Issue #175  10/24/2010
Sotheby's NYC Fall Auction Brings in Nearly $5 Million and Sells 75% By Lot

By Alex Novak

Leading of the fall auction season, Sotheby's New York sold $4,970,754 including its 25% buyer's premium (above $50,000 it is 20%). Exactly 75% of the lots sold. Prices below include the buyer's premium. Because of space limitations, I'll limit most coverage to those items that sold for over $35,000.

Kicking off with Edward Curtis almost always seems like a good idea. One phone bidder (L0087) picked off the first three lots to sell. Lot 1, The North American Indian Portfolio 1, sold to them for $62,500 over a commission bidder. That was just at the low estimate. They also nabbed lot 2 (Portfolio 2) for $22,500, and lot 5 (Portfolio 8) for $37,500. Most of the other lots did sell but to another phone bidder (L0060).

The daguerreotypes in this sale seemed to be a bit pricey for a slow market, as it's been for most dags, except those at the very top end of the market--and most of these either weren't at that top end or were terribly over-estimated. Still, most did sell, if even well below or at the low end of their estimates. Perhaps the best one of the group, lot 28, Two Couples in a Verdant Setting, sold to a single commission bidder for well below its low estimate at $37,500. It was a fair, even low, price for this daguerreotype, even if most of us daguerreian dealers didn't quite believe the added hype that it might be a Southworth & Hawes (but without much proof). It certainly didn't seem like a Langenheim Brothers image from 1845, as was written in pencil on the back of the wooden frame. The mat was one from the early 1850s for starters. Still, it was a lovely image and was easily worth what the buyer bid, plus probably a good deal more.

Lot 29, the daguerreotype by Rufus Anson of "Two Actors" was acquired by the consignor from noted French book dealer and photography collector André Jammes. It is a wonderful and quirky genre image. Unfortunately the estimate was graspingly high (perhaps to catch the eye of two certain gentlemen, one French and the other American) at $250,000-350,000, and its reserve somewhat north of $200,000 was modestly insane in this market. In my opinion, the plate was perhaps worth a bit more than $125,000 in today's market (except for the occasional bidding insanity that occurs with such unique objects).

Just a mention of a small steal: lot 33, Eugene Atget's Maison Close (of a prostitute in a doorway) sold to collector Stan Kaplan for the low estimate at $15,000. Yes, it was a bit light, but in decent, still very collectible condition and if darker would have been in mid-six figures. Compared to the Atget of Joueur d'Orgue, the organ grinder, in the Joe Baio sale at Christie's last Spring, this was a great buy. I actually preferred the color in this one, even though it was, as I noted a tad light. The key difference was that the one at Christie's sold for $686,500, a world auction record for Atget, while this one sold at Sotheby's for next to nothing for an Atget. I'm very happy for Joe, who is a great guy, but I still don't understand why that very yellow print sold for as much as it did. And rarity is a factor for virtually any Atget.

A copy of Alfred Stieglitz's 291, lot 39, was the subject of dispute between a phone bidder and a man at the back of the auction room. Finally, the phone bidder took it at nearly the high estimate at $59,375.

The cover lot (40) of Edward Steichen's Wind Fire, Therese Duncan at the Acropolis was one of those images that you apparently either loved or not. One dealer told me that he thought it was hokey. Well, put me in the "love" category. It was a great printing of the image, which is one of the most iconic, yet rare from the Steichen Acropolis series. Collector Phil Rivkin claimed the prize at just the low estimate, $146,500, which still made the print the third highest lot in the sale. A good client of mine had coveted it, but decided to hold off on it. When he found out how little it had gone for, he was disappointed that he hadn't bid.

Ansel Adams, as usual, did well only a few of his lots bought in, although one big one with Portfolio Four biting the dust. Lot 59, Adams' Maroon Bells, Near Aspen, CO sold for almost the high estimate at $74,500. And his Portfolio VII (lot 62) sold for just a hair under the low estimate at $98,500.

