Issue #33  10/16/2001
The Haunting Experience of Coming Back From Europe and Previewing in New York

By Alex Novak

I had watched the second plane fly into the World Trade Center in real time on CNN on the streets of Sienna, Italy, where I was on my first vacation in four years. The crash looked like something out of a B-grade disaster movie, but this was real and the death of thousands in an instant takes some time for the horror to sink in.

My brother worked at the World Trade Center, but fortunately was late for work that day. He wound up on a Path train that was diverted to Christopher Street after the train conductor refused to open the doors, thereby saving hundreds, maybe thousands more. I did not find out about this until later.

Communication to the US was non-existent even by Internet for the first few days after 9/11. But when I was able to reach my tearful assistant director Maria Connolly, she told me of the many emails from my friends in Europe and the US wishing us and other dealers well, letting us know that galleries were reopening and staff was safe or had relocated (many with new phone numbers and changes in schedules). We have tried to give these changes priority in posting up to the iphotocentral on-line calendar.

The Paviots send a brief but eloquent email from their Paris gallery: "No words to tell you how much we are shocked. Courage..." It echoed many of the other emails and notes that we received from around the world.

While in Europe I attended a number of auctions (more on that later). The 9/11 events did not appear to impact prices or even buy-in levels. But these were either small or highly specialized (for instance, the Gujral Indian auction), so they might not have been very representative. New York would be the first real test. The NYC photography auctions would indeed go on--some of the very first auctions of any kind after the disaster.

Flying back from Europe to Newark the Saturday before the auctions was a little surreal. The two young women behind me in the check-in were flying back to Boston and were clearly nervous. They asked me whether or not I was concerned. I told them that we couldn't let such people intimidate us, and that the odds were very much in our favor in any case. I told them that I was more worried about the weather conditions. That did not mean that I did not feel at least a bit nervous, especially when one particularly large and surly man decided to stand up in the cross aisle for about half the trip.

I tried to get a good look at the NYC skyline as we came in, but the plane had obviously taken a route that no longer passed near New York City. Whether this was because of new security directives or just a sense that the airlines want to avoid the negative, I could not tell you. In any case, the plane was about a third full, and we breezed through customs in record time.

I took the bus into New York City on Sunday morning because no one could tell me whether or not the limitation on one-passenger cars was in effect during the weekends (it is not). I was struck by two things coming into the city: the three huge American flags draped over the Lincoln tunnel entrances and the deflated skyline of lower Manhattan where the World Trade Center towers used to be. It is somehow different to actually see it in person rather than on television.

I must have misunderstood when Swann would open, so I walked down the street to get a quick breakfast. I was the only person in the restaurant, but its take-out line grew quickly from just me to about a dozen. New York was starting to wake up. Looking towards downtown, I felt the absence of the twin towers. I decided to hop up to Christie's on the subway. At 10:30 am not a single person was in the car with me for the three stops that I had to go on the 6th Avenue train. It was a haunting feeling to see all the empty seats.

Christie's had not opened yet either and I was feeling a bit stupid and headed back to Swann. I decided to hit the 25th Street flea markets and met up with fellow dealers Terry Etherton, Joe Bellows and Steve Bulger. After buying a few nice images from my friend Glenn Spellman and then having it begin to rain, I went back over to Swann to preview. More and more people drifted in while I was there. Some looked a little shell-shocked.

It was still raining as I walked to the subway stop and took another almost empty train back uptown to Christie's Rockefeller Center. There was another somber but slightly larger crowd there.

After finishing at Rockefeller Center, I grabbed a cab with fellow dealers William Schaeffer and Hans Kraus, Jr. to preview Christie's East (the last photo auction to be held at that location; future sales would move to the Rockefeller Plaza location). In the cab, Schaeffer told us about how he had cancelled his flight plans on the ill fated Boston jet, one of the two that crashed into the World Trade Center towers just two and half weeks before. He also related how he had been startled awake in his hotel room last night, still shaken by the events and his own narrow brush with death.

After a brief look at a rather weak group of images, Hans and I decided to move on to Sotheby's. In the cab, he invited me to see his current exhibition of Hill & Adamson images. My whirlwind-previewing jaunt was coming to a close with our arrival at Sotheby's. I was particularly impressed with Tina Modotti's Hats, more properly called a "Workers' Parade".

After a quick return to my office in Pennsylvania's Bucks County, I drove back into New York City on Tuesday, timing my trip so that I hit the Lincoln Tunnel (the only one still functioning for in-bound traffic at the time; the Holland Tunnel just reopened this week) after 12 noon, so that my one-person car would not be turned back.

Novak has over 45 years experience in the photography-collecting arena. He is a long-time member and formally board member of the Daguerreian Society, and, when it was still functioning, he was a member of the American Photographic Historical Society (APHS). He organized the 2016 19th-century Photography Show and Conference for the Daguerreian Society. He is also a long-time member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers. Novak has been a member of the board of the nonprofit Photo Review, which publishes both the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector, and is currently on the Photo Review's advisory board. He was a founding member of the Getty Museum Photography Council. He is author of French 19th-Century Master Photographers: Life into Art.

Novak has had photography articles and columns published in several newspapers, the American Photographic Historical Society newsletter, the Photograph Collector and the Daguerreian Society newsletter. He writes and publishes the E-Photo Newsletter, the largest circulation newsletter in the field. Novak is also president and owner of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, a private photography dealer, which sells by appointment and at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Classic Photography LA, Photo LA, Paris Photo, The 19th-century Photography Show, etc.