Issue #185  11/4/2011
Phillips Single-Owner Sale Nets $2,345,375

By Alex Novak

More than a third of the total take here at Phillips, or $2,345,375, was made during the its auction of a private collection that the house was calling "The Arc of Photography: A Private East Coast Collection." As I noted above, this sale had an 18% buy-in (or unsold) rate. Frankly, most of the unsold deserved their fate, given the erratic condition of some of the lots—and that included some of the ones that sold too.

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, although that is actually more than half of this sale's results.

A phone bidder wound up in a pitched battle with San Francisco gallerist Robert Koch for the Georgy Kepes photo of his wife Juliet with a peacock feather over her eye (lot 202). It soared well over the high estimate at $27,500.

Robert Frank's "4 a.m. Make Love to Me" (lot 211) sold to Kevin Moore, an art consultant who had formerly worked with Thea Westrich, for $30,000—again well over the high estimate.

New York dealer Peter MacGill took the next lot, William Wegman's rather offbeat "Looking at", for just over the high estimate at $20,000. Several phones and collector Michael Mattis all gave him some competition on the lot.

A new collector seated next to Howard Greenberg picked up Irving Penn's "Steinberg in Nose Mask" for a reasonable $27,500, even though it too went over the admittedly tempting high estimate.

Lot 221 was a salt print by Nadar and his brother Adrienne Tournachon of "Pierrot with Fruit". It was estimated at $150,000-200,000. I had said to several people prior to the sale that the estimate could have been extremely low, given that this was one of the most important images in the Pierrot series. If in good condition, I felt that this piece would go over $400,000 for the hammer price alone. Add in the buyer's fee and you get a half million dollar piece. The problem was that the condition wasn't perfect: not only were there some obvious tears and flaws, but it appeared to me to have had some earlier retouch and conservation as well. Nonetheless, this was a very strong and rare image with good presence. And, as the late John Cleary used to declare: "Where ya gonna get another one?" The lot became a battle between a phone bidder and a bidder in the room with a phone in his ear. Nineteenth-century dealer Hans Kraus, Jr. had that phone in his ear and with that bidder drove the price ever higher until the lot hammered down to him for $450,000, or $542,500 all in with the premium. That was an astounding amount and this became the top lot in the sale and the second highest price here at Phillips. It also set a new auction record for the artists.

While it might have seemed anticlimactic, the auction did continue and some auction lots set off other fireworks here.

The next lot was a Henri Cartier-Bresson. It has an appropriate notation by Cartier-Bresson in French: "I have printed this myself (and one can see that)". He was not a good printer, although a great photographer. The rather mediocre print (although made by the photographer and hence rare) sold just for its low estimate to a phone bidder at $37,500.

Another phone bidder picked up a very good print by Stanislaw Witkiewics, a self portrait (lot 225), for around the midpoint of the estimate range at $52,500. It was a good photograph, but all these seem too high to me for the impact.

The next lot, which was the cover image, was a Man Ray image of a bust in his likeness and numerous objects. It was an image that you either liked or hated. I heard many voices on each side of that debate. Put me on the side of "like". There were a few minor flaws, but it still had presence for me. The notations in French on the back of the print, although not noted in the catalogue, were by Man Ray himself. Estimated at a too-tempting $80,000-120,000, the lot was sure to draw attention, and it did. New York dealer Howard Greenberg was in the mix early, but as other bidders (phone and in the room) dropped out, it came down to one phone bidder and uber-collector Michael Mattis. But at nearly $400,000, Mattis was forced to abandon this prize to the phone bidder. The $398,500 price put the lot clearly into second place in this sale.

Often it was a bit hard to follow who the bidders were. The auctioneer didn't announce winners numbers, some strange referral bidding was going on, etc. Nothing that was illegal (except when lots went unsold and the auctioneer didn't announce them), but the obfuscation made the job of reporting on this auction difficult. Such was the case on lot 227, Man Ray's portrait of Joan Miro, which sold for $56,250.