An image by Dorothea Lange, (lot 95) Drought Refuge from Polk, MO, surprised with its strong result. Estimated at $20,000-30,000, the image floated upward buoyed by bidding from the room (I believe it was Boston photo dealer and former AIPAD president Robert Klein who was one of the underbidders) and on the phone. A phone bidder (L0101) finally brought it home with a bid of $104,500. A good and rare image, but I still wasn't blown away by the print quality. But important Lange images are getting strong results.

A mural-sized American Girl by Ruth Orkin mounted on masonite took off. Estimated at $12,000-18,000, it soared to $53,125 and sold to a phone bidder (again L0101). I recall one exactly like it that didn't do so well at a Sotheby's auction a few years ago.

The morning session netted Sotheby's and its consignors just under $1.6 million, which was less than a third of the total take on this auction. In the afternoon, things heated up a bit more with most of the top ten lots coming after the lunch break. Edward Weston kicked things off. Lot 119, Dunes, Oceano, a strong image and a generally good print (with two light, small indents but otherwise fine and clean), was a tug of war in the room with Weston collector Michael Mattis, San Francisco photo dealer Paul Hertzmann and collector Phil Rivkin all vying for the prize. Rivkin finally came out on top, paying over the high estimate at $134,500, which put the lot into a tie for fourth place overall in the auction.

Rivkin also fought off the same duo on lot 122, Weston's Shell and Rock Arrangement, but again had to pay over the top estimate at $34,375. He came back again on the bargain Pepper (lot 127), which he got in the mid-range at only $20,000. It is rare, but not the best looking of the pepper images in my opinion. Still, it was a very good value.

Not surprisingly, New York gallerist Spencer Throckmorton bought lot 128, the Tina Modotti of Sugar Cane, for the high estimate at $86,500. But he lost the next lot, Manuel Alvarez Bravo's Los Agachados to a phone bidder, after it soared way past the high estimate to sell for $122,500, which tied the lot for seventh place in the sale. Sotheby's was much coyer than usual, simply saying that the buyer was anonymous. Sometimes that indicates that a dealer may have picked up the lot.

A private collector on the phone fought off the strong underbidding by collector Phil Rivkin on lot 140, Man Ray's Still Life Composition with A L'Heure de L'Observatoire--Les Amoureuxtill. It took double the high estimate at $170,500 to take this rare Man Ray, making it the second highest lot of the Sotheby's auction.

Joseph Sudek pigment prints continue to be sought after for their beauty and rarity, and lot 149, Still Life with Eggs and Glass, was no exception. Yes, one could be picky and note the wavy thin paper and the small pigment deposits on its surface, but it was still an attractive print that presented well. It sold to a phone bidder for well over the high estimate at $65,000.

Another Czech lot (151), the portfolio Moderni Ceska Fotagrafie, sold to a different phone bidder for mid-range at $37,500. It is often broken up by dealers, who then sell off the plates individually. This bidder (L0078) did a lot of damage at this auction, winning many top items, including this portfolio and a portfolio by Brassai (lot 130) for $28,125.

A third Czech lot also did well. Lot 156, Jaromir Funke's Composition, sold to a phone bidder, who picked it up for double the high estimate at $74,500.

Phone bidder L0078 was back for another portfolio, this time one of Kertesz's published in 1982 in small format in an edition of 50. It sold to L0078 for nearly double the high estimate at a whopping $116,500. This price put it in a tie for tenth place in the auction. Later in the sale this phone bidder would prove to be my nemesis on what was to become the top lot in the sale.

Lot 168, Robert Frank's Man in Cart, sold to a commission bid for well below the low estimate at $11,250. Why I mention that at all is because lot 177 was exactly the same image, but an early print that just presented much better than lot 168, which was a 1970s print with little character. Lot1 177 sold to a phone bidder over Frank's dealer Peter MacGill's underbid for the high estimate at $62,500.

