Issue #166  11/12/2009
Sotheby's Sale Tops $3-3/4 Million and Sells Nearly 75% of Its Lots

By Alex Novak

Over at Sotheby's they had only put together one multi-owner auction, but it was a good one. This time around the house managed to sell 74.3% of its lots and totaled $3,751,754 with its rather steep buyer's premiums. That compares to last Spring's total of $2,384,690 with a 36.6% buy-in rate. But things have definitely changed when your top lot in a sale is the Master Collection by 21st Editions (31 books, 115 prints) instead of some individual masterwork (more on that below). But then the Edward Curtis photogravure set has often been the top lot in many auctions, including at Christie's this time.

In any case, I will cover mostly those prints that are about $30,000 or more, including the buyer's premium.

That old auction war horse Ansel Adams helped get the auction off to a good start. His Moonrise, Hernandez, NM (later 16 x 20 in. print, lot 7), sold to a phone bidder for $40,000 over a man on the aisle, who had a bit of bad luck considering he underbid the next two Adams lots as well--all to the phone. Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, CA, sold to a new phone for the same amount--$40,000. Then that same phone took Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, CA, for $37,500.

Adams's The Tetons and the Snake River (lot 13) was lucky lot for a commission bid that got the prize for $35,000. Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite, went for $37,500 to a man in the room, who then promptly left. A very large (33-1/4 x 38-1/2 inches) 1958 print of Leaves, Mills College, Oakland, CA, sold to Princeton, NJ antique book dealer Joseph J. Felcone for nearly double the high estimate at $80,500. That bid was strong enough to place the lot into a tie for sixth place overall.

Pierre Dubreuil's Eléphantaisie sold to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco's James Gantz on the phone for just over its top estimate and the underbidding of Ute Hartjen of Berlin's Camerawork AG at $92,500. It put the lot into a tie for fourth place for highest priced lot in this sale. It was still a bargain because the image had sold twice before at auction for considerably more ($134,500 and $132,000 respectively, although clearly another print in the oil process in these previous auctions).

Lot 72, Yousuf Karsh's portfolio of Fifteen Portraits, sold for $40,625.

The daguerreotypes here also did well. Lot 74, The Gaucho, a half-plate daguerreotype, had been offered by Connecticut dealer William Schaeffer for $35,000, about twice the midpoint of the estimate range here. But an anonymous phone bidder had to go to $62,500 to keep it away from art consultant Jill Quasha. Was it picked up by the new French collector Francoise-Marie Banier, who had purchased the two top daguerreian lots at Christie's Miller-Plummer sale (see the last newsletter for details), or perhaps Keith Davis at the Hallmark Collection? Then the next lot, Maungwudaus, a quarter-plate of an Indian chief, sold to another phone bidder for just over the reserve at $56,250. They wound up in eighth and tied for ninth place respectively in here in Sotheby's top ten lots.

Later on lots 79A and 79B, the same phone bidder on the Gaucho image was back to scoop up more prizes. They got 79A, a half-plate daguerreotype of Charles Henry Lewis, Seaman, for $25,000 and then stole 79B, a quarter-plate daguerreotype of the Surveyor, for half its low estimate at $7,500. I will have to check with Keith Davis at the Daguerreian Society Symposium later this week.

There was a nice group of Paul Outerbridge material that generally went in their estimate range. Most of the lots went to a single phone bidder (L0031). Lot 94 was a large--for Outerbridge at least--print of an Egg in Spotlight. It was a nice print, but it seemed a bit hokey to me, although many people were attracted to it. It sold to a phone bidder for $40,625--one of only two Outerbridge lots to exceed their high estimate. Lot 99, a color carbro of Nude with Sculpture Head, sold to a phone bidder for its estimated midpoint of $50,000.

A number of viewers admired the Man Ray of Lee Miller and Friend (Kissing) (lot 116), but the two went home with collector Michael Mattis (I wonder if his wife Judy knows), who outbid the tough commission bid and the phones. The ultimate price was exactly at the high estimate and sold for $98,500. The price made the lot the third highest in the auction. It had sold about 20 years before at a Spring Sotheby's London auction for a mere $21,489. Mattis emailed me his quip about the purchase, "I'm told that the other known print is in Madonna's collection -- and she ain't selling!"

Another Man Ray, lot 123, a Rayograph made for his tapestry project, sold to New York dealer Edwynn Houk for $31,250, well over the top estimate. I underbid Houk for a client.

A phone bidder picked up Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's Fotoplastik (The Benevolent Gentlemen) (lot 139) for the midpoint in its range at $50,000.

