Issue #226  7/29/2016
London Auctions Were a Mixed Bag This Spring

By Michael Diemar

Nick Knight's Black Pearl, 1996, sold for a whopping £93,750.
Nick Knight's Black Pearl, 1996, sold for a whopping £93,750.

As in 2015, the London auction houses planned their photography sales to tie in with Photo London. The sales have become more and more predictable. MacDougall's was the only house to offer any 19th-century material, six Daguerreotypes by Girault de Prangey, and there was very little pre-war material overall. "It's just fashion, tits and ass in the London sales these days", one collector commented to me. And to be sure, there was an abundance of it, but occasionally there was also some intriguing material as well.

During the panel discussion between Howard Greenberg, Anthony d'Offay, Quentin Bajac and Michael Wilson at Photo London, Wilson lamented the increasing dominance of the auction houses, having gone from being clearing houses to being retail operations.


Phillips took this to a new level in their sale on June 9th. The first part of the sale, entitled "Ultimate Vogue" consisted of 12 works by leading fashion photographers, printed this year in editions of one and available only through Phillips. And according to the catalogue, images were chosen by the house.

Well, it worked. Apart from lot 9, an uninspiring image by Glen Luchford, all sold and some for way beyond the estimate, setting auction records for some of the individual photographers. Prices quoted here include the buyer's premium. (The pound at the time was much stronger at nearly $1.46/pound than after Brexit.) Ellen von Unwerth's "Parasol, 1990", estimated at £15,000-20,000, sold for £50,000 (auction record). Nick Knight's "Black Pearl", estimate £40,000-60,000, went for £93,750 (auction record), and Sølve Sundsbø's "Close", estimate £8,000-12,000, went for £20,000 (auction record).

Peter Beard's Maureen and a late-night feeder, 2.00 am, Hog Ranch, 1987, sold for £149,000.
Peter Beard's Maureen and a late-night feeder, 2.00 am, Hog Ranch, 1987, sold for £149,000.

Lots 58 to 69 were gathered under the heading "Ultimate". Works that were unique--unique in a particular size or simply the only available print on the market. Lot 58, "Maureen and a late-night feeder, 2.00 Hog Ranch, 1987" by Peter Beard had one of the artist's best known images as the key element but the side panels were filled with drawings, newspaper and magazine cuttings, and food and beverage labels. Estimated at £100,000-150,000, it went for £149,000.

Lot 59 was Robert Mapplethorpe's "Self Portrait, 1988", which was taken less than half a year before his death. Devastated by his illness, the image is a close-up of his eyes, the gaze unflinching. As one dealer told me a few years ago. "When it was released, I couldn't give it away. People thought it just too painful. Now it's one of his most desired images, especially amongst art collectors". Four of the prints from an edition of ten plus two artist's proofs are in major institutions. It was estimated at £60,000-80,000, and I had expected it go higher than the £75 000 that it sold for.

Lot 64, "Raven, 1976" by Masahisa Fukase, estimate £15,000-25,000 was finally sold for £93,750 (auction record).

Altogether, the Phillips auction brought in £2,248,625 including premium, with 68% of the 160 lots sold.


The houses are evidently trying to find a new collector base. In the case of Sotheby's it seems to have worked. 25% of the buyers in the sale on 19 June were new to Sotheby's but with a buy-in rate of 39.5 % of the 134 lots it was hardy a roaring success.

Irving Penn's Mouth (for L'Oréal), New York sold at Sotheby's for £221,000. (Copyright The Irving Penn Foundation)
Irving Penn's Mouth (for L'Oréal), New York sold at Sotheby's for £221,000. (Copyright The Irving Penn Foundation)

The sale pulled in £1,422,375 ($2,073,823) including buyer's premium. Irving Penn's "Mouth (For L'Oreal), 1986, a dye-transfer print made in 1992 commanded the top price. Estimated at £180,000-£230,000 it brought in £221,000 including premium. It's a stunning print, and several contemporary fashion photographers have imitated the image.

Runner-up was a 180 cm wide fashion image of supermodels by Peter Lindbergh, taken in 1990, number 1 from an edition of 3. Entitled "Linda Evangelist, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington, Estelle Lefébre, Karen Alaxander, Rachel Williams, Vogue US, Beach Los Angeles 1990", it was according to Sotheby's specialist Brandei Estes "created during an era when fashion photography meant meeting standards of beauty through retouching. Lindbergh felt it was the responsibility of photographers to "free women, and finally everyone, from the terror of youth and perfection". The image was considered so avant-garde that the commissioning magazine Vogue US said they could not use it. Estimated at £60,000-£80,000, it sold for £81,250 including premium.

Richard Avedon's "Marilyn Monroe, Actress, New York City, 1957", capturing the legend in a moment of doubt, was estimated at £30,000-£50,000 but sold for £77,500 including premium after some fierce bidding. There was much of the usual London fare on offer, Helmut Newton, Albert Watson, Mario Testino, Miles Aldridge, Horst. There was also a smattering of classic photography, including three prints by Josef Sudek. "Window of my Studio" went for £3,750, "Egg on Plate" for £10,000 and "Window from outside, spring" for £10,000.

