Issue #33  10/16/2001
Sotheby's Brings in Nearly $2.8 Million and Sells 67% By Lot, Doing Very Well On Big Items

By Alex Novak

While Swann held its own with a very strong sale, the real test would come the next day at Sotheby's. The troubled auction house, which just announced more staff cuts, posted up respectable results for a single-sale photography auction, bringing in a total of $2,782,280. It sold 66.76% of its lots (down a bit from the spring), but, most importantly, sold every big item in the sale at decent prices.

Considering that the material in this sale was not quite up to Sotheby's normal standards (but was better overall than the other two houses in my opinion), the results were unexpectedly bullish. That prompted Denise Bethel, director of the photography department, to gush after the sale: "We are delighted with the results of today's solid sale, which was right on estimate." She noted "an air of confidence and decisiveness in the saleroom today." I guess I was breathing slightly different air than Denise, but Sotheby's had indeed dodged the bullet and done better than expected in this environment. In some instances, you might even say that it did spectacularly well considering circumstances.

The first big lot was the perennial Moonrise, Hernandez by Ansel Adams, lot 7, a mural size print 38 x 58 inches, which sold below its range for $43,300, including Sotheby's stiff 20% premium (15% on amounts above $15,000 and 10% on amounts topping $100,000). All the prices below will include this premium. The rather flat but huge print sold in the room to the Oswald Gallery of Austin, TX. The price actually pushed this print into Sotheby's top ten for the sale.

Lot 14, Half Dome from the Glacier Point Hotel, a more interesting image and print from Adams, brought $27,200 from a phone bidder over more active bidding from the room and phone. I have said repeatedly that Adams' vintage work has been underpriced versus his late-printed decorator images.

Roger Fenton continued to do well. First lot 36, a shot of the Kremlin sold to Edwynn Houk over Hans Kraus for $15,600. (What exactly is Edwynn doing buying 19th century images any way?) And then Connecticut dealer William Schaeffer bought a nicer print of "On the Wharfe" for just over $26,000.

A private collector on the phone bought lot 61, a Stieglitz of New York from the Shelton for $44,450, a very good price, even though the print wasn't quite stunning. The price still pushed the image to number 9, on Sotheby's list of top results for the sale.

Walker Evan's Faulkner's Mississippi (lot 94), a group of images from the Conde Nast Archive and Vogue, did well, selling to a phone bidder for $27,200 against an estimate of $15,000-$25,000. The phone and order bids would be active throughout the day and week.

Perhaps the sleeper of the auction was the first lot of material from the Paul Walter Collection. The rest of the selection from the collection at this auction was largely mediocre and the results bear me out. But lot 104 was a very important group of a dozen Civil War salt and albumenized salt prints. Estimated at $5,000-$8,000, it sold for an astounding $78,950 to dealer William Schaeffer, who battled fellow dealer Charles Isaacs most of the way up to this level. Auctioneer Denise Bethel couldn't resist an ironic comment from the podium: "Wow. We estimated it only at $5000-$8000, but what do we know? We're only the experts." This was the fourth most expensive lot of the sale.

A Walker Evan's Girl in Fulton Street, NY sold for $31,800. It was one of the few other interesting pieces in the Walter's material. Then we were on to the lunch break.

Sotheby's has a lunchroom on the 10th floor that is actually pretty decent. Salads and soups have been interesting and dependable. Considering the choices nearby, this could be your best bet, especially in bad weather. Then again the restaurant also offers dining outside on the roof, making a nice break from the dull auction rooms.

The afternoon session started off with a few bangs, all of them named Modotti. The beautiful Workers' Parade became a battle between dealer Lee Marks and the phones. Marks prevailed, bringing home the image for $187,250, just $2,250 shy of the World's Record for this artist. Marks often bids for collector Howard Stein. Sotheby's had indicated in its top ten list (and this obviously made Numero Uno) that the image had sold to a "private collector."

Always a bargain hunter, Michael Mattis sneaked in to buy Modotti's Elisa Kneeling for a mere $35,250, a steal for a good Modotti print. Then New York dealer Spencer Throckmorton scooped up the Calla Lilly for $115,750 for third place on Sotheby's top ten.

Dealer Houk came back on lot 163, Imogen Cunningham's Calla & Leaf (Calla Lilly's were pretty popular here) to take it for $44,450 and a tie for ninth place on the Sotheby's top ten.

Paul Strand's Rancho de Taos Church, NM sold for a strong $24,900 against an estimate of $10,000-$20,000.

An erratic group of Man Rays brought erratic results. Top lots included lot 224, an image of Pablo Picasso, which sold for $34,100 to the phone. Then Howard Greenberg picked up lot 226, a Solarized Nude, for $46,750, putting it at No. 6 on Sotheby's list.

It was not until lot 282 that a big one would be bagged. Frankly, I had thought that Sotheby's had miscalculated on this one. I just could not see the estimate at $90,000-$120,000 for this Harry Callahan suite of three photographs of Eleanor (or at least of her towel draped crotch). It just seemed unrealistic for his work and this series of (to me at least) rather uninspired images. But as Bethel said above: What do I know? It got knocked down to a private collector on the phone for a whopping $137,750, a new World Record price for the photographer, placing it in second place for the top auction results.

Irving Penn continued to do well. His Black and White Vogue Cover (lot 300) sold for $23,750 and then his Cuzco Children (lot 304) sold for $58,250, more than double the previous auction results for this image and enough to put the image at No. 5. Both went to phone bidders. Clearly Penn seems to be on the move again.

But it was for Hiroshi Sugimoto to provide the ironic capper to this auction. His World Trade Towers had been estimated at $12,000-$18,000. The image sold to collector Leon Constantino for a whopping $45,600, a World Record for a single photograph at auction for this artist. That put the lot at No. 6 in Sotheby's top ten. The phone then bought Sugimoto's series on the English Channel for $38,700.

Now we only had to survive Christie's two sales.

(To be continued later this week)