Issue #166  11/12/2009
Christie's Multi-Owner Auction Nets $3,439,225 With 74.5% Sold Rate

By Alex Novak

Christie's multi-owner auction did relatively well this time around. It managed to sell 74.5% of the lots for a total of $3,439,225, including Christie's rather steep buyers' premiums. Of course, those totals included the after-sale of the Edward S. Curtis North American Indian portfolio (lot 719), which represented 22.5% of Christie's total. The auction's total take was well more than double that of last Spring's multi-owner sale, showing a market recovery of sorts. Of course, the Curtis after-sale, the highest priced lot of this autumn's auctions by far and away, made up a big chunk of this, representing 22.5% of Christie's total here.

I will generally only report on those lots over $30,000 here, including, of course, Christie's buyers' premiums.

While Hiroshi Sugimoto's images might not be climbing still, they still hold their own in the auctions. Lot 702, Sea of Japan, Rebun Island, sold to a phone bidder for about its midpoint in the estimate range at $36,250.

Walker Evan's Saratoga (lot 708), which is not the famous image but a variant, sold to a "private" phone bidder over several bidders in the room for a whopping $68,500, which was well over the high estimate and put the lot into a tie for eighth place in this auction.

The recently deceased Irving Penn did better here at Christie's than later at Sotheby's. Penn's platinum-palladium print of Father, Son and Grandfather, New Guinea (lot 710) sold to an order bid (that's a written bid that someone leaves with the auction house) at the high estimate for $37,500. Penn's "Guedras in the Wind (Morocco) (lot 713) sold to the same order bidder for $43,750. The internet provided the under-bidder.

As I noted above, lot 719, Edward S. Curtis' "The North American Indian" photogravure portfolio failed to sell in the actual auction. The auctioneer stopped at $600,000 and the lot was bought in (unsold). A "private" buyer (Christie's cryptic description) purchased the lot after the auction for $775,000. I have yet to understand how the total could make it to this round amount if Christie's buyer's premium was adhered to here. The lot was the top lot in this auction and in the entire Fall round of auctions, although not a record-breaker for this publication.

A printed-later Ansel Adams' Moonrise Hernandez, Northern NM (lot 720), sold to a commission bid for $37,500, its midpoint in its estimate range. Then lot 723, Portfolio Three: Yosemite Valley became a battle between the internet and a man in the room. The latter "private" bidder won out at $116,500--a third more than the high estimate, which put the lot into fifth place overall.

A 1970s print of Robert Frank's Covered Car--Long Beach, CA (lot 727) sold to the phone for $43,750, just under the low estimate.

An early silver print of Irving Penn's Cuzco Newsboy sold for $72,100 to an "anonymous" phone bidder as opposed to a "private" phone bidder. I suspect it was a dealer. The winning bid was well over the admittedly low estimate range of $15,000-25,000, but it reflected the erratic impact of Penn's recent death on his market. The total also put the lot into seventh place in this auction.

New York dealer Robert Mann bid to the low estimate to take Robert Frank's iconic Political Rally, Chicago (lot 734) for $86,500. Christie's called this one "private" too, so maybe Mann was bidding for a client. The price though was good enough for sixth place in this sale. The next lot, Frank's Barcelona, sold to New York dealer Peter MacGill, who represents Frank, for $43,750.

William Eggleston's Untitled, from 14 Pictures (Car with Red Brick Wall) (lot 741) has been a favorite of mine. It went to a phone bidder for just over the estimate at $68,500 over the bids of a female art consultant in the room. The amount was enough to tie this lot with Evan's Saratoga print for eighth place.

Irving Penn's Running Children, Morocco, Rabat (lot 746) sold into the midpoint of the estimate range at $35,000 to an order bidder, but it was a clear bargain at that price and a surprise compared to other Penn's here at Christie's that did much better than expected. Penn's pricing during this Fall series of auctions was, as I've said, clearly erratic.

The next lot, Robert Frank's Mary and Pablo, N.Y.C., got up to $52,500 on an order bid, well above its high estimate.

Lot 748, the cover lot of the Manuel Bravo of El Ensueno, was a bit of a mystery. It was actually withdrawn from the sale after having been at the Christie's London auction and failing to go there.