The most intriguing print amongst the classics was a vintage print of Henri Cartier-Bresson's "Sifnos, Greece, 1961". The image has in the printed later versions become an auction cliché. This, print though by no means technically perfect, had real presence as an object, and I was surprised that it sold for no more than £8,750.


There was more ho-hum, "London fare" at Christie's, meaning works by Herb Ritts, Bert Stern, Helmut Newton, Mario Testino and David LaChapelle

The truly spectacular piece here, and it was indeed spectacular, was "Heart Attack City, 1972/1998" by Peter Beard. At 85-1/2 inches wide, it was described in the catalogue as a "complex collage of chromogenic, gelatin silver and halftone prints, various found objects, signed, titled, various annotations in ink with blood throughout, collaged objects and ephemera including an infants laced shoe, a pebble, a plastic comb, feathers, a dried pea pod, some dark brown scrunched up tissue, cracker packaging, magazine and newspaper cuttings, a negative strip, a bumble bee, snake skin and a bottle top". Estimated at £300,000–400,000 it went for £434,500, including premium.

Lot 4 presented an opportunity to acquire another unique piece, the original maquette for Sam Haskins' book "Cowboy Kate & Other Stories" from 1963/64. Estimated at £30,000–40,000, it sold for £35,000.

Irving Penn's Fighting Crickets sold for £68,500. (Copyright The Irving Penn Foundation)
Irving Penn's Fighting Crickets sold for £68,500. (Copyright The Irving Penn Foundation)

A great by print by Irving Penn, "Two Fighting Crickets, New York, July 12, 2005", estimated at £18,000–25,000 and featured on the cover of the catalogue, was finally sold for £68,500. The better of two portraits of Elsa Schiaparelli by Man Ray, estimated at £8,000–10,000, went for £9,375. Altogether, the Christie's sale brought in a total of £1,661,375, with 66% of the lots sold.


The Swinging Sixties are never far away in London. And in case you missed the last exhibition/book/TV documentary, there's always another one coming up. Bloomsbury Auctions had decided to focus on the decade in their spring sale on May 20th, entitled "Smile - Photographs & Photobooks from the 60s".

The material consisted of rock, film and fashion images, mostly printed later, such as Marilyn Monroe by Bert Stern, The Rolling Stones by Michael Joseph, Raquel Welch by Terry O'Neill, a selection of NASA images, as well documentary photography by Colin Jones and Hank Walker.

But there were a few interesting items, such as lot 92, seven vintage prints of images taken during the filming of the cream pie fighting scene in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove", removed from the final cut. Estimated at £800-1,200, it failed to find a buyer.

Lot 18 consisted of eight vintage prints by Robert Whitaker, outtakes from the notorious "The Butcher Cover" session in 1966, with The Beatles seen smashing dolls and plastering each other with raw meat. They were estimated at £3,000-5,000, and despite being the only remaining original prints from the session, they went unsold.

But the house did sell the star attraction of the auction, the complete set of seven images taken by Iain McMillan for The Beatles' "Abbey Road" album. These were printed later, artist's proofs from an edition of 25 and just reached the lower estimate of £50,000, which was £62,000 including premium.

Altogether, 73 lots of 112 went unsold here, and those that did sell were mostly in the £500-1,000 range.


And finally there was the photography sale at MacDougall's on May 21st. And it was a strange one. MacDougall's Fine Art Auctions specializes in Russian Art. Their sale was focused on Russian photography but strangely enough also had six daguerreotypes by Girault de Prangey. Despite the varying quality, and only one stuck out as desirable, they were all estimated at £20,000-30,000--all very much at the high end for this material.

The prospect of a Rodchenko album, and a mixed collection of photographs sounded promising, but proved to be a collection of dull portraits. Many collectors avoid Russian pre-war photography altogether. While a fair amount of forgery using old papers has occurred over the years, the field is also complicated due to the fact that Soviet-era manufacturers kept churning out the same papers decade after decade, without adding brighteners, ruling out any dating attempts with a black light. The most attractive image in the sale was Max Alpert's "Kyrgyz Girl Leading in a Horse Racing Competition". Taken in 1936, it's one the icons of Russian photography, and it looked to me like a vintage print at the preview. The rest was more than dull.

I can't tell you whether any of this sold or not. I didn't attend the auction and neither did anyone I spoke to in the collection community. And MacDougall's couldn't help me either. More than two weeks after the auction, the results still hadn't been posted on their website.

My attempts to speak to anyone at MacDougall's proved futile. "We will post them in due course," I was told by the receptionist. "When? In a week? In two weeks?" "I can't tell you. We will post them in due course." (Editor's Note:as of August 1, 2016, no results from this sale have been posted.)

Michael Diemar is a London-based collector and consultant. He is also editor-in-chief of The Classic, a new free magazine about classic photography. He is a long-time writer about the photography scene, writing extensively for several Scandinavian photography publications, as well as for the E-Photo Newsletter and I Photo Central.