Issue #225  6/9/2016
Philippe Garner Retires from Christie's

By Alex Novak

Philippe Garner caught chatting with Pierre Apraxine. (Photo Alex Novak)
Philippe Garner caught chatting with Pierre Apraxine. (Photo Alex Novak)

Philippe Garner, who held the first modern photography auction in the U.K. in 1971 at Sotheby's and then moved first to Phillips and then on to Christie's in 2004, finally retired at the end of last month from Christie's. I had attended his going-away party from Sotheby's, so many years ago, but missed this last retirement one. I'm sure it was as memorable--at least for those who didn't drink as much as we all did on that earlier occasion.

Garner joined Sotheby's and in 1971 took charge of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco department, one of his other great passions beside photography. He wrote one of the key early books on design in 1974, Art Nouveau Collectables. It would be one of many such books, including Emile Galle (I have a copy of this one in my own library), Sixties Design, Eileen Gray: Design and Architecture, 1878-1976, etc.

But Garner's impact that concerns so many of us in the photo market came from the fact that he held the first modern auction of photography in the U.K. in 1971. After 30-plus years at Sotheby's, he joined Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg in July 2002 and then moved on to Christie's in 2004 as its director and international head of photographs and 20th-century decorative arts and design.

He has written extensively about 19th- and 20th-century photography and curated numerous exhibitions. A few of the photobooks he has published include Cecil Beaton, Jonathan Cape; Cecil Beaton: The Dandy Photographer; John Cowan: Through The Light Barrier; Guy Bourdin; and the book that represented his long-time fascination, A Seaside Album: Photographs and Memory. He even curated an exhibition on the same subject in 2003, which was based on his own collection of Brighton photographs.

Garner has been a trustee of the Photographers' Gallery, London, and the Brighton Photo Biennial and he currently sits on the Advisory Board of the National Media Museum. In 2004 Garner was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of The Royal Photographic Society and was given The RPS's Award for Outstanding Service to Photography in 2011.

While Philippe may have had the slowest hammer in the auction business, he always managed to get the most out of the room and beyond. His knowledge about photography is encyclopedic, and I often sought his advice even about sales that weren't his own, such as the now legendary Cravens auction in May of 2000. Over tea I let him tell me about his favorite images in the sale (he had exquisite taste). The two he particularly remarked on, I must admit were my favorites as well. I managed to get one early on (an anonymous portrait of two flirtatious women), but the other—the magical tree—went out of sight later in the sale.

He loved photography—from 19th-century paper negatives to the latest fashion photo stars. I trust he'll still be around to continue to put his mark on photography, especially now that he'll have even more time.

It is a bit shocking to me that in just over a year, the two grand mavens of the photo auction business—Philippe Garner and Denise Bethel—will no longer be on the podium. The times, as they say, are indeed a changin'.