Issue #165  11/2/2009
Miller-Plummer Collection Sells For $1.8+ Million With 76% Sold By Lot At Christie's

By Alex Novak

Randy Plummer and Harvey Miller decided to build a joint photography collection in the Spring of 1973. It was Miller's encounter with a Julia Margaret Cameron portrait of John Herschel that convinced him of the validity of photography as a true art medium, and he convinced his friend Plummer to join his quest to build such a collection.

Both are sort of neighbors of mine, and I've encountered one or the other at local or far-flung events. While there were some real gems in the collection, there were also many understandably iconic, but later-printed images or simply a few average ones that didn't quite measure up condition-wise. Nonetheless, the auction did very well by selling 76% of the lots for $1,832,625 with Christie's steep buyers' premium, and there were some spectacular, surprisingly high bids on a few lots.

If I were Miller and Plummer, I would seriously consider making a nice cash donation to the George Eastman House. It was this institution's exhibition and catalogue of their collection that put it on the map drawing some of these prices. The G.E.H could certainly use the help.

All prices below include these premiums. I will mostly hit those lots that broke over $20,000 with the premium. By the way, if you were interested in why some of these lots didn't sell, I have one word for you: condition.

Lot 516 showed one of Edward Weston's many cats perched on a piece of driftwood. Cat-lover or Weston-lover, Janet Russek of Santa Fe's Scheinbaum & Russek, Ltd. fought off a phone bidder to capture Weston's "Johnny", which Weston himself termed, "my best cat portrait." It sold for $23,750.

The Alexander Gardner Sketchbooks (lot 521) seemed underestimated at $40,000-60,000, considering several have sold above $100,000. Numerous dealers in the room were bidding this one up, but it ultimately sold to another dealer on a phone for $92,500, which placed the lot into the second highest spot overall in this sale. The condition wasn't spectacular, but then some of the more recently auctioned ones haven't been either. This dealer (bidder 1745) was later very active on many other 19th-century lots in the sale.

A decent 1/6-plate daguerreotype portrait of Capt. Charles John Biddle (lot 522) by early American daguerreotypist Robert Cornelius sold to a phone bidder for a reasonable $3,750.

The next lot, also a daguerreotype, would get a lot more action, especially considering that it was placed on the back cover of the catalogue. Estimated at a very tempting (and impractically low) $15,000-25,000, this beautiful 1/4 -plate image by Marcus Aurelius Root of his son, Albert Pritchard, asleep by an American flag would get bids from several sources in the room and on the phone. Swiftly climbing to $74,500, which put it in a tie for sixth place overall in the auction, the ultimate bidder was not one of the normal suspects, such as collector Bruce Lundberg, curator Keith Davis or dealer Willy Schaeffer, most of whom appeared interested. Instead it was a new French collector, who was being advised by the very wily Pierre Apraxine, the former curator of the Gilman collection, who is credited with one of the best eyes in the business. The pair, sitting side by side during the auction, would be very active on some key pieces in the sale.

The collector--I learned later from Paris photo dealer Baudoin Lebon--was Francoise-Marie Banier, a novelist/writer, painter and photographer. He contributes frequently to "The New Yorker" and to "Les Cahiers du Cinéma". He is represented in the U.S. by Gagosian Gallery.

Lot 529, the first of the Irving Penn lots to come up for auction just days after he passed away, was one of his cigarette images and not one of my favorites (Cigarette No.86). Underestimated at $12,000-18,000, it sold to a phone bidder for very high $37,500.

Penn's prices in this season's auction sales were all over the map, some very high and some actually very low. I expect that the low results reflected that only a few people got the word of his death (literally the day before these sales) before bidding this time out and the slow economy. It also seems to take one auction cycle at a minimum for the market to take in the impact, as it did with Avedon, as photography commentator Stephen Perloff told me during these sales. But then there were some extraordinarily high prices as well, which you will see later.

I'm not sure how this catalogue was designed or laid out. Sometimes I felt whiplashed back and forth between immensely disparate lots. Lot 531 was a 1925 Lazslo Moholy-Nagy photogram from Dessau. Estimated at a still reasonable $60,000-80,000, it sold for only $47,500 to New York dealer Howard Greenburg. It was a real bargain. There were to be other such bargains in these Fall auctions, despite their overall strength.

