Issue #195  12/4/2012
New York Auctions Do Well Despite Lack of Great Material, Selling Nearly $19 Million

By Alex Novak

It was indeed a big yawn of a fall New York auction season in terms of great material.

Three out of four auctions posted similar or higher totals than last time out (Swann about doubled its total with its Curtis set selling for $1.44 million). And that is with a lot of pretty mediocre material. The exceptions to mediocrity, such as the Hans Bellmer at Sotheby's which sold for $375,000--just triple its estimate, usually sold well. The few real disappointments were mostly at Sotheby's, where both Raoul Ubac's and Paul Strand's major images bought in. The decent and important Raoul Ubac bought in at around $90,000 (probably with a reserve though around $120,000 plus 25% premium). It had sold previously—along with the Bellmer--at the Breton sale in Paris for about $125,000. The Strand bought in at $200,000 (plus premium). Both, in my opinion, would have done better in a stronger, broader market.

Most decent photos though sold well, although buy-ins were slightly higher; however after-sales were VERY strong, especially at Phillips. Mostly it was the big photos with condition problems that sold poorly: the Edward Weston Pepper at Phillips (most expert observers thought it was probably a late 1940s print by Brett that had a number of dings in it), which was the only house off its last auction marks, and Sotheby's (the two 1930s Weston nudes which were 1940s prints that were yellow and had other flaws).

Yes, some of the late-printed Ansel Adams, Irving Penns and similar ilk went low or even bought in. But frankly there were a bit too many on the market, and this was a good buying opportunity. My partner and I bought three Penns and four Mapplethorpes at good prices.

The Peter Beard photographs seem to be a phenomenon, much like the Beards of cable TV fame on Duck Dynasty. And perhaps just as fake and silly. It is all a series of phones bringing insane prices for too-precious images of lion cubs, etc. You decide whether or not this part of the market is real or manipulated—but it sure is bringing in the money for the auction houses. For me most of it is as much art as the Dogs Playing Poker paintings on velvet.

The thing with Beard is that he does have some serious work amidst the oceans (and it sure seems like there is no lack of supply of these things) of mediocre and pigs' blood-splattered images. His "Self Portrait for Centre Nationale de la Photographie, Paris" was one of the most extraordinary contemporary works that I've ever seen at auction. The man has immense talent, but is squandering so much of it with too cute works made for the decorator market. I guess this is what artists do at the end of their careers to cash in--and I can't really blame them. If they have people who pay for such mediocrity, then why not?

I think the elections/debates were a big distraction to this fall's auctions, but all the NY dealers that I've talked to say that their business was up this fall, especially after the Jewish Holidays--at least before Hurricane Sandy ravished most of Chelsea and blacked out the lower half of New York. Summer was typically slow, but the first half was gang-busters. The NYC dealers are usually my canary in the mine shaft warning system. I am happy to say that many, if not most, of the Chelsea galleries are back in business, so go visit when you can.

The New York auction sales this fall tell a much more nuanced story. The results you might say show the overheated and over-suppplied part of the market (those Penns, Adams, etc.) taking a necessary break, but when the auctions can sell nearly $19 million worth of photography in a few days, that is not bad, especially since it was nearly $2 million more than in the Spring. I remember--and not that long ago--when the entire season wouldn't break $6 million (actually I can remember a LOT less, but then I would be showing my age).

In Paris, Sotheby's had another awful showing, but Christie's had a very strong outing. It just seems that material makes the difference every where.