Issue #187  1/4/2012
Berman Sale Only Nets Christie's $1 Million

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector

The next day Christie's offered "The American Landscape: Black and White Photographs from the Collection of Bruce and Nancy Berman," the fifth sale from this collection. Most of the best work from this collection had already been sold in the other four sales.

Joshua Chuang, Assistant Curator of Photographs of the Yale University Art Gallery, was an active bidder and snagged some good images and a few bargains for the Gallery throughout the sale. The first major piece he bought was Walker Evans's Photographer's Display Window, Birmingham, Alabama, 1936c/printed later, which he got for $35,000, almost double the high estimate.

Dorothea Lange's JR Butler, Organizer of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, Memphis, Tenn, struck for $37,500, but below estimate. It went to an internet bidder from Switzerland.

20 Photographs of Eugène Atget, the portfolio printed by Berenice Abbott, went to order at $28,750, also below estimate. New York dealer Robert Mann took Robert Frank's Hoover Dam, Nevada, at $23,750. And collector Christopher Luce went on a shopping spree at Dorothea Lange's Crossroads Store, Alabama. A great picture wildly underestimated at $3,000-$5,000, Luce finally won it at $20,000. An order bidder saw his way to $37,500 for Irving Penn's Optician's Window, New York (Version C).

Then it was Dorothea Lange's turn again. She accounted for many of the top lots, although the two highest estimated lots of the sale, her Funeral Cortège and Black Maria (both $30,000-$50,000), both passed at $19,000. Cable Car, San Francisco, went to the phone bidder 1714 at $20,000. The same bidder doubled that ($40,000) for The Human Face. That became the top lot of the sale. An order bidder was moved by Lange's Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, to the tune of $37,500. And 1714 paid $20,000 for A Young Girl in Ennis, Clare County, Ireland.

Lastly, a phone bidder tripled the high estimate to stake a claim to Harry Callahan's Providence at $22,500.

Collectors and dealers seemed less than enthusiastic over the offerings at both Sotheby's and Christie's, except for a handful of highlights, and those houses reflected both the state of the economy and consumer confidence: better than two years ago, but clearly down from last year when things seemed to be on the upswing. Sotheby's sale totaled $4,754,376 (with a 28.5% buy-in rate), the lowest of the three houses and down almost $1 million from their spring sale. And that was only part of the story, as both Sotheby's and Christie's at least had their consignors face reality as they lowered reserves--often substantially. At Sotheby's twice as many lots (52) sold below the low estimate as sold above the high estimate (26), with 63 lots selling within the estimates.

Christie's various owners sale realized $4,811,625 with a 27% buy-in rate. Here, too, twice as many lots (77) sold below the low estimate as sold above the high estimate (39), with 95 lots selling within the estimates. The Berman sale realized $1,001,938 with a 20% buy-in rate. Here the rates were slightly better: 29 sold above estimate, 49 under, and 62 within the estimates.

And neither Sotheby's nor Christie's generated any excitement in the room. This is partly due to declining numbers of bidders in the rooms, as more and more migrate to the phones or online or leave absentee bids (although anecdotally, I don't think order bidders have increased their percentages at all and may even be declining slightly).

Yet somehow the upstart Phillips de Pury captured some of that energy-- as well as the gross sales crown this season. It will be fascinating to see if that trend continues.

(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, 140 East Richardson Ave, Langhorne, PA 19047. Or to order The Photograph Collector Newsletter online, go to: http://www.photoreview.org/wordpressindex/shop/.