Another Ansel Adams Moonrise Hernandez (lot 761) came up in this sale, but this one was quite early and also quite small at 9-5/8 x 12-7/8 inches. The winning bidder collector Michael Mattis told me: "The print is from the early 1940s, certainly pre-dating Adams's re-intensification of the negative in 1948. It's so much more open and lighter than the later prints, especially in the foreground, and of course all those extra clouds in the sky. During the preview, Christie's had it hanging next to a standard 1970s print of Moonrise; the comparison was literally night and day!" Mattis did steal it for an incredibly low price of only $62,500, which--while being $20,000 below the low estimate--was still good enough to put the lot into tenth place here. Mattis indicated to me that he was ready to bid well into six figures for the piece, but was very pleased with the lack of competition.

Mattis then picked up lot 765, Edward Weston's Pepper #35 for its midpoint in the estimate range at $50,000.

Two Edward Curtis orotones then sold for multiples of their high estimates. Lot 767, Before the Storm, Apache, sold to a commission bidder for $43,750. Then lot 768, The Vanishing Race, sold to the Internet for $47,500.

Adam Fuss' poor rabbit (lot 770, untitled), which was the back cover of the catalogue, drew a commission bid of $37,500 and not much else, going for well under the low estimate.

Peter Beard's Salaam and Kwahevi, Orphaned Cheetah Cubs, (lot 772) sold for a silly $52,500 to the Internet. The estimate was $12,000-18,000. You wonder if some of these internet people will actually pay up.

One of the big lots in this sale was lot 781, Robert Frank's oversized Fish Kill, NY, estimated at $60,000-90,000. The 16-5/8 x 13-5/8 inch print became a battle between two phone bidders. One reeled in this lot for an astounding $170,500. That put the print in a tie for second place in the sale (actually first, if you don't count the Curtis portfolio that sold AFTER the sale).

Still a number of buy-ins in this sale, notably lot 785, an unsigned but vintage Diane Arbus "A Family One Evening in a Nudist Camp, which was estimated at $100,000-150,000. The auctioneer stopped at $60,000 with no bids. It was one of several Arbus prints that bought in. Paul Strand's Rebecca (lot 811), estimated at $90,000-120,000, also bought in at $55,000.

A Robert Frank blown-up contact sheet from the Americans (lot 793) sold to a woman with a phone in her ear (art consultant) for just under the high estimate at $40,000.

On the next lot New York dealer Janet Lehr picked up the David Hockney color photo collage of Christopher Isherwood talking to Bob Holman, Los Angeles for $37,500, triple the midpoint of the estimate.

The woman with her phone in her ear was back for lot 799, the William Eggleston of Greenwood, MS (or better known as "The Red Ceiling"). It was reportedly damaged (scratches), but sold just under its lower estimate at $158,500. It too was listed as a "private" buyer by Christie's. The price put the lot into fourth overall.

Irving Penn's Vionnet Dress with Fan (lot 813) sold to a phone bidder just over its high estimate at $46,250.

One of the last big lots in the sale and one of the most anticipated lots was number 819, water lilies by Baron Adolph De Meyer, the same image that sold in the Miller-Plummer sale reported in the last issue of this newsletter. Only this time it was in a beautiful vintage platinum print, which made all the difference. It only sold for just under its low estimate, but still made $170,500. A man in the back of the room was the winning bidder. Again, Christie's called this a "private" sale. The amount set a new world auction record for the artist and tied the Frank of Fish Kill, NY for second place in the sale.

Lot 828 featured a color image by Erwin Olaf, a contemporary artist whose been hot lately, that was published as the cover of his 2008 Aperture monograph. It managed to just eke a bid over the low estimate at $40,000.

Combined, the sales at the four Christie's auctions racked up just a shade under $7.5 million, at the middle of the auction house's estimate range of $6 to $9 million. The 14 Irving Penn prints brought in a total of $492,850, which was more than double the auction house's total lower estimate of $235,000.

Novak has over 47 years experience in the photography-collecting arena. He is a long-time member and formally board member of the Daguerreian Society, and, when it was still functioning, he was a member of the American Photographic Historical Society (APHS). He organized the 2016 19th-century Photography Show and Conference for the Daguerreian Society. He is also a long-time member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers, or AIPAD. Novak has been a member of the board of the nonprofit Photo Review, which publishes both the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector, and is currently on the Photo Review's advisory board. He was a founding member of the Getty Museum Photography Council. He is author of French 19th-Century Master Photographers: Life into Art.

Novak has had photography articles and columns published in several newspapers, the American Photographic Historical Society newsletter, the Photograph Collector and the Daguerreian Society newsletter. He writes and publishes the E-Photo Newsletter, the largest circulation newsletter in the field. Novak is also president and owner of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, a private photography dealer, which sells by appointment and has sold at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Classic Photography LA, Photo LA, Paris Photo, The 19th-century Photography Show, Art Miami, etc.