There was a nice run of Robert Franks that did well here. His London (Street Musician) (lot 142) sold to Pace/MacGill Gallery for $28,125. The gallery picked up several important Franks at this sale; the gallery represents the photographer. The next lot, the iconic London (Hearse), failed to go at $65,000 (estimated at $80,000-120,000), which was a bit of a surprise. Lot 143A, Wellfleet, MA (Marilyn Dead) sold to a phone bidder for a reasonable $37,500.

Another Frank, lot 145, Premier, "Man with the Golden Arm", Hollywood, was indeed golden, as it sold for over estimate at $43,750 to Pace/MacGill Gallery. A slightly surreal McClellanville, SC (Barber Show through a Screen Door) again sold to Pace/MacGill Gallery for a whopping $182,500 over an estimate of only $30,000-50,000. Lots of dealers in the room and phones were busy on this one.

Robert Mapplethorpe's portrait of his muse Patti Smith (Horses) (lot 173) sold to a commission bidder at the low estimate of $37,500. His Calla Lilly broke over the low estimate and went to a woman at the back of the room, who overbid the commission bidders to get this important image for $80,500, which put the lot in a tie for sixth in the sales top ten.

Oddly enough the Irving Penn's in this sale didn't do very well, especially compared to some of those at Christie's. As I noted in the Christie's coverage, the Penn's were a bit erratic, as if most people did not get the word of his death only a few days before or couldn't react quickly enough. Lot 179, Cuzco Father and Son (With Five Eggs) sold to a phone bidder just below its estimate at $25,000. Lot 181, Two Guedras, Morocco, sold to a man in T-shirt for over the low estimate at $34,375.

Lot 182, Penn's New York Still Life, was estimated at an extremely low range of $25,000-35,000, especially given that Maggie Weston's copy of this same image was bought in at $60,000. It actually sold to a phone bidder for well under the low estimate at $25,000 including buyer's premium. The same bargain-hunting phone picked up another great buy on lot 183, Girl in Bed, for just $40,625. That's about a third the price Pace/MacGill is asking for it, and $14,000 less than the last one that sold in auction.

One Penn did sell well above its estimate: lot 188, "Nadja Auermann B", sold to our bargain-hunting phone bidder for $25,000, well above the ridiculously low $6,000 to $9,000 estimate. You have to wonder if these didn't actually go back to Pace/MacGill.

Then we come to our top lot in this sale: lot 196, the Master Collection by 21st Editions (31 books, 115 prints). It received a single commission bid (that is when a bidder leaves an order to buy a lot) of $218,500, which was a hammer bid $20,000 below the estimate range of $200,000-300,000. An American collector placed the winning bid.

There was a little odd drama that was played out on lot 200, Francesca Woodman's Polka Dots, which sold nearly at the high estimate for $28,125. A Sotheby's employee clearly went from the phone bank to the back of the room to execute the bid. I used to see this kind of nonsense done at Phillips all the time, but it is bizarre to see it at Sotheby's.

A phone bidder picked up both lots of Cindy Sherman images. Lot 202, Untitled #75, a washed out chromogenic print from 1980 when the print's dyes were neither staple nor UV-protected, sold just above its low estimate at $40,625. Lot 203, Untitled #95, a somewhat better and bigger print from 1981, sold for 25% under its low estimate at $92,500. Sotheby's didn't provide any information on the winning bidder.

Hiroshi Sugimoto's Ohio Theater, OH (lot 204) sold to a commission bid of $37,500, just at the high estimate.

Chuck Close's six 13-1/2 x 10 inch ink jet prints of Kate Moss in an edition of 25 (lot 208) mercifully bought in at a ridiculously high $75,000. The estimate had been a very reaching $100,000-150,000. I like Close's work and the daguerreotypes by Jerry Spagnoli were astounding, but ink jet prints in such a high edition for such an insane price?

Richard Avedon's image of Natassja Kinski, Los Angeles (with snake) (lot 213) went just under the low estimate at $46,875 to a phone bidder. The next lot, Avedon's sexy Stephanie Seymour, Model, sold for the identical price to a man in the room.

Peter Beard's Maureen Gallagher and a Night Feeder at Hog Ranch (supposedly a "unique", oversized object) was bought in at $95,000. How many prints has Beard made of these? You see them now at virtually every other auction.

Finally a group of three unique large-format Polaroids of Barbie dolls (lot 228) sold to a man in the room for five times the high estimate at $56,250! The phones bid him up, but this could be considered a record at auction for the artist even if you divided by three. The lot crept into the last slot in this sale's top ten. We still have some silly things going on out there. Mercifully, this was the last major lot of this sale.

Novak has over 45 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 Historical Photographic Society. 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. 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 at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Classic Photography LA, Photo LA, Paris Photo, The 19th-century Photography Show, etc.