Issue #3  6/25/1999
Calotypes From India In London

One of the last major auctions of the Spring/Summer season was the Sotheby's sale of the family archives of the Dr. John Murray estate on June 18.  Dr. John  Murray is one of the two pillars of early Indian photography, along with Capt. Linnaeus Tripe.  His extraordinarily large calotype negatives and their positive salt and albumen prints are truly a wonder to behold.  His huge multi-print panoramas are virtually unique in the history of photography. 

The Jama Masjid, Agra by Dr. John Murray
The Jama Masjid, Agra by Dr. John Murray

Probably well over 600,000 pounds sterling (or nearly $1 million) were sold at and slightly after the sale (the official number was 514,940 pounds, but that was before a lot of the real after-sale activity).  While the official records indicate a 68.58% sold percentage by lot, with extended after-sale activity that number is now well over 90%.  That is an extraordinary number considering that this was material from only one photographer, much of it duplicating itself, and that 70% is a decent mark for a regular London photo auction. 

The auction itself was sparsely attended (only about 25 people were in the room), but they were mostly heavy weight players, primarily American and British dealers and collectors, plus two major Indian collectors--one German and the other Kuwaiti.   And there was above average after-sale activity, with over 150,000 pounds sterling being sold later. 

I bought over half of my photographs actually after the auction and was one of the largest single buyers, along with Ebrahim Alkazi, the important Kuwaiti collector of Indian material.  Between the two of us we accounted for perhaps over a third of the sale's total value, although another German-based Indian collector and the dealer team of Chuck Isaacs and Robert Hershkowitz bought heavily.  London dealer, Daniella Dangoor, was bidding on my behalf and in partnership on a number of lots.  I had previewed most lots when I was in London in May for the regular Sotheby's auction.

The top four lots of the sale included:

--A group lot (#150) of 66 negatives of the Taj Mahal that sold for 51,000 pounds (about $82,000) to Ebrahim Alkazi.

--A regrouped Lot #105 The Pearl Mosque with three figures (one other lot was eliminated and most if it added to lot #105 when additional matching negative and positive images were found) went for an astounding 38,900 pounds (about $63,000) to the Canadian Centre for Architecture.  (It was good to see the Centre going for something big again.)  This became a five-piece lot, instead of just two pieces estimated at a mere 800 pounds in the catalog.  Talk about the need to be in the room!

--Lot #22, Dr. Murray's personal copy of  Picturesque Views in the North Western Provinces of India, which went to me after the sale.  The pre-sale estimate had been up to 60,000 (that's pounds sterling!).  There is only one other copy of this book known, and it is in the British Library.  There are 26 salt prints from waxed paper negatives in the book. 

--American dealer Lee Marks bought Lot 167, an absolutely fabulous salt print of the Pavilion and Mosque attached to the Taj, for her US collector, Howard Stein.  Stein, the former CEO of the Dreyfus Fund has--with Lee's excellent help--been putting together a world-class collection of photography.  The price on this exceptional image was 21,850 pounds (about $35,000).

After that prices dropped down to about half the level of this last lot and there were a large number of lots clustered around the 8,000-12,000 pound area. Other bidders at this level, besides those mentioned previously, included book dealer Bernie Shapero, Hans Kraus, Jr., Michael Wilson and Pierre Spake. Lydia Cresswell-Jones, the specialist in charge of this auction, in typically British understatement, said, I am very pleased with the result of today's sale.  It has been a privilege to handle such a complete body of work by one of the pre-eminent amateur photographers of India."

I was also able to buy a number of (relatively, in some instances on the three-part panels) matching sets of negatives and positives, including two Taj Mahal three-panel panoramic sets; a pair of two-panel sets of the Jama Masjid at Agra; and matching negative and positive single-image sets of the Taj Mahal, the King's Tower at Fort at Agra, and the Ruins of the Ancient Palace at Agra.  With my partner Daniella, we were also able to buy the entire run (only 27) of stereo positives, which are extremely rare and are in generally superb condition.

Besides over a 100 photographs and negatives, I was able to purchase the entire Murray correspondence files and both his and his wife's set of diaries, plus an excellent portrait of Murray by H.S. Mendelssohn.

As you can probably see, I am extremely bullish about the importance of Dr. John Murray and this auction.  I'm currently in discussions about an extended museum tour of the material.  If you have an interest as a museum, please feel free to contact me.