From a Moholy-Nagy photogram we swung to the beginning of photography and William Henry Fox Talbot. His "Pencil of Nature" (lot 532) sold to New York dealer Hans Kraus, Jr. for four times its admittedly low estimate at $30,000. The next lot, Talbot's "Sun Pictures in Scotland", went for five times its estimate at $62,500. It sold to a dealer on the phone over another phone. Kraus had dropped out much earlier on this lot. While these were rare publications, their photographs were typically faded. The Sun Pictures was the eighth highest price paid for a lot in this auction.

It was the very next lot that got all the buzz at this sale--at least after the bidding was over on it. Lot 534 was another ¼-plate daguerreotype by Marcus Aurelius Root, estimated for what I thought at the time to be a reasonable $20,000-30,000. Again the phones and normal suspects entered the fray, but also again it was collector Francoise-Marie Banier (with Pierre Apraxine whispering in his ear) that came away with this little treasure. The price? An astonishing $350,000! This set a world auction record for the artist (as did the previous Root) and made this lot the most expensive in the sale.

The two Root daguerreotypes actually brought in over 23% of the entire auction total here. Daguerreotypes due to their uniqueness can sometimes bring on bidding wars that are just unexplainable to the casual observer, but they do attract the passionate collector and curator.

Lot 535, Mathew Brady's large salt print portrait of Samuel Morse with His Recorder, attracted New York dealer Charles Isaacs and several phone bidders. But it was a phone bidder that ultimately bought this one for $37,500, more than triple the high estimate. The print could only be called average at best, but it was an important historical piece.

This bidder (1763) bought several other important 19th-century American pieces in this sale, including the previous Cornelius daguerreotype. In fact this bidder again came out on top on lot 538, the Victor Prevost Columbia College salt print, which was finally nailed down at $23,750 over the underbid by San Francisco dealer Michael Shapiro. The price was about four times the high estimate. Charles Isaacs had dropped out along the way at about $10,000 (double the high estimate).

Bidder 1745, a dealer on the phone who had bought the earlier Gardner Sketchbooks, was back on the next lot (539), an uncut Charles Negre of the Recreation Room at the Imperial Asylum at Vincennes. Despite being a bit light in the center, it sold for a much underpriced $12,500. They also picked up lot 542 (Alphonse Mucha of a Model) and the three Auguste Salzmann's (lots 552-554), all for very good prices.

Another dealer on the phone took an almost complete set (six plates missing from the Steichen issue) of Camera Work for the reserve at a mere $80,500 versus an estimate of $90,000-120,000 plus 25% premium. Lot 547 was clearly a steal at this price.

Lot 550 was a rare Talbotype by the Langenheim brothers of a lighthouse under construction in Florida. The phones bid up dealer Hans Kraus, Jr., who had to pay $20,000, more than double its high estimate.

Lot 557, two tiny 1/9th-plate tintypes of what were being called two "hunchbacks" by Silas A. Holmes, received more than a few comments. Several vernacular dealers felt they were just of two people photographed from the back, which is rather common. The pair of tintypes sold to a phone bidder for $1,375, who obviously believed the catalogue description, found the tintypes rare and apparently didn't mind their less than perfect condition.

The results on lot 560, Baron De Meyer's Water Lilies, and the version in the regular multi-owner Christie's sale of the same image show why you should try to always buy the earliest and best prints you can. This one in the Miller-Plummer collection sold way under the low estimate at the reserve for $25,000 to a phone bidder--and frankly that might have been too high a price. It was printed in the 1940s instead of 1906 when the negative was made. It was a rather plain silver print, instead of the lovely platinum print of lot 819 in the multi-owner sale, which set a new world auction record for the artist at $170,500! (More on that sale in the next newsletter, along with coverage of the other auction action.)

Dealer Howard Greenburg came back on lot 562, the other Moholy-Nagy photogram in the sale. He had to battle off Michael Shapiro with a phone in his ear and several phone bidders, but he still stole this one at just under half its low estimate at $27,500.

