Issue #174  9/14/2010
The Polaroid Auction: a Not So Instant History

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector and Photo Review

The sale of the Polaroid Collection was an unmitigated triumph for Sotheby's--and therefore also for the creditors of Polaroid--totaling $12,467,638, comfortably exceeding the pre-sale estimate of $6.9-$10.7 million. The sale was 88.8% sold by lot. Fourteen new artist records were set, including ones for a single photograph by Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, Lucas Samaras, and Harry Callahan, and for photographic works by Chuck Close, Robert Rauschenberg, and David Hockney. The months of work without weekends off that Sotheby's experts put into the sale and its catalogue were clearly rewarded.

The auction itself was brilliantly staged as it opened with works by contemporary artists who could command a crossover audience with even more money than traditional photography collectors, thus assuring that the sale got off to a rousing start and increasing the sense of urgency among bidders who were vying for many rare and unique images.

Sotheby's saleroom for the evening session on June 21 was packed--literally standing room only. There was a buzz in the audience akin to that of the opening midnight showing of the latest Harry Potter movie. Indeed, throughout the evening most lots had multiple bidders in the audience and/or on the phones.

The very first lot--William Wegman's Avalanche, a 20x24-inch Polaroid depicting the great Man Ray (the dog, not the artist) being covered with flour--was a predictor of the entire evening. Estimated at $7,000-$10,000 it was hammered down to a phone bidder, L0153 for $30,000.

It should be noted that many of the estimates were relatively reasonable, not reaching and not too enticingly low, but for some others the estimates seemed to be placed in the lowest possible range and no lot seemed to be estimated notably too high. Also the reserve, which seemed to be consistently 50% of the low estimate, was kept low to ensure the greatest number of sales possible.

The artist record for Lucas Samaras was surpassed twice in the session--first with the cover lot--Untitled (Self-Portrait with Hands), a unique large-format Polaroid Polacolor print, which sold for $56,250 (lot 2, $10,000-$15,000) to phone bidder L0112. That same bidder took the next lot, Chuck Close's 9-Part Self Portrait, a unique collage of large-format Polapan prints, which sold for $250,500, more than four times the high estimate and a record for a photograph by the artist at auction (lot 3, $40,000-$60,000). It took seventh on the top ten list in the sale. But besides one other small lot, L0112 was finished for the night.

Another auction record was set for a photographic work by Robert Rauschenberg, who's Japanese Sky I (from The Bleacher Series) brought $242,500 (lot 5, $40,000-$60,000) from the phones. There were at least 10 bidders for this work. Given Rauschenberg's importance, one could argue that his work--and Warhol's and Hockney's--would have been estimated much higher had they been in a Contemporary Art sale. Still, the tenth-place price was impressive.

The next lot, David Hockney's Imogen + Hermiane. Pembroke Studios, London, 30th July 1982, a unique SX-70 collage ($30,000-$50,000), also set a photographic auction record at $194,500. L0153 took this one. It was just a hint of this bidder's impressive buying spree to come.

Consultant Kevin Moore swept Robert Mapplethorpe's Patti Smith off her feet. At $43,750 it was more than double the high estimate. (Moore later got a bargain on a Lorna Simpson, one of the few lots to sell below estimate in this session.) Seven of the first ten lots sold over high estimate, and it had taken a full half-hour to hammer them down. It was going to be a loooong night.

Robert Frank's New York, a silver print from a Polaroid negative, commanded two-and-a-half times the high estimate at $46,875. L0153 let us know he or she was still around by outlasting the field for Lucas Samaras's Ultra-Large (Hands) ($20,000-$30,000) for an astonishing $194,500, setting by far a new record for Samaras. Peter MacGill outbid Howard Greenberg for the next Samaras, Ultra-Large (Self-portrait) ($25,000-$35,000), paying a modest $122,500. That lot, number 25, was hammered down at the one-hour mark, so things had speeded up--a bit. Seventy lots an hour is not uncommon in most auctions, 50-60 lots an hour when there is heavy bidding. Clearly this was not a normal night.

Collector Jeffrey Fort corralled Samaras's Panorama, a unique collection comprised of 40 thin strips of Polaroid Type 808 prints, for $62,500, more than four times the high estimate.

It was good to see some important but underappreciated photographers get their due here. Robert Heinecken's brilliant Lessons in Posing Subjects ($15,000–$25,000), 212 Polaroid SX-70 prints mounted on 28 sheets, also went to Jeffrey Fort at $98,500 over the underbid of Kevin Moore. And Heinecken's Upper Middle Class Nuclear Family ($15,000–$25,000), a series of 4 unique mural-sized Polaroid Polacolor prints, went to another bidder in the room at $56,250.

A phone bidder topped Peter MacGill for another large Chuck Close Self Portrait at $134,500, just slightly more than doubling the low estimate. A new bidder in the room claimed Andy Warhol's Farah Fawcett at $43,500, five times the high estimate. But that was only a prelude.

