Issue #203  5/13/2014
Sotheby’s 31-Lot Single-Owner Sale Tops $5.4 million

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector

Alvin Langdon Coburn's Vortograph, sold for $605,000.
Alvin Langdon Coburn's Vortograph, sold for $605,000.

On the evening of April 1, Sotheby’s hosted a 31-lot single-owner sale, The Inventive Eye: Photographs from a Private Collection. Although the collector was unnamed, it is believed to be a woman who, while having exquisite taste in photographs, suffered significant losses in the Bernie Madoff scandal. It is also thought that despite the success of this sale, as most if not all of the images on offer were acquired in recent years, that the collector did not recoup the full cost of the collection.

This session had the liveliest bidding of any of the auctions, with every sold lot commanding a price at or above its pre-sale estimate.

Margaret Bourke-White’s Dummy and Chute Landing, Irving Air Chute Company, Buffalo ($10,000–$15,000) led off but never got off the ground and was bought in, disabusing anyone of the notion that this would be a white-glove sale. Next, Alfred Stieglitz’s Music--A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs, No. VII ($80,000–$120,000) drifted to $137,000 as phone bidder L0021 outbid Bruce Silverstein. When the same phone bidder claimed Alvin Langdon Coburn’s Vortograph ($250,000–$350,000) at $605,000, speculation in the audience immediately moved to a Middle Eastern buyer. That price was good for third highest of the sale and a record for the artist at auction.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Seville ($70,000– $100,000) hopped to tenth place on the evening as Gabriel Catone, consulting on a cell phone, bested Howard Greenberg at $197,000. (Most of the pictures offered here were sold to the collector by or through Greenberg.) Catone also corralled Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s Paisaje De Equitación ($30,000–$50,000) for $106,250.

L0021 climbed to $425,000 to take Charles Sheeler’s Stairwell, Williamsburg ($200,000– $300,000), fifth place. A different phone bidder drove off with Robert Frank’s Street Line, New York (34th Street) ($70,000–$100,000) at $87,500.

Edward Weston's Shells was the top lot of the Spring auction season at $905,000.
Edward Weston's Shells was the top lot of the Spring auction season at $905,000.

Greenberg came back to take a bite out of Edward Weston’s White Radish ($40,000–$60,000) at $59,375. Weston’s Shells ($300,000–$500,000) claimed top spot in the sale and on the season at $905,000, going to yet another phone bidder. Auctioneer Denise Bethel got so excited she hammered it down for “750 dollars,” rather than $750,000, but quickly corrected herself.

Bruce Silverstein danced off with Edward Steichen’s Isadora Duncan--Columns of the Parthenon ($50,000–$70,000) at $68,750, cutting in on Peter MacGill who was consulting on his cell phone. Edwynn Houk grabbed Man Ray’s Surimpression, Paris ($70,000–$100,000) at $87,500. Yet another new phone manhandled the opposition to waltz off with Edward Steichen’s Gloria Swanson ($300,000–$500,000) at $629,000, second place. (And let’s see what cinephile gets that pun!)

Collectors Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg added to their masterpieces by buying Man Ray’s Nude (from the La Prière series) ($70,000–$100,000) for $149,000. Howard Greenberg took back László Moholy-Nagy’s Fotogramm 1922 (Photogram with Spiral Shape) ($150,000– $250,000) at $317,000, for seventh place.

Edward Steichen’s Time, Space Continuum ($100,000–$150,000) is still lost in a vortex somewhere, as it passed at $95,000. Clearly the low estimate was the reserve on most of the lots. Then L0021 sprung for Man Ray’s Rayograph (with Coil, Handkerchief, and Chain) ($400,000– $600,000) at $485,000, for fourth place. László Moholy-Nagy’s Fotogramm (Photogram with Diagrammatic Square and Circles) ($100,000–$150,000) went to a phone at $221,000, over the bid of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg, but his Untitled (Positive Photogram) ($100,000–$150,000), which had a bit of light damage, passed at $95,000. Then a different phone dialed up Moholy-Nagy’s Photogram (Wire Gauge with Linear Accents) ($70,000–$100,000) for $93,750.

San Francisco dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel won Edward Weston’s Pepper (No. 30) ($150,000– $250,000) at $341,000, sixth place. And Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg arranged Imogen Cunningham’s Calla with Leaf ($70,000–$100,000) at $100,000.

Somewhat surprisingly, Edward Weston’s Sand Dunes, Oceano, California (Black Dunes)($80,000–$120,000) became one of the four lots bought in at the sale as it passed at $65,000. Robert Frank’s Charity Ball, New York City ($70,000– $100,000) went to a collector sitting with Connecticut dealer Michael Shapiro at $87,500.

Lastly, Robert Frank’s Motorama, Los Angeles ($25,000–$35,000) raced to $185,000, tenth place, and more than five times the high estimate and the biggest percentage premium of any lot in the spring auctions. It went to a phone bidder.

In all, the sale totaled $5,414,750 (with L0021 spending over $1 million), well in excess of its $4.5 million high estimate with a meager 12.9% buy-in rate. That averages out to an astounding lot sold average of over $200,000 and almost $175,000 per lot offered. And as the sale took one hour it may have also set the record for longest time per lot.

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/.