Issue #185  11/4/2011
Phillips Brings in a Nearly $7 Million Total, Which Puts It in First Place in The New York City Fall Auction Season For The First Time

By Alex Novak

As I noted in the last newsletter, you might have been better served going around to the galleries in New York City this time out instead of the auctions here. The one bright spot for material seemed to be at Phillips de Pury & Co.

Phillips de Pury has been little-by-little clawing itself up the New York auction ladder. A move in the spring back to a mid-town location on Park Avenue seemed to help boost its prospects. Last time out the house actually had the top total on the photography multi-owner sale, but fell to Christie's overall total take only because of Christie's additional single-owner auctions. This fall Phillips finally achieved its overall objective: auctioning off a greater total amount than its counterparts at Sotheby's and Christie's. At $6,929,250 the total, including the buyers' premiums, was enough to eclipse the other two houses' rather mediocre auctions, although ironically both Sotheby's and Christie's had slightly (ever so slightly) higher totals in their multi-owner auctions.

It was simply a matter of more interesting, better priced material here, although the reserves here were nose-bleed high, mostly at the low estimates for the lots or just one increment below. Adding a decent single-owner sale kicked the totals up for Phillips too, especially when Sotheby's didn't have an extra sale and Christie's extra sale consisted of what could only be called the "leftovers" from the Bruce Berman's collection—as good as that overall collection was.

The buy-in rate for lots that went unsold was also lower here at Phillips at only 17.5% in the multi-owner sale and 18.06% in the private collector sale, although those numbers were nearly twice as high as at last spring's auction here. The failed lots were so scattered though that it seemed even more lots sold. Of course, it could have also been Phillips auctioneer who did not always indicate that a lot had gone unsold, contrary to New York state law. This is still a rather common and annoying violation at many of the auction houses here in New York with the exception of Sotheby's where Denise Bethel usually says "pass" rather clearly. Otherwise, the young woman who was the auctioneer did a decent job--better than a few other male counterparts that I could, but won't, name.

In the interest of space most of the items that I will report on here will be $20,000 and up, including the buyer's premium.

Lot 3, Lillian Bassman's Barbara Mullen (Blowing Kiss), sold to a phone bidder for $21,250 over an order bid. That was well over the estimate range of $7,000-9,000, which doesn't include the 25% buyer's premium.

Not surprisingly many of the bidders in all the auctions were not in the room for these sales. Order, phone and internet bids have supplanted the dynamics and drama of bidders at the actual auction. So it was not unusual to hear that there were two order bidders on lot 4, Richard Avedon's Dorian Leigh, Evening Dress by Piquet. The lot, which was estimated at $15,000-20,000, opened at $28,000. The phones took the order bidder to $40,000 with premium.

It was all phones on the next lot, a Richard Avedon of "Susy Parker, Evening Dress by Lanvin-Castillo, Café des Beaux Arts, Paris". Again the lot sold for over the $10,000-15,000 estimate range at $21,250.

A printed-later Rue Mouffetard by Henri Cartier-Bresson sold for $17,000 in the room. This was a far cry from the silly price one made in the spring at $57,500 here. Perhaps the economic situation was helping to take out the uneducated impulse buyers, while still leaving a reasonable semblance of the real market.

The next lot, another printed-later Cartier-Bresson of Swann Lake, Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, sold for more than double the low estimate at $22,500 to a phone bidder.

Lot 24, a large Horst platinum-palladium print of a still life sold for the low estimate and what appeared to be the reserve at $37,500 to a single phone bidder.

Lot 32, Irving Penn's iconic "Black and White Vogue Cover (Jean Patchett) in another platinum-palladium print and in an edition of 34, sold to a collector in the room for over the high estimate at $374,500, which I believe is a record for the image. This put the lot into second place in this sale. Another Penn, a silver print of Alfred Hitchcock, sold for the mid-point of its estimate range at $50,000.

Lot 41, a Peter Lindbergh color print of a group of models in Brooklyn, went for too much money at the mid-point of its range at $25,000 to a phone bidder.