One comment on lot 564, the cyanotype of a fern (with its actual mounted fern), which sold to a phone bidder for $18,700. The description that the piece "was originally mistaken for Anna Atkin's own work" is slightly misleading, to say the least. I have examined several of these prints from the Hatton Fern album and matched the handwriting exactly to samples of writings by Anna Atkins herself. These can be found in her Algae album and her letters. The ferns that are usually attributed to Atkins (including one earlier in this sale) are actually by Anne Dixon, who was helped by Atkins. The handwriting on those cyanotypes is in Dixon's hand, not Atkins', just to once and for all clear up this misattribution to a Mrs. Hatton and other such nonsense that I have seen.

The Dorothea Lange "Migrant Mother" (lot 580) was a strange print for me. It had been bought from Lee Witkin about 1981, but the big question was when was the print made and by whom? It sold to a phone bidder for over the high estimate for $86,500, which would have been a very good price if the piece was vintage. If I were the phone bidder, I would black light the print and then have the paper tested even if it didn't glow. Christie's said it was a "private" bidder and the print received the third highest price in this auction.

I have no clue as to what either Christie's or the phone bidder was thinking on lot 584, Constant Famin's Figure in Forest, Fontainebleau. Estimated at a ridiculous $15,000-25,000, this image wouldn't have sold for 1500 euro (or $2,250) at a French auction. But it sold here for $12,500. Famin is not particularly rare or important, and this print was actually not in great condition on top of that. Just plain silly.

The next lot, on the other hand, was a lovely and rare arrowroot print of St. Cloud by Eugene Atget. While the estimate was up there, I still think the $56,250 price tag that it ultimately sold for was well worth it. Dealer Charles Isaacs got it for about the reserve.

Lot 594, Edward Weston's Potato Cellar, Lake Tahoe sold to New York dealer Robert Mann for $22,500, which--while over the high estimate--was still a real bargain.

The last time that I saw an auction record for the Irving Penn of a Chimney Sweep, London (lot 598) it sold for $3,450 at Sotheby's NY in April 1996. A few of these "Small Trades", as Penn and the Getty Museum Show (on exhibit through January 10th) of the same name call it, have sold for teens through about $30,000. I actually had a client on this one who hoped to steal one in this market, not counting on Penn's untimely death.

Estimated at an admittedly too low $10,000-15,000, the lot soared as phone bidders couldn't bid fast or often enough. Finally one phone bidder took this excellent platinum-palladium print for a whopping $74,500, a tie with one of the Root daguerreotypes for sixth place in this auction. This one seemed to be definitely influenced by the events. I have seen great variability lately on Penn platinums, but admittedly this was a beautiful print. Christie's gave this one its ambiguous "private" buyer designation.

Lot 604, the Frederick H. Evans "Sea, Sky and Sand" platinum print sold for nearly three times its high estimate at $21,250.

The large and beautiful Heinrich Kuehn gum print of "In Bacino di San Marco, Venezia" (19-7/8 x 25-1/4 in.) sailed above its high estimate to $86,500 and sold to a dealer on the phone. The price tied the lot for third place here and was a new world auction record for the artist.

Lot 614 was a Ray Metzker contact strip composite. Christie's had a pre-sale announcement on the piece that mentioned: 1.) that the illustration should have been a vertical with the left-hand edge at the top; 2.) the edition should have read 3/20 instead of 5/20; and 3.) the edition was never completed and only three were actually made! It would wind up selling for over the high estimate at $22,500 to a gentleman sitting closely next to Howard Greenburg. He had to battle off Metzker dealer Lawrence Miller and an Internet bidder to get it though.

The final lot of this sale set another world auction record for an artist. This time it was for Joel-Peter Witkin of Le Braiser, NM. Estimated at $8,000-12,000, it soared well over its high estimate at $50,000. It was sold to an art consultant in the room over Paris dealer Baudoin Lebon.

(More auction reports including Christie's, Sotheby's and Swann's multi-owner auctions coming up in the next newsletter)