Issue #173  8/16/2010
Irving Penn's Soar At Christie's Auction, Totaling Over $3.8 Million and 100% Sold

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector and Photo Review

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

Christie's followed on April 14 with a much-anticipated late afternoon sale, "Three Decades with Irving Penn: Photographs from the Collection of Patricia McCabe." McCabe was Penn's long-time studio manager and the beneficiary of many gifts from Penn over the years. The room was packed as the sale began, with standing room only in the back and at least 18 people manning the phones along the sides of the room.

The sale got off to a roaring start as Penn's dealer Peter MacGill rode off with Hell's Angel: Doug, well over the high estimate at $42,500. Penn's Poppy, Glowing Embers (New York), 1968, printed 1989 ($70,000–$90,000) was as intense an object of contention as the poppy trade in Afghanistan. Eventually a phone bidder outlasted collector Jack Hastings, taking home the prize for $182,500, the fifth highest price of the sale.

Next, phone bidder 1822, who was a big phone buyer in this sale, snared Broken Egg, NY, 1959, a dye-transfer print, printed no later than 1964 and estimated at only $7,000-–$9,000, for a whopping $206,500. I wonder if hash browns came with that egg. It was good for a tie for third place.

Then 1822 filled an inside straight, grabbing Playing Card, NY, 1975, platinum-palladium print, printed 1976 ($20,000–$30,000) after anteing up $170,500, for sixth place. 1822 also captured the next lot, Street Photographer, New York, 1951, a platinum-palladium print, printed 1976 ($25,000–$35,000) for $80,500, tenth place.

A different phone bidder carried off Penn's Self Portrait, 1986 ($25,000–$35,000) for $68,500 after jumping into the bidding after this one stalled initially at the $45,000 hammer mark. Again, occasionally, the estimates seemed irrelevant.

But 1822 was back for Cuzco Children, 1948, gelatin silver print, printed no later than 1964, just over high estimate at $206,500, which put the lot into a tie for third place. Then 1822 came back again to pick up the portrait of John F. Kennedy for $37,500.

Three Asaro Mudmen, New Guinea, 1970, gelatin silver print, printed 1984 ($40,000–$60,000) took ninth place at $110,500. The buyer? 1822! They also took Dahomey Children at $23,750.

Peter MacGill claimed Bone Forest, 1980 ($12,000–$18,000) at $43,500, outbidding Ute Hartjen of Berlin's Camera Work gallery.

A new phone bidder paid $68,500 for Train Sandwich Vendor, New York, 1951 ($25,000–$35,000). This was lot 24, of 70, and it had taken 45 minutes of intense bidding to get here. A 5 pm sale usually ends in plenty of time for people to get dinner afterward, but at this rate I was wondering if we might be there till breakfast the next day.

A phone bidder, 1792, who had won a couple of somewhat lower-priced lots earlier, made off with Butcher, London, 1950 ($15,000–$25,000) at $74,500, even though no filets were included. Sitting Man with Pink Face (New Guinea), 1970/1980 ($25,000–$35,000) waited out a bid of $52,500 from the phones. Yet another phone bidder went shopping for Mud Glove (SM), Neg. IV, 1975 ($20,000–$30,000) paying $56,250--that's for one glove, and not even Michael Jackson's glove.

Ute Hartjen, who had underbid two lots previously, was finally a winner, taking Hell's Angels, San Francisco, 1967, printed 1984 ($18,000–$22,000) for $43,750. 1822 paid $47,500, just over high estimate, for Five Okapa Warriors, New Guinea, 1970, or a mere $9,500 per warrior.

Another poppy did very well, despite the mishandled section of the photograph at the lower right, which was clearly mounted later to minimize the damage. Lavender Glory Poppy, New York, 1968, dye-transfer print, printed 1984 ($50,000–$70,000) took eighth place at $116,500, the only lot to go to an order bidder. I wonder if they actually looked over the print. It was also difficult to see who was actually bidding them up.

A woman in the corner, who appeared to be an art consultant, was drawn to Iron Couple, 1980 (estimated $12,000-18,000) for nearly double the high estimate at $43,750.

Peter MacGill swept up Cigarette No. 69, 1972, just over high estimate at $47,500. Then a phone bidder more than tripled the high estimate for Penn's engaging portrait, Kiesler and De Kooning, 1960/1972, paying $60,000 for the prize. A woman in the room picked up Sewing Machine with 13 Objects, 1979, for more than double the midpoint of the estimate at $37,500.