Two Ahmet Ertug large color prints that are essentially Candida Hofer rip-offs (lots 42 and 43) sold to the same phone bidder over an order bid for $27,500 and $37,500 respectively. I have a certain level of suspicion on this kind of limited activity, especially from such a commercial marketing enterprise as Ertug commands (just search on his name to see what I mean). His posting of these auction listings on Vimeo and other websites just adds a bit to my concern, although it could be argued that this is just good marketing. I think one of my concerns also stems from the fact that auction houses are now taking and marketing photographers' work directly from the artists. It makes it just a bit too easy to play with prices by interested parties, even legally, although I am not saying that is the case here.

Meanwhile, lot 46, a real Candida Hofer, sold for over the high estimate to a phone bidder for $104,500. That was good enough for fifth place overall.

After lot 53, a Horst platinum-palladium print (Houdon Still Life, Paris), passed at $26,000, which meant the reserve had to either be just one increment below or at the low estimate, another Horst platinum-palladium print of Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn on Silk III sold to a phone bidder for just under the low estimate at $23,750.

Richard Avedon's ever-popular Dovima with Elephants in a small 10 x 7-7/8 in. silver print (lot 55) sold to a phone bidder for the high estimate at $74,500. These prints all seem to get to around $80,000. I remember when they sold for less than $10,000 each, but I guess that just shows my age.

The top lot and cover image in the auction was the four color dye transfer prints of the solarized Beatles by Avedon. Estimated at $350,000-450,000, the lot sold for a record $722,500, making it the highest priced lot in the spring auctions and in this sale. Several phones, the internet and New York dealer Peter MacGill were all part of the action, but it was phone bidder 1057 that took this piece of '60s psychedelia home at a new record price that beat the old one by $258,500 set at the Christie's Elfering sale in October 2005. Larry Gagosian has been rumored before to have been buying up some of the Avedon's at auction, especially now that his gallery represents the estate.

Ute Hartjen of Berlin's Camera Work gallery fought off the phones to take the Richard Avedon of Lew Alcindar, who is now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for around the midpoint of the estimate range at $47,500.

The next lot (#60, Hiroshi Sugimoto's Chrysler Building - William Van Alen, sold to a phone bidder for way over its admittedly too-low high estimate at $47,500. Another Sugimoto, lot 64, Gulf of St. Lawrence, sold to different phone bidder for $21,250. In the catalogue the item just looked like a black rectangle, although truthfully the original didn't have much more detail. Maybe black rectangles are a new trend.

Robert Mapplethorpe's Calla Lilly, lot 66, sold to the room for its high estimate at $86,500.

Penn's color dye transfer print of "Rose, Colour Wonder, London" (lot 71) sold to a single phone for just its low estimate (and probably its reserve) of $43,750.

The next lot, Edward Steichen's untitled flower still life, sold to a phone bidder for just under the estimate at $35,000. I liked the image but there were a few oxidation spots on the print.

The next lot, Man Ray's Torso, was an OK print, but just came across as muddy and not very attractive to me. It still garnered enough attention to go several increments above its high estimate at $134,500. It sold to one of the many phone bidders over the underbid by collector Michael Mattis, who was in the room. The price was the fourth highest in this auction.

Lot 80, Robert Frank's Indianapolis, sold at the low estimate to a commission bid for a reasonable $62,500. The next lot, another Frank (NYC Madison Square Garden) sold for just under the low estimate at $22,500.

By this stage of the bidding, my catalogue note reads: "Light crowd in the room by mid-morning." Despite that there was still some action there. Lot 87, Michael Reisch's somewhat boring snowy landscape, still managed to hit the high estimate and sell to the room at $25,000. But the next lot, a more traditional Ansel Adams' mural-sized vertical Mt. Williamson, got only one phone bidder and sold at the low estimate, which was apparently the reserve. The $62,500 was a pretty cheap price for this image, but as I recall, the print had had some work done on it.

A phone bidder picked up lot 90, the Manuel Alvarez Bravo portfolio, "Fifteen Photographs," for just over the low estimate at a reasonable $43,750.

