Issue #195  12/4/2012
Christie's Totals Nearly $7.8 Million

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector

Christie's closed the auction season by opening with an evening sale of 28 disparate works by Richard Avedon. The sale totaled $1,517,250, a nice chunk of change, and accounted for five of the top ten lots of the entire two-day sale plus several other notable prices, but as we'll see, that didn't tell the whole story.

Dovima with elephants, Evening dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, August 1955 ($200,000–$300,000), went to an absentee U.S. dealer for $266,500, tying for second on the top ten. That same bidder also won Brigitte Bardot, 1959/later ($100,000–$150,000) at the same price.

A large version of Stephanie Seymour, model, New York City, May 9, 1992/1997 ($200,000–$300,000), was claimed by phone bidder 1758 for $230,500 (fifth place). This print had sold at the Constantiner sale in December 2008 for $182,500, so there was no profit there for the seller.

Avedon's The Family, 69 gelatin silver prints, 1976 ($150,000–$250,000), moved in with a phone bidder at $206,500 (sixth place). This group had sold at Sotheby's in May 2006 for $279,273, so this was a rather substantial loss.

The smaller version of Stephanie Seymour, model, New York City, May 9, 1992/1993 ($50,000–$70,000) went to a European collector on the phone, over a bidder from the Czech Republic on the internet, for $104,500 (eighth place). This print had sold at Sotheby's in October 2009 for $46,875, so finally a profit.

Other lots of note in the sale were: The Beatles, London, England, 8-11-67, four chromogenic prints, $86,500, below the low estimate; Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent, Los Angeles, CA, June 14, 1981/1982, going to 1758 for $62,500; Marella Agnelli, New York studio, December 1953/1981, $50,000, also to 1758 (and another loss as it sold at Christie's in Paris in November 2010 for €49,000, about $66,900); Andy Warhol and members of the Factory, New York City, 10-30-69, $50,000; and Lauren Hutton, Great Exuma, the Bahamas, October 1968/1981, $50,000.

So was this a successful sale? Eight of 28 lots, or 28.6% bought in—not grand, not disastrous. It certainly showed Christie's facility for acquiring good material—and somehow convincing owners to take a loss. But despite the total, I'd say, "Move along. There's nothing to see here."

One more thing: the fate of Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent was instructive. As I've written before, an auction benchmark is solely the result of two bidders. Once a winning bidder has a picture—especially an editioned one—and the underbidder is going against a third bidder, the price can change substantially. The price at Phillips and Sotheby's was the same. Perhaps the second bidder had regret at not making one more bid. Perhaps he or she didn't pay attention to one of the auction houses, or maybe preferred one print over another for some reason. But assuming the top two bidders got the first two pictures, then the third bidder was going against the fourth at Christie's, which was just unlucky to go last. But the price attained was over 25% less. So what is the actual price today between a willing buyer and a willing seller, as the appraisers say?

Christie's began their various owners sale a few minutes after closing the last lot of the Avedon sale, although the first lot was another Avedon: Lauren Hutton, Great Exuma, the Bahamas, October 1968/1980, ($40,000–$60,000), which sold to an Asian collector bidding online for $104,500, good for ninth place overall.

A Penn dye transfer, Lily, Imperial Pink (New York), 1971/1990, came in just under estimate at $56,250.

Helmut Newton's Panoramic Nude with Revolver, Como, Italy, shot over estimate at $242,500 (fourth place). Robert Mapplethorpe's Vase with White Tulips went to order at $92,500. Pierre Dubreuil's lovely oil print of a ballet dancer, Behind the Scenes, rounded out the top ten at $98,500.

Penn's Patissiers, Paris, from his Small Trades series, actually sold to a bidder in the room at $56,250, just under estimate.

Then came Christie's cover lot, Peter Beard's Orphan Cheetah Triptych, 1968, a gelatin silver print triptych with ink, blood handwork, snakeskin and various collage elements, printed 2003 ($100,000–$150,000). Given the strength of the Beard market (and I'm not referring to all those closers in the baseball playoffs) it seemed a cautious estimate. (One wag commented during the auctions that it was good to be a long-legged nude or a wildlife animal!) But then there have been a lot of Beard's on the market lately. But then these are cute kitties in a large size with all the elements that make a classic Beard. No matter. Three determined phone bidders drove the price up and up until it finally topped out at $662,500, an auction record for Beard, the top price in the sale, and the highest price for a single image of the auction season.

A Penn Picasso passed, as did an Arbus Jewish Giant. But an untitled Francesca Woodman nude almost doubled its high estimate at $68,500.

A Mapplethorpe dye transfer Calla Lily at $52,500 and an Imogen Cunningham Magnolia Blossom at $62,500 made a nice bouquet, but both below estimate. The Cunningham last sold for $17,250 at Sotheby's in April 1994, a return of 7% annually or less, with fees.

Pierre Dubreuil's Harlequin Still Life sold for $80,500, but under estimate. Irving Penn's Black and White Vogue Cover, 1950/1976 ($200,000–$300,000), took seventh place at $194,500, but not near the top prices for this image. And so ended the evening portion of the sale, which represented all the top ten lots.

The next morning began with a run of 32 lots by Cartier-Bresson, most of which had been gifted to his printer, Voja Mitrovic, from the collection of photographer Peter Turnley, who worked with Mitrovic. This portion did relatively well, selling to a very diverse group of bidders on the phone, by order, online, and a few in the room, with only three passes, but there also seemed to be no premium for the fine provenance as 13 lots sold under estimate and only three above.

Getting back to the various owners portion of the sale, Penn's Three Asaro Mudmen ($25,000–$35,000) scared $56,250 out of California dealer Robert Koch. William Eggleston's untitled chromogenic print of a drink on an airplane tray table with a disembodied hand holding the straw ($25,000–$35,000) flew to $62,500. And his dye transfer print, Webb, Mississippi, ($30,000–$50,000) was pumped up to $74,500. But proving once again that there are no sure things, his iconic tricycle ($250,000–$350,000) passed at $180,000.

Ansel Adams's early portfolio Yosemite Valley, CA ($25,000–$35,000) claimed a healthy $56,500. A beautiful, rich print of Atget's Saint-Cloud, 1926, went to an order bidder at $60,000, just barely under estimate. Also just under estimate was Thomas Ruff's 09h 58m/-40°, 1990, which saw stars at $92,500.

Robert Mapplethorpe's Self-Portrait as Transvestite ($25,000–$35,000), hit the $50,000 mark, but only after some confusion and the lot was reopened.

The Garry Winogrand portfolio with 15 prints, 1974, hit its high estimate at $74,500. An Adams Moonrise glimmered at $50,000, going to an internet bidder.

Diane Arbus's Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., a Selkirk print, exploded just beyond its estimate to $74,500. Another fine Dubreuil, Venise: Une Silhouette, 1912, paddled to its low estimate at $98,500 (actually tying his tenth-place print of the previous evening. And lastly an Adams Clearing Winter Storm blew to $52,500.

Christie's again blew away the field with a total of $7,793,000 on a buy-in rate of 37%. They had more lots—375—but that also indicates their ability to attract more decent material. And with 60 lots selling above the high estimates, 84 below, 108 within, along with 95 lots passing (and 43 selling in the room), they were not setting the house on fire either.

In all, the four auction houses totaled a little short of $20 million, not quite $2 million more than in the spring. But with the distraction of the election campaigns and uneven material there was not much to get excited about beyond a few special—or surprising—lots. That the auction houses did this well under these conditions I suppose is some comfort in that the market was at least steady.

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