Issue #171  4/25/2010
Swann March Auction Hits Just Under Million Dollar Mark, With 60% Sold

By Alex Novak

Swann's March auction, the only one to try to position itself against AIPAD's show dates, wasn't exactly a gangbuster sale, but it wasn't a dud either. It showed how the market was slowly coming back, although the later April auctions showed the real strength (more on that in future newsletters). Here at Swann the auction managed to total $977,277 with Swann's slightly more reasonable 20% buyer's premium. That was about 22.5% under the low estimate for the overall sale, but then the sale only sold 60% of its lots, so it did well against the low estimate on the ones that did find buyers. The average lot price was only $6,834 here.

It was a bit of an odd sale with two catalogues--dealer/collector Stephen White's material and a more general auction--where things sold that probably shouldn't have and some things were bought in that were actually pretty decent deals. I don't think most people were focused on the sale at that moment in time, although a few active buyers did bid up some items. Lots of phone and order bids on this auction, and not many people in the room (I counted a peak of 21 at the beginning of the auction).

The major problem for Swann was that there were no major blockbuster items as in the past to get the total take a bit higher, but there were a number of solid mid-level pieces that sold well here. I'll go through the top ten lots in high to low order, which also are the only lots to break the $20,000 mark. All prices quoted include the buyer's premium of 20%.

Lot 60's (Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion, signed and inscribed, 21 plates, 1872-1885; printed 1887) result was a bit of a surprise to myself and even Stephen White, the consignor. It went for a whopping $57,600 to a dealer on the phone, who--I assume--must have been bidding for a client, versus an order bid. Swann claimed a record for the lot, but I have no idea why, except that they were excited about making a sale on a lot so above its estimate range of $15-20,000. Maybe they were trying to claim "highest average cost per plate", but even that would be incorrect.

Lot 42, James Wallace Black's 1868 albumen print of Kit Carson, sold to a collector who left an order bid with the auction house of $48,000--although I swear they only went up to a $34,000 hammer price in the room, which should have meant a total of just under $41,000. In any case, Swann did set a world auction record for this artist.

Lot 9, Andrew J. Russell's albumen print of Golden Spike Ceremony with Flag and Camera, Promontory Point, UT, sold to a collector on the phone for $43,200. Swann claimed a record on this lot. It was indeed one for a single photograph by Russell, but not for his highest priced lot.

A large Helmut Newton (lot 223) sold to a dealer over several phone bidders for $40,800. Swann's claimed a record, but it was neither a record for the artist, nor even for the image, which had sold in a smaller print previously at Christie's London for $82,135.

Lot 213, Mario Giacomelli's portfolio entitled La Gente [The People], 18 silver prints, sold to a collector who left an order bid for $33,600. Again, Swann claimed a record for the artist, which was true for a group lot, but not for an individual photograph.

Lot 180, Ansel Adams, Moonrise, Hernandez, NM, printed in the late 1960s, sold for a very reasonable $28,800 to a collector in the room.

Lot 68, Lewis W. Hine's 1909 Spinner, Cotton Mill, Augusta, GA, sold to a collector for $26,400. It came down to a phone bidder and a Swann employee obviously bidding an order bid, but from the back of the room as if he were a member of the audience. I know that virtually all the New York City auction houses have started to do this (putting their own personnel out in the audience bidding up commission bids), so that it sounds like a bidder in the room in order to dramatize the action and pressure bidders on the phone or others in the audience who might not be familiar with the house's employees, but I find it annoyingly close to deception. I assume it's legal, but it sure doesn't seem a very ethical practice in my opinion. As I mentioned, Swann is hardly the only auction house to do this, and I have taken others to task for it too, and will continue to do so until it stops. Again, the auction house credited the sale as a record-breaker, but that simply wasn't the case for the artist.

Lot 33, Montgomery P. Simons (attributed to), Henry Clay, half-plate daguerreotype, circa 1848, sold to a dealer on the phone for $24,000. Like most of the daguerreotypes in this sale, it was professionally cleaned, but very nicely. Swann again claimed a record, which may be true, IF they can substantiate the "attribution" to Simons.

Lot 225, another large Helmut Newton, Woman Being Filmed, Paris, sold to a collector for $22,800.

In tenth place, Lot 80, Edward Steichen's Isadora Duncan at the Portals of the Parthenon, 1921, but printed in the 1960s, sold to a collector's commission bid of $21,600.

I will throw in two more lots, because they came in just under the $20,000 mark and tied for 11th place in the sale. Lot198, Ansel Adams' Aspens, Northern New Mexico, printed late 1960s, sold to a collector on the phone against the reserve for very reasonable $19,200. And lot 156, Brassaï's Devant la 'Closerie des Lilas' dans le brouillard [In front of the 'Closerie des Lilas' in the fog], 1934, (but actually printed at least in the 1950s in my opinion) sold to a collector in the room for $19,200.

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.