The small tradesmen came up big. This series here deservedly got its due. Plumber, New York ($18,000–$22,000) raised his rates to $68,500. 1842, who also bought the Train Sandwich Vendor, got this one. And Motorcycle Policeman, New York ($20,000–$30,000) sped to $56,250 to another phone bidder.

A phone bidder outlasted other phones to take Vionnet Dress with Fan, 1977, for $47,500. The piece had apparently been in a glass frame that broke. The breakage created some scuffing lines on the image. It was also mat burned (as were several other images in the sale). Nothing that a bit of good conservation couldn't clean up, but…

1842 was back for a third and final time, winning Nude No. 151, New York, 1949–51, printed 1974, at well over twice the high estimate, $62,500. And 1822 was far from done, adopting Brother and Sister (Morocco), a 1971 platinum-palladium print, flush-mounted on aluminum, printed 1991 ($25,000–$35,000) for a cool $134,500, good for seventh place, and giving shelter to 5 Moroccan Women, 1971 ($30,000–$25,000) at $47,500.

Another phone took Cigarette No. 42, 1974 for $37,500. (Editor's note: the Stephen Perloff look-alike portrait of Augustus John sold to the room for a mere $15,000. Better luck next time, Steve.)

Then came what would prove to be the top two lots in the sale: 2 Guedras, 1972, platinum-palladium print, flush-mounted on aluminum, printed 1977, and Four Guedras (Morocco), 1971, platinum-palladium print, flush-mounted on aluminum, printed 1985 (both estimated at $40,000–$60,000). They brought $314,500 and $165,259, respectively--almost $80,000 per Guedra! Who else but 1822 claimed them, as well as the last big lot in the sale, the final dummy for Moments Preserved ($20,000–$30,000), for a smart $68,500.

There were a few other lots in between worth a mention, including a dye transfer Rose, Colour Wonder (London), 1970, that went to a phone bidder for $47,500; and Six New Guinea Mudmen, 1970, that sold for a bargain $35,000 to New York gallerist Howard Greenberg. The art consultant on Iron Couple came back jumping bids on another still life The Spilled Cream, 1980, to get it for nearly double the low estimate at $43,750. One went after the sale at Sotheby's last October for a mere $10,000, plus premium. One AIPAD dealer was also offering a Three Guedras for $35,000 at the AIPAD Show just a week before. That might indicate how crazy Penn's prices got here.

Finally a phone got the last lot of the sale, Ospedale, 1980, for $40,000, over an estimate of $15,000-25,000.

The sale finally ended at 6:48 pm--a little short of two hours for only 70 lots, perhaps one of the longest auctions per lot ever.

1842 took three important lots totaling $199,500. Peter MacGill, Penn's dealer, took ten lots totaling $272,000. But 1822 was the big spender, claiming nine of the top ten lots, and 13 lots overall, for a whopping $1,702,750, fully 44% of the sale total of $3,851,250.

After the successful sale at Sotheby's, this auction proved that the market had rebounded--and in a big way for the best material. Philippe Garner, International Head of Photographs, said, "We are delighted with the results of tonight's sale of Three Decades with Irving Penn: Photographs from the Collection of Patricia McCabe, the most significant group of photographs by Irving Penn ever to come to auction and with a result that was a great tribute to his masterful talent. The personal significance of this work to Mr. Penn's longtime assistant, Patricia McCabe and its special provenance made this collection especially desirable. The top selling lot, 2 Guedras, far exceeded its high estimate at $314,500. In addition, we are extremely pleased that the sale was 100% sold by value and by lot, and [by] today's total of $3.8 million."

Actually, Christie's missed out on some bragging rights here. Both Garner's quote and the summary at the top of Christie's press release quote the sale as 100% sold by value, or by dollar. But unlike an athlete who can give no more than 100%, despite all those sports clichés, you can sell more than 100% by value--that is, over estimates--as Christie's did here. On what were mostly reasonable estimates, only 11 lots sold under their low estimates, 10 lots within the estimates, and 49 lots over their high estimates--some way over, as noted. For one night at least the exuberance--rational or otherwise--was back in the photography auction market.

(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, 340 East Maple Ave., Suite 200, Langhorne, PA 19047. Or to order The Photograph Collector Newsletter online, go to: http://www.photoreview.org.