Issue #195  12/4/2012
Sotheby's NY Auction Totals Almost $4.5 Million But Has Over 35% Buy-in Rate

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector and Photo Review

Sotheby's sale on October 3 featured almost the same number of lots as Phillips: 268. And the range of their top ten lots was similar. The question was whether they could inject some energy into the tepid start to the auction season. Edward Weston's Nude Study of Ruth-Marion Baruch ($15,000–$25,000) sold to the phone over dealer Michael Shapiro, consulting with a client on his cell phone, for $50,000. Was this an auspicious beginning? But while the next run of lots sold, many were below the low estimate and the reserves seemed to have been kept lower than usual. An Ansel Adams Clearing Winter Storm ($20,000–$30,000) passed at $17,000. I can't remember the last time that image failed to sell. And then an Adams Monolith ($25,000–$35,000) passed at $19,000. Uh-oh.

Fortunately the surest lot in the sale followed: Charles Leander Weed's Yosemite Valley and Big Tree Views, 1864. A phone bidder, L0050, clambered to just past the midpoint of the estimate, $374,500, to set a record for the artist at auction and take home the lot tied for the top price of the day. (Hmmm, L0050 sounds familiar. I think that number has been a big bidder before. And indeed, as we shall see, it was the biggest bidder of the day here.)

But then another Adams, Teton Range and Snake River ($40,000–$60,000), passed at $32,500. It was only the first 30 lots and already we had whiplash.

There were a number of smaller lots and then Sotheby's complete set of Camera Work, bound without the wrappers or advertisements, and therefore somewhat less desirable. Estimated at $200,000–$300,000, it passed at $170,000. That meant that the reserve was probably $180,000 and with premium that would have pushed the lot to $225,000. That's a bit much for such a set, even in a strong market, which this clearly wasn't this fall.

L0050 took several lots here, including Baron Adolf De Meyer's gorgeous Windows on the Bosphorous at $68,500, more than double the high estimate, and Clarence H. White's Morning for the same price, though within the estimates. (Editor's Note: The De Meyer was admired and bid on by a number of dealers and phone bidders, although there was some controversy over the actual date of the print itself. I was on the side of those who thought it was earlier. All agree that it was a stunning print. The Clarence White photo was also lovely.)

Dorothea Lange's White Angel Breadline could have fed a lot of people at $53,125, well over high estimate. (Editor's Note: it might have fed even more people, but it had had some major conservation.) But the two Weston Nude on Sand prints ($100,000–$150,000 and $150,000–$250,000) went begging. They were yellowed on the edges and that scared off bidders, plus they were 1940s, not 1930s, prints. The estimates reflected some of these issues, but apparently not enough.

Imogen Cunningham's Nudes (Two Sisters), 1928, secured sixth place in the sale at $110,500. Louis Faurer's Philadelphia and New York, 1937–1973, The Light Suite, 40 prints in an edition of 40, commuted to $56,250.

Could the afternoon session be better? L0050 got things off to a good start as he or she more than doubled the high estimate for Hans Bellmer's Self-Portrait with Die Puppe, 1934, at $374,500, setting another world auction record for an artist, tying the price for the top lot, and thus winning the top two lots in the sale. (Editor's Note: This lot went in the 2003 Breton sale for about $82,000 with premium. It had sold to surrealist dealer Ubu Gallery, which then resold it to a collector in 2004, who then consigned it here. Ironically, this was hardly the top Bellmer lot at the Breton sale. It was lot 5046, a highly colored poupée with the photographer's brother behind a tree, which sent Bellmer into world record territory back then and topped the photography portion of the Breton auction. Estimated at only 35,000-45,000 euros, it hammered down at 185,000 euros, or a little more than $236,000 to Belgium collector Sylvio Perlstein, who must be smiling now.)

(Editor's Note: A big disappointment for Sotheby's must have been the Raoul Ubac, Le Triomphe de la Stérilité ou Penthésilée, which bought in at $85,000. It had sold at the same Breton sale for well over $125,000. Compare that to the Bellmer results above. I suspect that the reserve was about $125,000 here, despite where Denise Bethel stopped. Add in the premium and the minimum bid would have cost you $156,250. Still not bad for a rare large Penthésilée by this important Belgian surrealist. The image did have a bit of heavy silvering but many collectors like that. In a better market, this piece would have sold in my opinion.)

Irving Penn's After Dinner Games, 1947, played its way to $92,500. Just over high estimate and tied for seventh place. But another top lot, Paul Strand's Lusetti Family ($250,000–$350,000) failed to garner even $190,000. Irving Penn's Girl Drinking also couldn't get a place at the bar. But his Tambul Warrior, New Guinea, did fight its way to $59,375. Then his Moroccan Child with Lamb did even better at $92,500, tying himself for seventh place. After a rapid rise and a decline and rebound in the past few years, the Penn market again seems slightly uneven and below its previous highs.

Contemporary work did relatively well. Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Still #83, 1980, soared past double its high estimate to $182,500, tied for third place. Three Helmut Newton's sold for $34,375 each, all over high estimate and all to the same phone bidder, L0070.

Another Cindy Sherman, Untitled #19, 1978, went to L0050 for $182,500, tying the last Sherman for third place. Peter Beard's Rothschild's Giraffes from the Uganda Line, 1966, stretched to the same price and place in the sale. Here Richard Avedon's Nastassja Kinski (and the Serpent) tied for ninth place at $86,500, the same price as at Phillips. Francesca Woodman's Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island (Self-Portrait), 1975–76, matched that mark, rounding out the top ten. Then her Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, Relating to Portrait of a Reputation brought $62,500 from the same phone bidder. (Editor's Note: Ever since Woodman's estate moved its representation to mega-art dealer Marion Goodman, the phones at auctions have been busy bidding up this work, which only a year ago would sell for less than $20,000. I wonder who exactly is bidding up the work on those phones.)

Sotheby's sale totaled $4,488,254, and 64.6% sold by lot and 72.5% sold by value. But the sale was somewhat more disappointing than Phillips as only 36 lots sold over the high estimates, while 74 lots sold below the low estimates and 62 lots within the estimates. Here 26 lots, not quite 10% of the total, sold in the room. (Editor's note: Sotheby's still did a whole lot better than in its Spring sale: nearly $3/4 million better in fact.)

One caveat: While it's great to have a very active bidder, L0050 took 18 lots for a total of $1,202,875, or 26.8% of the total. Clearly others were bidding against L0050, but it's not necessarily healthy in the long term for a sale—or a market—to rely so heavily on one bidder. (Editor's Note: the market has always been rather thin at the very top and one or two bidders have always made a difference in the photography market. I'm not sure that Stephen's analysis is spot on. Many said the same thing about Sheik Al-Thani, who was L080 in the first Andre Jammes auction, but his virtually single-handed bidding served to boost the overall market.)

(Copyright ©2012 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, 340 East Maple Ave., Suite 200, Langhorne, PA 19047. Or to order The Photograph Collector Newsletter online, go to: http://www.photoreview.org.