The auction record for a photograph by Andy Warhol was broken twice: Self-Portrait (Grimace), a unique large-format Polaroid Polacolor print, sold for $146,500 (lot 52, $10,000-$15,000) and then, with more than seven bidders competing, his Self-Portrait (Eyes Closed) soared past a high estimate of $15,000 to sell for $254,500, good for eighth place. L0153 took both.

And we were just getting to the Ansel Adams prints. And L0153 was just getting started!

Adams's Half Dome, Merced River, Winter, Yosemite Valley hit its high estimate at $62,500. L0153. Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine achieved the same price, but L0119 took this one. Dealer Charles Isaacs made a play for the first mural-sized Adams print, Merced River, Cliffs of Cathedral Rock, Autumn, but L0153 got it at $218,500, as well as Rail Fence-Teton, just over estimate at $40,625.

Other bidders took Mt. McKinley and Wonder Lake, Alaska ($30,000-$50,000) and Grand Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming ($50,000-$70,000), both at $53,125. But L0153 came back for the mural-sized Tenaya Lake, Mount Conness, Yosemite National Park at $80,500, actually just over the reserve, and for another mural, Cedar Trees in Snow, Winter, Yosemite National Park, at the mid-point of the estimate, $50,000.

Peter MacGill made a play for a great Harry Callahan, Trees in Mist (Chicago, Trees in Snow) ($70,000–$100,000), that had been part of the Library Collection, but L0153 prevailed at $254,500, making this the ninth highest lot of the sale and a record for the artist at auction. It was the same story with the same bidders on the next Callahan, Woman and Child (Cityscape) (Eleanor and Barbara) ($30,000–$50,000). L0153 took this at $98,500.

Collectors Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla straightened up Imogen Cunningham's Unmade Bed ($15,000–$25,000) at $146,500. But L0153 was back for the next three lots: Minor White, Barns (Two Barns, Dansville, New York) ($10,000–$15,000) at $53,125; Dorothea Lange, End of an Era ($20,000–$30,000) at $74,500; and Dorothea Lange, Peapickers Family (Migrant Mother, Nipomo) ($60,000–$80,000) at $218,500 ($180,000 hammer). Migrant Mother had numerous bidders, including James Alinder, Michael Mattis, Charles Isaacs, and Linda Benedict-Jones, formerly a curator of the Polaroid Collection and now Curator of Photography at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Benedict-Jones came with pre-approved bids for nine pieces, including a very reasonable one of $120,000 for Migrant Mother. But the bidding was so aggressive throughout the sale that she went home empty-handed. Still, Benedict-Jones and the Carnegie deserve congratulations for a valiant attempt. It's rare that a museum comes to an auction so well prepared.

Milton Haberstadt's San Francisco (1), a Kodalith print ($5,000-$7,000), was perhaps the most problematic item on offer. It almost became the first pass of the night, but after a very pregnant pause a room bidder rescued it at the reserve. One could read the near-disappointment in auctioneer Denise Bethel's face while she waited for a bid, and then the wave of relief when it sold.

A phone bidder soared above collector Christopher Luce for William Garnett's Plowed Field, Arvin, Calif. (Vertical Aerial 500 Ft. ($6,000-$8,000) at $50,000, but Luce came back for Garnett's Nude Dune, Death Valley, Calif. (Vertical Aerial About 500 Ft.) (Sand Dune #1) ($6,000-$8,000) at $37,500.

L0153 claimed Adams's mural-sized Siesta Lake, Yosemite National Park, California below estimate at $80,500. We reached lot 86 at the three-hour mark of the sale. But the most important mural-sized images were yet to come.

A bidder in the room went toe-to-toe with L0153 for Aspens, Northern New Mexico ($150,000-$250,000), but it eventually fell to our anonymous phone bidder at $494,500, the third highest price of the sale. L0153 also claimed the fifth highest-priced lot, The Tetons and Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming ($250,000–$350,000) at $350,500.

Another phone bidder, who claimed a few lower-priced lots, took a 16x20-inch print of Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park ($20,000-$30,000) at $53,125. It was a brief respite.

Next up was the mural-sized Moonrise ($300,000-$500,000). James Alinder, bidding for a client, was in it till the end, but eventually yielded to the bidder who had gone after Aspens at $518,500, the second highest lot of the sale. Oddly, L0153 was not a player on this lot.

This mural-sized print of Moonrise had hung in the Polaroid cafeteria without any glazing. At some point, probably in the 1960s, someone decided to use it as a dartboard, presumably aiming at the moon as the bull's-eye. If that was so, they weren't very good at darts as the moon was never hit, but there were numerous holes in the sky, in the right side, and in the lower left of the print. The print was removed when this activity was discovered. In 1986 when Polaroid was getting ready for its 50th anniversary it decided to celebrate with an exhibition entitled "Ansel Adams and Polaroid: A Special Relationship." In preparation, the curatorial staff was asked to restore the print. The Collection had five Moonrises, but this was the largest. The print was driven in a van to Western Massachusetts where conservator Robert Lyons spent six months delicately repairing the print. The price was $5,000, which was a lot at the time.

When finished, the print looked beautiful. Lyons had done fine work. The print was in the exhibition and traveled to several venues.

