Issue #34  10/17/2001
Part Two: Auctions Appear Unaffected By 9/11 Events But Some Reflect Lower Quality of Images; Christie's Rockefeller Center Auction Erratic

By Alex Novak

If the auctions had gone relatively well up to this point at Swann and Sotheby's, it did not mean that it could not tail off at Christie's two NYC auctions, which did not have a lot of exciting material this go-round, especially Christie's East.

First up was Christie's New York at Rockefeller Center. It didn't blow the doors off, but managed to eke out a respectable $2,133,595 in total sales including the premium (of 17-1/2% on the first $80,000 and then 10% above that) with a 59% sell-through rate, a rate that was down quite a bit from the spring sale. Interestingly enough only US buyers were represented in Christie's top ten most expensive prints.

It might also have been a better sale had a group of 25 Ansel Adams prints not been withdrawn at the last moment, not because of the tragedy of 9/11, but reportedly because legal limitations placed on the previous owners put the collection's ownership in question. Apparently the U.V. trust wasn't supposed to sell the prints. Just using the low estimate for the lots, the withdrawn lots cost Christie's at least $135,000 off of its totals, and it probably impacted negatively on its sell-through rate. The lots were excluded from the sell-through rate above, but Adams' prints tend to sell at higher rates than other material.

But there were some bright spots. For instance, the Jackie Napolean Wilson collection of cased images of African Americans did surprisingly well, realizing $261,902--more than double the presale estimate. Only four out of the 44 images in the collection were bought in, helping to boost the meager sell-through rate of the overall sale. Two images in the collection even made it into Christie's top ten prices for the sale. Lot 71 Freemen of Color sold to a phone bidder for $30,550 including the premium. That was good enough for 10th place. Prices in this story will include the premium. The determined underbidder was David Raymond, who was bidding for an institution, which my sources say was the Getty, which had shown the pieces earlier. Raymond underbid another phone bidder on the next lot "Portrait of a Mother and Child (Madonna)", dropping out after the lot topped $55,225, which was good enough for 5th place in this sale.

Raymond was also frustrated on another top lot from the collection when he underbid another phone buyer on lot 56, a slave and child, which brought $19,975. But, by my count, he did manage to pick up seven images from the sale for his client.

While I was pleased for Wilson and Christie's, I do think that some of the prices were a bit silly and not reflective of the true market for the material. But that is what auctions sometimes do to people (and institutions).

The start of the sale was a mixed bag for Christie's. Although the buy-in rate was horrendous through the first 20 lots (12 were bought in), there were four of the bigger lots sold at the same time. Lot 12, Westchester, NY, Farmhouse by Walker Evans brought a $44,650 bid from the room, which netted it 6th place on the Christie's top ten list. Lot 13, another Evans, Faces, Pennsylvania Town, was knocked down for $32,900 for 9th place in the sale. Lot 15, still another Evans, this time of Allie Mae Burroughs, Hale County, AL, took in $28,200. And finally, lot 16, the Walker Evans portfolio went to West Coast dealer Barry Singer for an incredibly reasonable $25,850. The Sarasota image alone should bring close to that.

Alfred Stieglitz's Marie Rapp at '291' was the first of the "big" prints at Christie's to hit the podium. Estimated at $100,000-$150,000, it got one bid at $60,000 and then passed at $65,000. It was not the only big item to fall, or to sell at or below the low estimate. It was not because it was a bad image or print, just one that failed to stir the pocketbook at that price level. Three out of four of the next Stieglitz lots also failed to find buyers--all at reserves well below their ambitious estimates.

But on the next lot, a Paul Strand of The Family, Luzzara, Italy (lot 122), Christie's hit one of their top two money-winners of this auction. It sold to Lee Marks for a total of $160,000. Marks was probably bidding on the item for collector Howard Stein.

Lot 123, also by Paul Strand and estimated at $80,000-$100,000, passed at $65,000. I wondered why it and the Dubreuil, The Driver, did not get two pages in the catalogue instead of just one, considering the importance of these two images. Is Christie's trying to save money? It seems a poor way to promote.

Ansel Adams' Moonrise, Hernandez, NM once again made an appearance during this autumn season. A nice print of it sold to the phone for $35,250. Then two more Adams prints also did very well: lot 129, Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, brought $22,325 from a phone bidder and lot 130, a three-panel folding screen of Grass and Pool sold for $28,200. In fact, all the Adams, but one sold, reinforcing what I said above about the impact of losing the large group of Adams from the sale (lots 138-162).

In the afternoon session, Christie's did not exactly get off to a running start. The first lot of the session, lot 163, a Blossfeldt plant, passed at $38,000 against an estimate of $50,000-$70,000. It was frankly boring. The next lot, a Herbert Bayard of a Bauhaus Book Jacket, had been withdrawn. And the following lot, a Brancusi, was passed over at $4800 against an estimate of $7,000-$9,000. After that it was all start-and-stop action (or lack of action that is).

It was not until lot 182 that anything big happened. Here was the Pierre Dubreuil print of The Driver that I talked about above. Dubreuil was always one of the prime moneymakers for Christie's over the last few years. Former Christie's VP Rick Wester had always done well with his images. Now that Wester has moved on, it seemed that Christie's was almost reluctant to push the image, which admittedly was not one of the photographer's best efforts. Despite all that, the image sold to the phone for $82,250--good enough for fourth place on Christie's top ten.

The Man Ray Rayograph (lot 195) had been hyped in the catalogue and in the press coverage, but it was barely sold to the phone, a US buyer according to Christie's, for $160,000, which equated to a hammer price that was $10,000 below the low estimate. It was certainly a stopper, but I did not particularly find it very likeable. Timothy Baum bought the next Man Ray Rayograph, a later one from 1947, for $30,550--certainly a better buy, in my opinion.

There were a depressing 10 passes out of 11 items from lots 198 through 208. Then Christie's hit another bad string with most of the Futurist material, which, although extremely rare, was in poor condition. From lots 218 to 234 there were 14 passes out of 17 lots--the last six lots all passes. And lot 235 was supposed to be one of the stars of this auction: Diane Arbus' Self Portrait.

The Arbus bucked the trend. Estimated at $80,000-$100,000, it was bought by Thea Westreich of Art Advisory Services for $127,000 with the premium. This print came in at No. 3. She had a cell phone in her ear so she was clearly bidding for a client. Dealer Howard Greenberg underbid, with dealer Jeffrey Frankel also displaying considerable interest.

The contemporary market showed it still had some steam left: lot 305, Shirin Neshat's Offered Eyes from Unveiling sold in the low part of its range for $35,250.

And, once again, the only impact of the World Trade Center disaster seems to be to increase the prices of those images of the towers that are pre-9/11. Christie's had announced that it would donate the proceeds of lot 310, Tseng Kwong Chi's New York, an image of a young Mao-look-alike in front of the twin towers. Estimated at $3000-$4000, it sold to the phone for $17,625! Christie's will donate this to the World Trade Center Fund, which was a nice touch. My congrats to them for their generosity.