The next lot, Frederick Sommer's Livia, sold to a phone bidder for $52,500 over New York dealer Peter MacGill's underbid. MacGill came out on top on the next lot, another Sommer (Arizona Landscape) for $40,000. Both prints had come originally from MacGill's gallery.

Lee Friedlander's ever popular Galax, VA (lot 96), sold to a woman, whom I believe is an art consultant, over New York dealer Howard Greenberg, for $47,500. The next Friedlander lot, NYC, sold to a phone bidder, the same one who picked up Sommer's Livia, for $68,500. That same phone bidder (1063) also picked up Garry Winogrand's "Fifteen Photographs" portfolio (lot 112) for $60,000 over San Francisco dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel's underbid. Prior to that battle, lot 105, Garry Winogrand's "Women Are Beautiful" portfolio of 85 prints sold to a commission bidder for the low estimate at $86,500.

Not surprisingly, Adams dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel picked off lot 106, Adams's Longmont, Colorado, for $43,750 over the high estimate.

Peter MacGill, Robert Frank's New York dealer with a phone to his ear, picked off two Frank lots: 110, "On US 91", for $25,000 and 111, "Metropolitan Life Insurance Building-New York City, for a whopping $62,500--well above the estimate of $20,000-30,000.

William Eggleston's Outskirts of Morton, MS, Halloween scared up a bid that nearly broke through the top estimate at $68,500. A man in the room took the lot versus a number of phone bidders.

Lot 132, Massimo Vitali's Riccione (#0056) Red Bikini, a chromogenic print that had seen better days was bought by a new collector in the room for $35,000, which was just below the low estimate. Yes, Vitali's pieces are often overexposed in the camera, but this print was also apparently overexposed to light. However, it might actually be a very good bargain, because the artist will replace the piece at cost (about $2,000). That is something that a lot of contemporary artists will do, but not all (witness Damien Hirst's rip-off on redoing his badly preserved shark).

Sandy Skoglund's Revenge of the Goldfish went well over the high estimate at $35,000. I'm not sure, but that might be a record for this image and Skoglund. It sold to a phone bidder, who also bought the other Skoglund lot, Walking on Eggshells (lot 135), but for its low estimate at $10,000.

David Hockney photo collages have been hot items as of late, but lot 136, "The Grand Canyon South Rim with Rail, AZ, was showing its age with major color shifts and fading. Some people call that "vintage", but that's not the part that enthuses me. In any case, the estimates were blown out of the water, as a phone bidder went to $43,750 for this one.

And the fireworks were far from over in this auction. Lot 140, the Bechers' Cooling Towers, Ruhr District (a series of nine photographs), nearly topped its high estimate at a whopping $140,500, and it went to this sale's big buyer, phone bidder 1063, again. That made the lot the third highest in the sale.

The very next lot, Richard Avedon's seductive Natasha Kinski and the Serpent, went to an order bidder for well over the high estimate at $98,500, sixth highest price in the auction. With an edition size of 200 (plus other editions in other size prints) this seems to be another example of overvaluation, although demand is as much a factor as supply.

After tie order bids, a phone bidder broke the tie and pushed Shirin Neshat's Untitled from Rapture (lot 143) to well above its high estimate at $27,500.

Helmut Newton's Mannequins, Quai d'Orsay in a very small (9-7/8 x 6-5/8 in.) print sold for more than double its high estimate at $40,000 to a phone bidder. In fact all three of the Newton's in this sale broke well over their high estimate.

A man in the room picked up Vik Muniz's "Migrant Mother after Dorothea Lange from Pictures of Ink" for $25,000.

Lot 163, Larry Clark's Tulsa portfolio (50 prints), sold to a phone bidder at $43,750. Then that big buyer here, phone bidder 1067, was back to take Clark's "Teenage Lust" for that same amount.

Steven Klein's Case Study #13, No. 18 sold to a phone bidder for the low estimate at $22,500.

Peter Beard's "756 Elephants, Tsavo at the Mkomazi Border" brought a bid at the high estimate from a phone bidder at $62,500.

Andres Serrano's Klansman (Imperial Wizard III) went to a phone bidder for $27,500.

Then we were on to the Phillips evening sale of a "Private East Coast Collection".