Issue #173  8/16/2010
Photo Market Recovers in Spring Auctions: Sotheby's Sale Leads Off With a Total of $5,081,265 and a Nearly 82% Sold Rate; Selling Weston Shell For Over $1 Million

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector

(With some assistance by Alex Novak, although not responsible for the bad puns)

The spring auction season began with some hope that the photography market would consolidate the signs of economic recovery that had been building since the fall. Certainly the results at the AIPAD Photography Show trended in the right direction, as did Swann's March photo sale, if somewhat haltingly.

Sotheby's led off on April 13. The sale began with a run of 34 daguerreotypes--and a relatively small crowd consisting largely of daguerreotype collectors who all sat--stereotypically--in the back of the room. (The audience did begin to grow as the morning session got underway.)

Only nine of the daguerreotypes passed, and despite the collectors in the audience, all but one or two of the sales were by order bid or telephone. The highest selling daguerreotype was a portrait of Caroline Parker by an anonymous American photographer. It sold to telephone bidder L0090 for $62,500. This bidder was also successful in acquiring six other of the daguerreotype lots for $81,250, or $143,750 all together.

Dealer Jill Quasha planted $80,500 for Paul Strand's Growing Iris, Maine ($50,000–$70,000), good for ninth place on the top ten. Edward Steichen's Illustration for Vogue (Hands over Head) and Ansel Adams's Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, both estimated at $20,000–$30,000 sold for $45,000 each. The former was bought Galen Lee, a consultant who was very active on some of the top lots in this sale, apparently buying for a California collector. The latter sold to a commission bidder.

Adams's Teton Range and Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming ($30,000–$50,000) sold to another commission bidder for $86,500 and tied for sixth place. Adam's Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park sold for it high estimate at $37,500. Adams's Portfolio Three: Yosemite Valley garnered only two-thirds of its low estimate, $50,000, and his Portfolio Four: What Majestic Word, passed at $47,500. There had been decently active bidding to this point, yet the room remained relatively quiet, although playing an active role in some underbidding.

A private collector bidding on the phone against yet again another phone bidder climbed to $206,500 to capture a print of Margaret Bourke-White's Gargoyle, Chrysler Building, New York, 1929/30 ($120,000–$180,000), the third highest price of the day. The print has silvering circles around the glue, which apparently is common with this image. As one dealer noted, "It comes with the territory." According to dealer William Schaeffer, this was not the print used on the cover of the Bourke-White catalogue produced by Edwynn Houk, which he apparently was the original source of.

Edwynn Houk paid $27,500, more than double the high estimate, for Walker Evans's Alabama Farmer's Kitchen, 1936, printed later, while Jeffrey Fraenkel snared Evans's Alabama Tenant Farm, Kitchen Wall, for $37,500. Jill Quasha was back for a 1950s print of Julius Shulman's classic Kaufmann House, Palm Springs, 1947, well over the estimate at $47,500. Minneapolis gallerist Martin Weinstein reportedly has another vintage print of the same Shulman image available.

The afternoon session brought some better material. The star of the sale was an early print of Edward Weston's Nautilus, 1927, purchased by Bernice Lovett in 1927 and remaining in her family until the sale. Estimated at $300,000–$500,000, it was the object of active bidding, including from dealers Paul Hertzmann, Jeffrey Fraenkel and Howard Greenberg, but ultimately went in the room to Galen Lee for a California-based collector for $1,082,500, the top lot in the sale, the only million-dollar lot of the season, and more than 20% of Sotheby's total. That's virtually the same price result as the last one that was sold at Sotheby's October 2007. Most observers felt that the print in this sale had the edge--no matter how slim--over the very good print in the 2007 sale.

Another Weston, a rare print of Civilian Defense, 1942 ($50,000–$70,000) was the object of a dogfight between Peter MacGill and noted Weston collector Michael Mattis. Mattis landed safely at $152,500, the fourth highest price of the sale. Mattis also gobbled up Weston's Eggplant ($15,000–$25,000) at $72,100, over the bid of Paul Hertzmann.

The cover lot, László Moholy-Nagy's unique Photogram, early 1920s, captured second place, going to Galen Lee again for the California collector at $290,500. So this collector took the top two lots, plus another major lot that would easily rank in the top ten of many auctions. Charles Isaacs and the phone provided the underbidding. Considering some of the condition problems on this piece though, the price was very strong indeed, although printing-out photograms by Moholy-Nagy are quite rare.

Peter MacGill staked his claim to Robert Frank's Butte, Montana, 1956 ($30,000–$50,000), besting Jeffrey Fraenkel at $146,500, and fifth place. A phone bidder dug Frank's Wales (Miners, Caerau), 1951 ($50,000–$70,000), to the tune of $69,700. Edwynn Houk voted for Frank's Chicago (Political Rally) at the low estimate, $62,500. And one of my favorite Frank images, S.C. (Barbershop, McClellanville), trimmed a cool $86,500, and tied for sixth place. Apparently it went to a man in the room.

Irving Penn's Cuzco Children went to the phones for $62,500. Tenth place went to Garry Winogrand's Women Are Beautiful portfolio ($60,000–$90,000) at $76,900. Jeffrey Fraenkel was the buyer. But Robert Mapplethorpe's Flowers suite ($60,000–$80,000) passed at $54,000.

Also tied for sixth place at $86,500 and the low estimate was Bernd and Hilla Becher's Six Spherical Gas Tanks, 1998, which went to a phone bidder over a commission bid.

Vik Muniz's Doubting Thomas (from Pictures of Chocolate) ($25,000–$35,000) was certain at $45,000, the same price paid by Michael Mattis for Shirin Neshat's Identified, from The Women of Allah series ($30,000–$50,000).

The sale totaled $5,081,265, with an 18.3% buy-in rate.

Denise Bethel, Head of Sotheby's Photographs Department said, "We are thrilled with the stellar results of today's sale, which show that the market for photography is strong across all categories, from the 19th century to the 21st. The prices we achieved for Edward Weston's Nautilus, at $1.08 million, and the Moholy-Nagy Photogram, at $290,500, show the resiliency of the photographs market for the very best material. The outstanding price for the Nautilus makes Sotheby's the only auction house to have sold six classic photographs for over $1 million each."

(Copyright ©2010 by The Photograph Collector.)

My thanks to Steve Perloff and The Photograph Collector Newsletter for giving me permission to use this information. The Photograph Collector, which is a wonderful newsletter that I can heartily recommend, is published monthly and is available by subscription for $149.95. You can phone 1-215-891-0214 and charge your subscription or send a check or money order to: The Photograph Collector, 140 East Richardson Ave, Langhorne, PA 19047. Or to order The Photograph Collector Newsletter online, go to: http://www.photoreview.org/wordpressindex/shop/.