Issue #181  5/31/2011
Strong NY Auctions Herald Market Rebound: Sotheby's Lead-Off Spring Auction Totals Over $5.6 Million But With Only 18.5% Buy-in Rate

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector and Photo Review

Denise Bethel opened Sotheby's auction--and the auction season--by stating that her high school English teacher was in the room and admonishing the audience to "make it look good." The outcome at first did not seem promising, as Sotheby's large auction room resembled the Mets' Citi Field in September with rows and rows of empty seats. There were chairs for 154, but only 37 bidders (or spectators) plus 10 people manning the phones. But the auction experience has changed as more and more bidding is done on the phone and online. (By half an hour in the crowd had grown to 51 and after a while to a high of 68 with 16 people on the phones.)

Bethel opened with the greatest leadoff hitter since Ricky Henderson: Ansel Adams. All of the first 13 Adams lots sold, six at more than 50% above the high estimates. Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, California ($25,000-$35,000) went to order bidder L0063 for $56,250. That bidder took five other mid-range Adams lots. Winter Storm Yosemite Valley (Clearing Winter Storm) ($30,000–$50,000) sold to a phone bidder right at the mid-point ($40,000 hammer) for $50,000, a very popular price in this sale.

The Grand Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming ($40,000-$60,000) slithered to $59,375. A mural-sized, flush-mounted, framed, print of Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, From Manzanar, California, 1944, probably printed in the 1960s, hit its high estimate as a phone bidder scaled the peak at $182,500, the sixth highest-selling price of the day.

Edward Weston followed Adams. His Bad Water--Death Valley, 1938 ($15,000-$25,000) sold to New York gallerist Bruce Silverstein for $50,000. Silverstein was very active in this sale, bidding largely for a client. Jeffrey Fraenkel more than tripled the high estimate in wresting Weston's Tomato Field, Big Sur away from fellow San Franciscan Paul Hertzmann also at $50,000. Silverstein was back for Weston's sensuous Dunes, Oceano, going over estimate to $158,500 for the prize, good for seventh place.

Baron Adolf De Meyer's striking portrait study, Dolores, c. 1919, more than doubled its high estimate at--you guessed it--$50,000. Phone bidder L0038 took this and two other big lots including Timothy O'Sullivan's Ancient Ruins in the Cañon de Chelle, N.M., 1873 ($15,000-$25,000), for an astounding $134,500, a record for the artist at auction and ninth place in the sale; and Frederick Henry Evans's Aubrey Beardsley, 1895 ($15,000-$25,000) for $50,000. The latter two had once been in the collection of Beaumont and Nancy Newhall.

Also going for an eye-opening price was a large Alfred Stieglitz Steerage with major condition problems that Sotheby's was not shy about writing about in their condition report. Despite those problems, the print went to an online bidder for a whopping $34,375. I do give credit to Sotheby's New York, which has been doing a very good job lately on its largely excellent condition reports, unlike some of the other houses, which still lag behind in this area. Sotheby's also posts the condition reports conveniently online. Unless you don't mind overpaying for items in poor condition, the only real excuse for not reading them before bidding is illiteracy.

Rare book dealer Stephan Loewentheil and collector Michael Mattis staged the week's most scintillating battle as they pushed Mathew B. Brady's daguerreotype of John C. Calhoun, 1849, higher and higher. Loewentheil finally prevailed--at $338,500, more than five times the high estimate, third place in the sale, and a record for the artist at auction.

L0038 bested Jeffrey Fraenkel for Walker Evans's Negro Barbershop Interior at $116,500, over high estimate. Bruce Silverstein, this time consulting on a cell phone, bought Harry Callahan's Torn Sign, 1946 ($20,000-$30,000) for $62,500.

A later-printed Brassai of Le Corset Noir sold to Bruce Silverstein for $40,625 over a phone bidder.

Next up were the two highlighted Man Rays. His Untitled (Photomontage with Nude and Studio Lamp), 1933 ($100,000-$150,000) went to a private collector upfront for $410,500, making it the top lot in the sale. Then bookending the top ten, Man Ray's Solarized Male Torso, 1936, went to Peter MacGill up front over Edwynn Houk for $122,500, just at the high estimate.

August Sander's iconic Handlanger (Hod-Carrier), c. 1928, printed by Gunther Sander from his father's negative, probably in the 1950s ($30,000-$50,000) sold for $59,375 to a phone bidder. That was followed immediately by Jaromír Funke's Composition (from Abstraktní Foto), 1929 ($50,000-$70,000). Bruce Silverstein on his cell phone put up a fight, but it went to L0038 for $350,500, second place, and another auction record for an artist.

Richard Avedon's Avedon/Paris, portfolio of 11 photographs with two extra prints, 1948-57 ($150,000-$250,000) took fifth place at $314,500. Two Irving Penn's then went to phone bidder L0076: Nude 58, ($30,000-$50,000) for $53,125, and Sitting Girl, Cameroon (Nubile Young Beauty of Diamare) ($30,000-$50,000) for $56,250. Then Penn's Cuzco Children, Peru brought $68,500, just under low estimate, from a different phone bidder. The Cuzco Children had some slight condition issues, including a soft crease that was created prior to dry mounting the image, plus a one-inch scratch, etc. I suspect it would have gone higher had it not had these issues.

Helmut Newton's Elsa Peretti, Bunny almost tripled its high estimate at $62,500. Nick Brandt's well-known Elephant with Exploding Dust, Amboseli, stampeded above estimate to $59,375.

Several different phone bidders kept Peter Beard's prices at high levels. His Crab Diary Page, November 1984 ($30,000-$50,000) swam to $59,375. Amboseli Elephants (Tsavo Before the Die-Off, Tsavo North) ($15,000-$25,000) claimed $56,250. And the overestimated "Francis Bacon in His Studio" ($80,000-$120,000) was the only disappointment when it bought-in at $60,000 (plus that 25% premium).

Beard's Maureen Gallagher and a Night Feeder at Hog Ranch ($120,000-$180,000) reached new heights at $326,500, fourth place and a record for the artist at auction. Interestingly enough the latter was the same print that failed to go at $115,000 in the previous Sotheby's New York photography auction. The change in market mood over just the last six months to a year is rather stunning.

Irving Penn's dye-transfer print, Still Life with Watermelon (New York) ($30,000-$50,000), just missed the top ten at $104,500. But Richard Prince's made eighth place as his #14 Untitled (Cowboy Watering Horses), 1983, ($50,000-$70,000), rode off with L0076 for $134,500.

When the dust had cleared and the last five lots of contemporary work had passed with only eight people in the room, Sotheby's had realized $5,632,187 on only 173 lots offered, with a chill 18.5% buy-in rate. That's $39,945 per lot sold. While one can always find a handful of lots estimated too high or too low, still, the breakdown was revelatory. Thirty-two lots passed; 40 (23.1%) sold under estimate; and 37 (21.3%) sold within the estimates; but 64 (37%) sold above high estimate, including 34 (19.7) that sold for more than 50% over high estimate. A larger than normal percentage of lots seem to have their reserves at the low estimate (or very near it), instead of well below it.

"The wide range of photographers represented in our top-ten list says it all," said Chris Mahoney, senior specialist, Sotheby's photographs department. "To have great modernist works by Man Ray and Jaromír Funke selling at new levels alongside great 19th-century American photographers such as Mathew Brady and Timothy O'Sullivan, and contemporary artists such as Peter Beard, shows the wonderful breadth of today's photographs market. Our total of $5.6 million, well over our high estimate of $4.3 million, shows the strength and resilience of the market for important photographs."

(Copyright ©2011 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.