $2.1 million with 74% of the lots sold initially, plus a few more sold later. That was Swann's best performance to date in photography.

The sale was helped a bit by a major collection of maritime images from C.W. Sahlman, which consisted of the first 34 lots, and, of course, even more so, by the Curtis portfolio.

I will try to keep it to the larger lots. The prices below all include Swann's more reasonable buyer's premium of 20% compared to Christie's and Sotheby's more greedy current 25%. As Swann auctioneer Nick Lowry announced at the beginning of the sale, "We are still in that lower bracket, and a pox on the others who are not!"

The crowd was respectable at Swann at nearly 70 people in the audience at peak with lots of phones on the sidelines. Actually that was a lot more people than even the "bigger" auction houses had at several times during their sales, which keep getting more "virtual" every day.

At Swann's the room was in on a number of the lots, even if a lot eventually went to a phone or an order bid.

The W.H. Talbot of "Hungerford Bridge" (lot 2) sold for just below low estimate to an order bid for $16,800. The print was ok, but a bit light like a lot of the prints of this image. A collector purchased the image, according to Swann.

A Gustave Le Gray of "Brig on the Water" (lot 6) sold to another order bid for $31,200, which was a reasonable price and just over the low estimate, even with all the major conservation work that had been done on this print. A bit too much work on the print though for my own taste, although the print presented ok. A collector bought this as well, and made the lot the sixth highest for the day.

A man in the room snagged the small format Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz (lot 12) from the phones for a reasonable $7200.

After lot 15, an image of the Titanic went unsold, collector Michael Mattis quipped, "This one's sinking--or should I say sinks 'twice'?"

Lot 35 was a wonderful whole-plate daguerreotype of Bond & Mollyneaux Groceries & Provissions (sic) in a damaged but quite rare and exquisite mother-of-pearl case. The estimate was a joke at $6,000-9,000. I helped get it started, but the serious action was between Nelson-Atkins Museum/Hallmark Collection curator Keith Davis and Connecticut dealer William Schaeffer, who had a phone to his ear. On the other end of the line was probably dag collector Bruce Lundberg. In any case, it was Davis that won out by bidding the daguerreotype up to $57,600--nearly ten times the low estimate. That price was a bargain though. I feel that the retail on this image would easily be about $85,000+. The bid made the item the second most expensive in the auction. Davis promptly left the auction after the lot.

A collector on the phone nabbed a bargain on lot 36, Eugene Cuvalier's unique salt print of a Barbizon landscape for a mere $21,600. Compare that to the high six-figure prices at Sotheby's Cuvelier sale. And this print was also exhibited in the same NY Met exhibition and was even rarer than the other images. Several collectors and dealers I talked to later expressed regret about not bidding. The price put the lot into tenth place.

Another good published Cuvelier landscape, but in albumen, went to another phone for a mere $5,750. Bargains can be found when not in an over-hyped situation, such as the Sotheby's sale.

San Francisco dealer Robert Koch scooped another 19th-century bargain, Lewis Carroll's "Fair Rosamond" (lot 40), a large format albumen print, for only $28,800--easily worth more than double the price and good enough for seventh place here.

Another steal, Carleton Watkin's mammoth plate of "The Devil's Canyon Geysers" (lot 46) went just below low estimate at $22,800, which put it in ninth place in the overall sale. The previous lot, another mammoth plate Watkins, but of "Golden Gate Entrance to Harbor of San Francisco", which had bought in, was later sold to a dealer for $12,000. The latter lot looked a bit washed out though.

There was a lot of action on Frederick Gutekunst's large 1877 panorama of a train heading east on the Rockville Bridge, PA. Numerous phones and commission bids battled in out until the high estimate was easily exceeded at $33,600. A collector on the phone bought this piece, which was the third highest in the auction (tied with two other lots) and set a new world auction record for this photographer.

Of course the big lot at Swann's was lot 53, the "North American Indian, Being a Series of Volumes Picturing and Describing the Indians of the United States and Alaska", which was estimated at $800,000-$1,200,000. Seattle Curtis dealer Lois Flury and a collector on the phone settled down to some serious bidding. The collector got the piece at $1,048,000. Flury did pick up the next two Curtis lots though as a consolation prize.

Daile Kaplan, Swann Galleries' vice president and director of the photography department, said, "How marvelous that a classic of photographic literature, Edward Curtis' "The North American Indian", is Swann’s first million-dollar lot! The continued growth in the market may be attributed to the fact that buyers from the antiquarian book, contemporary art and design fields are discovering fine art photography. The best is yet to come."

Lot 77, Brassai's 1970s print of "Members of Big Albert's Gang" was estimated at a reasonable $7,000-10,000. I took up the bidding against the phones and collector Michael Mattis. But in the end the phone got both of us at $14,400.

The phone and a commission bidder took the Manuel Alvarez Bravo vintage print of a Window in Wall (lot 82) to nearly its high estimate. In the end it was a dealer on the phone that took the piece for $33,600, which was good enough for a three-way tie for third place.

Alfred Eisenstaedt's Time-Life portfolio print of the "Opening at La Scala, Milan" (editioned 197/250) sold for an astounding $20,400 to a collector. Considering that vintage prints of this image have sold for less here, this kind of buying strategy flabbergasts me.

Roy De Carava's gritty New York scene drew a lot of attention from dealers and collectors alike. Lot 107 was bought directly from the photographer in 1949. It certainly had a lot of condition issues, but it still presented well, and, as I have told numerous collectors, if you wait for a "perfect" print on these early photographs, you will never buy one--at least one that hasn't seen the inside of a conservator's workshop. Dealers Bruce Silverstein and Tom Gitterman, collector Michael Mattis and the phones all bid the piece well above triple its low estimate and more than double its high. At $24,000 a collector on the phone snatched it and put it into eighth place in the auction. It was also a new world auction record for the artist.

Lot 118, Robert Frank's "Miami Beach", failed to go during the auction, but was later bought after the sale for $31,200. I felt it was a pretty good buy, but collector Michael Mattis claimed that it wasn't a "typical" enough Frank to merit attention. That's what makes the market go round. I still think it was a great buy, despite the fact that there was some chemical staining in the margins. It did appear to be a genuine vintage piece from about 1960 and was to me an interesting image.

Lot 162, the Sally Mann of "Jessie at 12 (Parts I and II)", was in nice condition, but in two very strange frames/matts. The pair sold to a collector for $33,600, which placed it into a three-way tie for third place in the sale.

Swann had taken the lead-off spot and hit well.