At the preview, if you viewed the print from a variety of angles you could see numerous tiny marks that are barely perceptible. They aren't obvious if you're not looking for them. However, if the buyer wanted a print with a unique provenance, they really got one in this case.

The collector who took Moonrise came right back for Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California ($300,000-$500,000) at $482,500, number four on the top ten list.

Lot 100, Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park ($300,000-$500,000) brought the evening to a close. Dealer James Danziger, who bought a couple of less-expensive Adamses, dropped out at $410,000. Then Jim Alinder, consulting on his cell phone, and L0153 presaged the record 183-game Wimbledon match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut that was to follow over the next few days. Necks strained as heads bobbed back-and-forth, back-and-forth, between Alinder and the phone. Finally Alinder hit the winner: $722,500, a new record for Adams and obviously the top lot in the sale. The audience applauded, partly for the success of the evening sale, including the fact that every lot had sold, partly that after three-and-a-half hours it had finally ended, and partly because someone had finally triumphed over L0153, who had taken every other lot he or she had bid on.

A much smaller audience reaching about 55 people returned for the three sessions the next day. There were few higher-priced lots included, but one notable new buyer, a private collector who had just gotten interested in photography and who came with price reports and a well-marked-up catalogue, and who bought numerous lots of William Wegman and Ansel Adam prints as well as a few others.

Robert Rauschenberg's North Carolina (from The Bleacher Series) ($20,000-$30,000) sold for $116,500, the top lot in the morning session. A number of photographs by David Levinthal also sold for prices considerably higher than the pre-sale estimates. Selected images from American Beauties, a lot of two unique large-format Polaroid Polacolor prints from 1989/90, sold for $34,375 (lot 185, $3,000-$5,000). The 137 lots took a somewhat more reasonable 2 hours and 45 minutes, but Denise Bethel, who provided superhuman work as auctioneer, was already so exhausted that she exclaimed as she came to the last lot in the morning session, "...the last lot in today's sale." If only. But fortunately she got a break as another auctioneer took over for the afternoon session.

The afternoon began with Howard Greenberg hiking past fellow dealer Robert Mann to $40,625 for a lovely print from a Polaroid Type 55 negative of Ansel Adams's El Capitan — Winter, Yosemite National Park, California ($10,000-$15,000). Next came the first pass of an Adams print (several other lots had passed in the morning session), then Mann returned for a 16 x 20-inch print of Adams's Winter Sunrise from Lone Pine, California ($25,000-$35,000) for the same price. A phone grabbed The Grand Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming for $80,500. But the mural-sized Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California ($150,000-$250,000) passed at $70,000. Then the mural-sized print of The Tetons and Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming ($200,000-$300,000) sold to the phone over Howard Greenberg for $326,500, sixth place and the only lot not in the evening session to crack the top ten. Sotheby's condition report for this lot in part read, "This majestic print is in generally very good condition. Upon close examination, there are small areas of in-painting and retouching visible in the sky, the central portion of the print, and along the left edge of the image. This print has undergone recent successful conservation, and a treatment report is available upon request." To my eye it didn't take very close examination to see these problems.

An order bidder bought a smaller mural-sized print of Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park ($200,000–$300,000) for $158,500. This was only $113.86 per square inch, as opposed to $358.56 per square inch for the record-setter of the previous evening.

L0153 went just over estimate for another mural of Cedar Trees in Snow, Winter, Yosemite National Park, paying $122,500. With its white snow nestling on dark branches and against dark tree trunks, this print does not have the wide range of delicate grays found in many Adams prints; consequently, I thought it was one the few murals that came close to maintaining the presence of the smaller prints. L0153 also bought Adams's Portfolio Three: Yosemite Valley for $146,500. This lot had been underestimated at $35,000-$50,000.

A larger, but not mural-sized print of Grand Tetons and the Snake River went to a bidder in the room at $53,125. L0153 took Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite ($40,000-$60,000) for $146,500.

Aspens, Northern New Mexico ($25,000-$35,000) at $104,500; Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park ($20,000-$30,000) at $74,500; and 11 of 12 plates from Edward Weston's Fiftieth Anniversary Portfolio ($50,000-$70,000) at $86,500 went to different phone bidders.

There were a couple of lots not by Ansel Adams that are worth noting. A phone swept up Harry Callahan's Plant Detail (Weed Against Sky) just over estimate at $50,000. And a luscious little unique Polaroid Type 52 print of Minor White's Peeled Paint, Rochester, New York ($5,000-$7,000) soared to $43,750, also going to a phone bidder.

But then it was back to Adams. Aspens, Northern New Mexico ($10,000-$15,000) went to a phone at $46,875; a mural-sized print of Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California ($150,000–$250,000) went to our new collector in the room, over the bid of James Alinder, at $122,500, the most expensive piece he bought; and a group of three selected Teton images ($25,000–$35,000) went to another phone for $46,875.

The last lot, number 489, finally hammered down at 6:50 pm. In all, the four sessions of the sale took almost 10-1/2 hours to complete.

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.