But not every Frank needs to be vintage to command large dollars. Lot 182, Frank's U.S. 90, En Route to Del Rio, TX (or more affectionately known simply as Mary and the Kids in the Car), was estimated at a steep $80,000-120,000. I remember a vintage print that was offered by London dealer Michael Hoppen one year at Paris Photo that was marked as Frank's first printing of this image. It was indeed magical, and I had wanted it then, but I turned out to have the sixth red dot in a very long string. There is a good deal more to this story, but I'll stay mum to protect both the innocent and the not so innocent. Surprisingly for a 1970s print, this one too had character, even if of a different sort. It is also an exceedingly rare image. While I felt that it would take more than the high estimate to win this one for my client, I didn't count on L0078. After sparring with the room and phones, it came down to me and L0078, whom Sotheby's mysteriously listed only as "anonymous" in it press releases. I would go to $200,000 and no farther, but L0078 would top me this day, paying with buyer's premium a stunning $266,500, which easily made the lot the top one of the day. L0078 would go on to buy many other lots, but mostly all portfolios, with this being one of the few exceptions unfortunately.

The next lot, a 1970s print of Frank's U.S. 285, NM, sold to another phone bidder for the low estimate of $74,500.

Irving Penn, not surprisingly did very well. His Chimney Sweep (B), London, more than doubled the high estimate, selling to a phone for $68,500. His Cigarette No. 69 (in Four Parts) sold for just over its low estimate at $134,500 to Ute Hartjen of Berlin's Camerawork.

L0078 was back to take Garry Winogrand's portfolio, Women Are Beautiful (lot 189), for $86,500, which was in the mid-range of the estimates.

Collector Michael Mattis took the next lot, Diane Arbus's Xmas Tree in a Living Room in Levittown, L.I., and only had to pay the low estimate at $122,500, a very good price and good enough for a tie for seventh place here.

Robert Rauschenberg's New York from his Bleacher series Lot 198) sold for the mid-range at $53,125 to a phone bidder.

L0078 picked up Eliot Porter's portfolio In Wildness (lot 199) for $11,875, which, while it was on the high side of the range, was still a bargain.

Robert Mapplethorpe continues to be strong, with his Calla Lily (lot 206) selling to a phone bidder for $68,500. His Flower (lot 213) sold to an internet bidder for $31,250.

Irving Penn's lot 225, Frozen Foods (with String Beans) sold to a commission bid for $$86,500.

Phone bidder L0078 was back once more to take William Eggleston's Graceland Portfolio (lot 229) for fairly close to its high estimate at $134,500. And Elvis left the building—maybe. I still am not sure if L0078 didn't also pick up lot 251, Peter Beard's Lion's Pride, Southern Serengeti, for just below its low estimate at $116,500. That was good enough for a tie for tenth. Personally I preferred Beard's Diptych (lot 252), but it failed to sell.

One of the last of the big lots to sell here was Robert Adams' Colorado Springs, which was estimated at a teasingly low $15,000-25,000, but in the end sold for a record-breaking (for this artist) $86,500.

Christopher Mahoney, senior vice president in Sotheby's photographs department said: "This sale proves that there is strong desire in the marketplace for truly rare photographs that are fresh to the market. It was exciting to see the enthusiasm with which collectors responded to fine material across all categories.  We were gratified see work by photographers as diverse as Robert Frank, Man Ray, Edward Steichen, and Manuel Álvarez Bravo, among many others, soar past their estimates, and are pleased to have set a new world auction record for Robert Adams.  Our challenge going forward will be to continue to source exceptional photographs for sophisticated and selective collectors."

(More auction coverage in the next newsletter.)

Novak has over 45 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 Historical Photographic Society. 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. 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 at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Classic Photography LA, Photo LA, Paris Photo, The 19th-century Photography Show, etc.