Issue #190  3/24/2012
North Carolina Auction Knocks Down 7 Stieglitz Images For Over $1 Million Total

By Alex Novak

Leland Little, a small auction house in Hillsborough, NC, auctioned off a group of Alfred Stieglitz photographs and oversized photogravures for an astonishing $1,038,990 in an auction held on March 16th. It shows that sometimes smaller auctions can do every bit as well as larger houses when the material has a mystique about it and bidders think they may get a "deal".

Each of the pieces were reportedly individually chosen and given to Katherine Rhoades by Stieglitz himself, and many have his notations. The pieces were placed in auction by her grandniece, Barbara Rhoades, who lives in North Carolina. Katherine N. Rhoades was a woman whose beauty and artistic skills captured the eye and interest of Stieglitz, resulting in a life-long friendship between the two. Rhoades was an artist and a friend of many of the artists of her day, including Carl Sandburg, Edward Steichen, Agnes Meyer, John Marin and Alfred Stieglitz. Apparently Steichen also photographed the attractive Rhoades.

The estimates were relatively low, but the auction house knew that would only spur on the bidders. The problem I had with all the photogravures was that they were all dry-mounted to a mat board apparently by Stieglitz. But the process is hardly archival and the materials are pretty fragile, making conservation very problematic.

Lot 44 of the sale started the group off. It was an oversized Steerage gravure, reportedly on Japanese tissue. Estimated at $8,000-12,000, the piece soared to nearly $65,000, including the 18% auction buyer's premium. The prices below will all include that premium.

Lot 45, The Street, Fifth Avenue, another oversize photogravure, was estimated at $5,000-10,000 but sold for $59,000. Likewise The Flat Iron, lot 46, which had a similar estimate, sold for $70,800.

The next two lots were described as being "consistent with platinum prints". Such identifications are notoriously difficult to make and many "experts" are fooled in trying to distinguish between matte silver and platinum processes. The prints sold for quite unbelievable prices, in my opinion.

Lot 47, "291- Picasso-Braque Exhibition", was estimated at only $10,000-20,000, although the photo consultant for the auction house that I talked to before the sale knew full well about the previously auctioned one that sold just into six-figures, although that one was signed. This one, although unsigned, was not to disappoint when it soared to just over $200,000, which easily eclipsed the earlier one at auction, nearly doubling the previous price.

It was on lot 48 that I thought the auction went completely off the tracks into absurdity. "From the Back Window-291-Snow-Covered Tree, Back Yard", 1915, was described as with an "appearance consistent with a platinum print". Its estimate, while admittedly a low $10,000-20,000, went for an out-of-this-world price of nearly $520,000! Frankly I doubt one of the bigger New York City auction houses would have drummed up this one so high, especially for one that was not signed or annotated.

Estimated at $5,000-10,000, lot 49, City of Ambition, was another photogravure, but one with Stieglitz's inscription apparently trimmed off the mount, hence the discount basement price of "only" $47,200.

The last major Stieglitz lot here was his "Hand of Man" in a photogravure. Estimated at $8,000-12,000, it may have been the bargain of the auction at just over $70,000.

And finally, Camera Work: A Photographic Quarterly: Edited and Published by Alfred Stieglitz." Issue 47, commonly referred to as the "What is 291 Issue" went on the block with an estimate of $2,000-4,000. This issue of Camera Work accompanied the above Stieglitz photos in the Rhoades estate, although had no images itself. There are several inscriptions in the hand of Alfred Stieglitz. On the flyleaf there is a lengthy dedication that is both poetic and highly dramatic: "If this Book is a living Thing, it lives through those who have had something living to give. To Katherine N Rhoades…In friendship and in gratitude. Alfred Stieglitz". A bidder picked up this one for $6,490.