Issue #168  1/6/2010
Two Prints of Ansel Adams "Moonrise" Top Swann Dec. 8th Auction, Which Breaks Over $1.1 Million, Selling 66%

By Alex Novak

Swann Galleries' auction of Photographic Literature & Fine Photographs on December 8th brought in a respectable $1,115,394 with about two-thirds of the lots selling. Prices all include the buyer's premium. Considering that there was a whopping 16 people in the room, the results are relatively impressive. Much of the action came on the phone or Internet, or through commission bids that were left with the auction house.

The Photographic Literature session included a fine example of Francis Frith's photographically illustrated volume "Egypt, Nubia and Ethiopia", with 100 albumen stereoviews, which brought $10,200 from a dealer. All the other lots in this section of the sale failed to get over the $10,000 mark, but some Japanese books of note were Kazuo Kenmochi's "Narcotic Photographic Document", Tokyo, 1963, and Shomei Tomatsu's "Nagasaki 11:02", Tokyo, 1966, $4,560 each; and Yutaka Takanashi's "Toshi-e" [Towards the City], 2 volumes, Tokyo, 1974, $4,080.

Classic modern books included a deluxe limited edition of Berenice Abbott's American Photographer, one of 420 signed by Abbott and issued with a signed silver print, New York, 1982, $4,560; a signed copy of David Heath's A Dialogue with Solitude, New York, 1965, $4,560; and Robert Frank's The Lines of My Hand, Tokyo, 1972, $4,800. A Camera Work Number 20, featuring three images by Stieglitz, New York, 1907, brought $6,000.

The top lots in the auction--and where most of the drama was centered--were two versions of Ansel Adams's iconic image of Moonrise, Hernandez, NM, 1941. Each sold to different collectors. A very rare vintage print created in 1948 that was signed and inscribed by Adams to Valentino Sarra, a photographer and W.P.A. poster designer and friend of Adams, sold for $360,000. It was one of only a very small number of vintage prints that Adams rendered with a delicate tonal quality.

The bidding came down to a dealer in the room bidding for a collector, who reportedly was the underbidder in the 2008 Sotheby's sale, a phone bidder and myself bidding in the room for a client. My collector came out on top after several bids in quick succession.

I think the opposition just wasn't prepared for other bidders and were hoping to steal the lot at the reserve (or perhaps less if it bought-in). It was interesting that there were two other bidders on this piece. The ultimate price for the high quality of the print I think was perhaps at a 40-50% discount to the market, especially when you compare it to the print in October 2006, which sold for $609,600.

Before the sale here, Swann's Daile Kaplan reported to me that experienced observers had told her that they felt this was actually a better print than the one that sold at Sotheby's in October 2006, although I personally think the two are very comparable and that both are excellent prints. The print at Swann's was certainly a much better print than the Moonrise in the 2008 Sotheby's October sale, which sold for $362,500 with numerous fairly serious condition issues and at the lowest point in the market.

Early prints of Moonrise, such as these, are all extremely rare because of the difficulty that Adams had in printing this image. Most are in institutional or major collections and are not likely to come out on the market.

The other version of the image, printed in the 1960s, showed greater contrast and a dramatically dark sky. It brought $48,000 from a collector. It was an excellent, relatively early print and another good buy in my opinion.

A Heath image, "Washington Square", a close-up portrait of an African-American boy, 1958, brought a record $16,800 from a dealer in the room buying for a client. Other mid-century highlights included Harry Callahan's poetic view of trees set against a white background, Chicago, silver print, 1950, printed early 1970s, $16,800 (same dealer and collector); and André Kertész's view of snow-covered Washington Square (Winter), silver print, 1954, printed early-mid 1970s, $10,200 (bought via a commission bid by a collector).

Among a number of Edward Weston highlights were Wm. Edmondson, Stonecutter of Nashville, ferrotyped silver print, 1941, $9,000 (bought by a collector in the room); and two images printed by Cole Weston, Shell, silver print, 1931, printed 1970s, $15,600, and Nude [Charis, Santa Monica], silver print, 1936, printed no later than 1971, $10,200 (both bought by a dealer in the room buying for a client).

A select group of 36 images by Walker Evans from American Photographs and other early projects, 1929-71, printed 1976-79, were bought over the phone by a dealer for $19,200. The silver prints by John Hill and Amos Chan from the original negatives were made for two posthumous publications.

Other images sold included: "In Chicago", a portfolio with 12 photographs by Harry Callahan, Barbara Crane, John Szarkowski, and others, 1935-79, printed 1983, $13,200 (commission bid by collector); and six silver prints from Helmut Newton's Private Property, Portfolios I-III, containing portraits of David Hockney, Karl Lagerfeld and Sigourney Weaver, among other celebrities, 1973-83, printed 1984, $14,400 (phone bid by a dealer).

Rounding out the Photographs session were early images, such as Lewis Carroll's Portrait of Emily Cecilia Harrison, albumen print, circa 1860, $7,800, and group of 24 studies from Le Nouvel Opéra de Paris by Louis-Émile Édouard Durandelle, albumen prints, circa 1865-74, printed 1875-76, $6,960; several of Lewis W. Hine's images of child workers, among them Oyster Shuckers, Port Royal, SC, silver print, 1908-12, $9,600; Alfred Eisenstaedt's Premier at La Scala, Milan, silver print, 1933, printed 1995, $16,800; Yousuf Karsh's portrait of Sir Winston Churchill, silver print, 1941, printed 1960s, $9,600; and Steve McCurry's photo of an Afghan Girl with piercing eyes, cibachrome print, 1985, printed circa 2003, $7,200.

Daile Kaplan, Vice President and Photography Specialist, said, "Our sale results reflect the growing market for works by classical photographers, with two different versions of Ansel Adams's Moonrise Over Hernandez selling for competitive prices. And for the third time, a photograph by David Heath set a record at Swann."