Issue #33  10/16/2001
Swann Kicks Things Off With Two Catalogues; Sets Record On Photo Auction and Single Item

By Alex Novak

The first auction up was at Swann, scheduled for an unusual afternoon and evening session. Just how would the market hold up post-9/11? Actually Swann had no big images in the morning session. Nothing was even supposed to go for more than $9,000 on the HIGH estimate: lots of $1000-$3000 items. But it was an interesting group of material despite the low price range, and the auction house had done its best (as Sotheby's and Christie's did as well) to get consignors to review their reserves, so items were reasonable if not a steal. The room had decent attendance and the order and phone bids were--not surprisingly--quite active.

Things went about the way you might expect they would go before the 9/11 events: 51% sell-through and a meager $376,884 total for the afternoon, although there were a couple of pleasant surprises. All prices and totals include Swann's reasonable 15% buyer's premium.

Two very fine Frank Mason Good albums went well above their high estimates: lot 34 going for $7475 to an order bidder over an estimate of $3000-$5000, and lot 35 going to the phone for $9200 over an estimate of $3500-$4500. A partial Paul Strand portfolio sold in the estimate range for a respectable $10,925 to the room. And finally, a very nice album of New York City views by Irving Underhill sold on the phone to another dealer for $25,300 (against an estimate of only $6000-$9000) with NY dealer Edwynn Houk underbidding apparently for a client.

Swann had created a second catalogue for its evening session--something called "100 Fine Photographs"--as opposed to "Important 19th and 20th Century Photographs" in the afternoon session catalogue. While some of the evening's images were considerably more "fine" than some in the afternoon, not all were, leaving some of us confused by the distinctions. In any case, the evening session did much better than the afternoon, bringing in a total of $1,060,675 and a sell rate of 62%--a sell-through rate not far off last spring's auction mark. And very importantly, most of the big lots sold well. The total for the entire day was a very respectable $1,437,559. Indeed, it set a record for a Swann photography auction.

There was an interesting group attributed to Thomas Eakins. While the material was a bit erratic, the provenance and other evidence were compelling. The lead image, a study for Eakins' painting entitled The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake, sold to a dealer in the room, for $51,750, well under the estimate of $70,000-$100,000. It was not a particularly exciting print but it was a study for an Eakins' painting. This same male dealer left after also winning lot 361, a group of scullers for a mere $2300.

An order bidder, who was a dealer, picked up lot 362 for $12,650. And I bought lot 364 a group of four enchanting images of the Crowell children. They reminded me of Lewis Carroll's work and I thought that the lot was the best of the group. Eakins is getting hot now with the major show (see below for details) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. On lot 360, auctioneer Nick Lowry stumbled on the pronunciation of "Wissahickon" as the projection of the image also faltered, prompting a quip that the word "was so hard to pronounce that it hurt the projector." After a few laughs and some help from the Philly contingent in the room, Lowry was able to get it right.

One of the big lots of the night was a very rare Herbert Bayer print of Marseilles. The shadows and forms made it a wonderful modernist image and the large print was truly a stopper. Apparently it came originally from Dr. Erik Bender, a German Jewish refugee, who came to Long Island and became a noted collector of children's books and ceramics. Bender was himself an amateur photographer. After a heated bidding session with several people in the room, including dealer Lee Marks, and the phone, another bidder in the room got the nod at $68,500 including the premium--well above the estimate of $30,000-$50,000, but still a bargain for this unique work.

A late-printed Two Callas by Imogen Cunningham sold to a dealer in the room for $9775. Callas lilies were to do very well during the week. It is apparently the current flower of choice.

The next big item (and the one Swann needed the most) was the Edward Curtis set of North American Indians. Swann has done well on Curtis material in the past. Estimated at $500,000 to $750,000, the lot sold in the room to dealer and collector Christopher Cardozo against the phone for $607,500, including the premium. While this was a decent price (in fact it was the highest priced item ever sold at Swann), it still didn't match the record set in May at the Bearne's sale of well over $700,000, but at least Swann had made their big sale. And to be fair, the material was missing one small format volume and two large format gravures and lacked the provenance of the Bearne's copy, although it was a more-sought-after Japanese tissue set.

By the way, Max Reed, one of the partners on the Bearne's album, told me that the group had resold it to Flury Gallery, a Seattle, WA gallery that specializes in Curtis material. No price was mentioned, although the group reportedly had offered the lot for $1-1/4 million originally. I suspect that the group made a profit but probably not THAT much of a profit. Max's bookstore, Sims Reed, on 43a Duke Street St James, London is around the corner from the Christie's King Street location (where all future photo auctions will be held, I am told) and is worth a stop to see his fine photography and art book selection.

Continuing on at Swann, Lowry got off another good crack when he tried to sell a Mario Cravo Neto image of a man with two fishes by announcing that "now it's only $800 a fish." Since Rick Wester stepped down off the podium, Lowry may be the most polished and entertaining photo auctioneer in New York, although I wish he would be clearer about what was sold and what was unsold.

A bit later an Alfred Stieglitz Poplars "sold" to an order bidder against the room for a respectable $27,600, except that it did not actually sell. It was the only "big" item to go down at Swann. It had a small scratch, but was a decent print. This was clearly one of those instances where Lowry was less than clear about the status of the item. There were bidders in the room, but apparently the reserve was not met, rather than an order bid executed.

A late-printed (1976-77) platinum print of Paul Strand's Wall Street sold for $9775 to a collector. While it did not make its estimate range of $12,000-$18,000, I still feel that is a ridiculous price to pay for a late editioned print (of 100 yet!). A copy of Doris Ulmann's Roll, Jordan, Roll sold for the middle of its estimate range at $17,250. A Roman Vishniac portfolio sold for $25,300 to an order bidder, who was a dealer, against the phone. And finally, another portfolio, this time by the recently deceased and multitalented Eudora Welty, sold for $11,500 to a Philadelphia couple.

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.