Erwin Blumenfeld's double portrait of Marianne Breslauer entitled "Twins" in Dutch (lot 233) was published upside down in the catalogue, although it was hard to tell much of a difference. It wasn't the best print and was a bit yellow, but it still got a phone bidder to go for the low estimate at $25,000.

The Lee Miller of Joseph Cornell was bought in at $65,000, but the next lot, an August Sander of the painter Otto Dix, sold for way over its estimate range to a phone bidder at $56,250.

I think another phone bidder picked off the next lot, Gerhard Richter's multiple-image portraits of Gilbert & George, which were six badly color-shifted chromogenic color prints and one silver print. The price at the low estimate of $25,000 wasn't a bargain considering the color.

A single phone bidder picked up the Andre Kertesz Self Portrait (lot 237) for the low estimate of $50,000. The reserves, as in the previous multi-owner sale, seemed to be awfully high. It largely worked here, but I can see some auctions where this might have been a disaster.

Lot 238 was described as a Kertesz vintage print from 1931. Several of us felt that this was definitely not vintage and was printed many years later. New York dealer Tom Gitterman even felt that it was printed as late as the 1960s, although I thought a late 1940s or 1950s date was more likely. Not surprisingly, it bought in at $22,000.

The next lot, another Kertesz which was a self portrait distortion, sold to another phone bidder for the low estimate at $50,000. It wasn't bad, but had a number of small condition issues.

Lot 241, the Gertrude Kasebier of Auguste Rodin, looked impressive on the wall, but appeared to have an entire right-hand strip replaced including part of the signature area. This wasn't easily seen since the image was tacked down, but with persistence you could peek under and see the new paper running down that side. Again, it sold to a single phone bidder at the low estimate of $50,000.

The next lot, Brassai's "Matisse and Model", had typical handling marks (a few light thumbnails, etc.), but that didn't deter the bidders and a phone got the lot for well above the high estimate at $30,000.

Hans Kraus picked up the following lot, a small self portrait by Edgar Degas, for a reasonable (believe it or not) $30,000. Michael Mattis also got a reasonable buy on rare multiple portrait of Marinetti by Tato (lot 245) that he paid just over the high estimate for at $32,500.

The next lot, a Rodchenko, Mattis wasn't so lucky on. He underbid a commission or order bid (a bid left prior to the auction to be bid by the auction house) that got the photograph that had light developer staining at the bottom for $56,250. There were condition issues with all the Rodchenkos but at least most seem real and at least vaguely vintage.

The next Rodchenko, "Rhythmic Gymnastics" sold to the new collector sitting next to Greenberg for nearly the high estimate at $35,000. San Francisco dealer Robert Koch took the next one (lot 248, "The View") for $52,500 from Mattis, who underbid again.

Bruce Silverstein had to go well over the high estimate to get Edward Steichen's "Self Portrait with Photographic Paraphernalia" at $22,500. Then on the next lot, Alfred Stieglitz's "Georgia O'Keefe: A Portrait", Silverstein—this time with a phone in his ear—bid to the low estimate to pick up the lot for a client at a reasonable (at least for a Stieglitz of O'Keefe) $146,500. My only issue on this photograph was a personal one. I think O'Keefe was not an attractive woman, and most of Stieglitz's photographs obscure this fact. This time out it was pretty evident.

The Tina Modotti portrait of Jean Charlot was simply a beautiful print with only a small corner crease. It went well over the high estimate to go to an order bidder for $22,500, which was still a great value.

Lot 254, the Edward Weston of "Tina with Tear", looked like a later print, perhaps 1930s-40s. It was also only initialed and not fully signed. It had a light mark on her head. And it was estimated at a very high $70,000-90,000. Worse its reserve was right up against the low estimate. Not surprisingly it bought in at $65,000.

Marina Abramovic's "Role Exchange" sold just above the high estimate to a phone bidder for $27,500. Phone bidder also picked up lots 268, Dennis Oppenheim's "Reading Position for Second Degree Burn" (I guess the concept here was stupidity) for $35,000 and 269, Bruce Nauman's "Study of Holograms" for $45,000.

(Next Newsletter: The rest of the New York fall auctions: Sotheby's, Christie's and Swann's auctions.)