Issue #44  5/19/2002
Spring NYC Auctions Prove to Be a Mixed Bag, as Swann and Phillips Struggle While Sotheby's and Christie's Show Better Results

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector

Fresh from the strong success of the Jammes sales in London, photography dealers and collectors gathered in New York in mid-April with a sense of reserved optimism and a few questions. Were the Jammes sales an aberration, since rare material of that quality is offered so infrequently? Would the market have depth, or would bidders be restrained after extending themselves in London? Or was the market in fact rebounding?

First up was Swann Galleries on April 15 (tax day), but this was hardly a true test of the market, as Swann put much of their better material in their February sale, and this sale had no real stars. With a hammer total of $505,050 ($580,808 with premium) against a low estimate of $850,600 and a 41% buy-in rate, the sale was somewhat disappointing. Jesse James was shot down once again, as the top lot, a cabinet card of the notorious outlaw, estimated at $40,000-$50,000, was passed at $30,000. And the Francis Frith albums, Egypt, Sinai, and Palestine ($12,000-$18,000), also passed. The top lot of the day, then, was Julia Margaret Cameron's The Three Graces, bringing $17,250 from a phone bidder.

While the room was rather lethargic--and 11 straight passes at one point were downright soporific-- the sale did have its moments. A group of 13 Confederate cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards sold for double its high estimate at $8,050, as did Hans Bellmer's Photographies, at $9,200. And the ever-entertaining auctioneer Nicholas Lowry at one point mixed his characters (and maybe his drugs) when he announced a print by Timothy O'Sullivan as being by "Timothy O'Leary."

Later that evening, Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg marked its return to the photography auction scene with a much-anticipated evening sale. The new department under Joshua Holdeman, formerly head of photography at the Robert Miller Gallery, assisted by Stuart Alexander with Alison Hirsch and Matthieu Humery, was staging its first sale. None of the members of the department had worked in auctions before. Both their freshness and their lack of experience showed. The experience will come; if the fresh approach can be maintained, Phillips will be a lively place.

The sale had already created a buzz with a glitzy, over-sized catalogue and the highest estimated lots of any of the spring sales. The evening crowd did not disappoint as there was standing room only with many new faces and representatives from all the other auction houses in attendance--and 15 people manning (personing?) the phones. Simon de Pury greeted the crowd exuberantly and served as a lively, good-humored auctioneer throughout the proceedings.

The sale opened with five lots donated by Bruce Weber to benefit the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. All five elicited active bidding--mostly from new bidders--and all sold at well over their high estimates. It was a cleverly orchestrated and high-energy opening, but several rough spots punctuated the rest of the evening.

The first major lot of the evening, number 15, Pierre Dubreuil's Avenue Corner, a wonderfully evocative image estimated at $80,000-$120,000, passed at $68,000. Then four lots later Margaret Bourke-White's Village School ($120,000-$180,000) passed at $95,000. The slightly disquieting thing about many of the passes in this sale is that, except for a few lots, there did not seem to be any bidding at all.

An Atget Trianon then sold for $32,200 (sold lots reported here include the premium; the passes do not), just below the low estimate, but then another of a tree-lined path in Saint-Cloud ($40,000-$60,000) passed. That was followed by a Walker Evans print of birch trees that was striking, but atypical. Aggressively estimated (as were many of the Evanses in this sale) at ($80,000-$120,000), it got a phone bid at $55,000, but that was all and it too fell under the axe--or the hammer as it were.

Just enough was selling to keep the evening moving, but none of the higher-priced photographs were finding takers. Edward Steichen's The Maypole (Empire State Building) ($100,000-$150,000) was the next to fail to find a new home. Andreas Feininger's classic The Photojournalist sold for $26,000, short of the low estimate. But then a nice little Outerbridge, Wooden Box with Saw ($40,000-$60,000), passed.

Hans Bellmer's Les Jeux de la Poupee sold to Sondra Gilman for $27,600, above the high estimate, but then a Moholy-Nagy enlarged Fotogramm passed. Next up was a charming Richard Avedon print of a little girl leaning against an iron railing in Rome. A vintage print from 1946, it is also believed to be unique. At $6,000-$8,000 it seemed to be underestimated by half. But no, half was not the half of it as Robert Burge wrested it from a phone bidder for $36,800.

Next a Weston, an Evans, and a Callahan all passed. That brought the evening to one of its watersheds: Paul Strand's Mullein, Maine, a beautiful vintage platinum print from 1927 of a wooly leafed plant. Though not one of Strand's classic images, it had all the hallmarks of what discerning collectors seek and I felt it would sell within its slightly hopeful $250,000-$350,000 estimate. The bidding started slowly amid some trepidation in the audience. This print and the Outerbridge Saltine Box were the two highest estimated lots in the spring sales and no one was pinning much hope on the latter print (more on that later), so it was a moment that would test the direction of the market. But bidding heated up as Robert Grosman of Mitchell-Innes & Nash bidding for a private collector slugged it out with a phone bidder past $250,000, past $350,000, past $450,000, to $510,000. Then just as the lot was about to go down for the count, the phone took another swing and like two heavyweights exhausted and hanging on to each other in the fifteenth round a last little flurry of wild swings brought the title to Grosman at $550,000--$607,500 with premium, well past the record $335,750 paid for Strand's print of Rebecca in April 2000.

What happened after that almost didn't matter. Nonetheless, it gave a charge to the audience. Next, dealer Lee Marks bought the Bechers' Grain Elevators for $36,800. Then Atlanta gallerist Jane Jackson bought William Eggleston's Near Minster City and Glendora, MS, featured on the back of the catalogue, for $46,000 over an estimate of $20,000-$25,000.

In general, the finishing run of contemporary work did well, with fewer passes and strong prices. Andreas Gursky's Gardesee ($20,000-$30,000) brought $40,250. And Hiroshi Sugimoto's World Trade Center ($20,000-$30,000) also climbed to $40,250.

The Outerbridge Saltine Box, estimated at $300,000-$400,000, intervened at this point. It was an assertive estimate at least, as only one Outerbridge has sold for over $300,000 at auction. No doubt in the right market a great print of this image could bring $300,000. This was not that print. I don't know whether the fact that it has been through 10 changes of ownership (passing three times through the hands of G. Ray Hawkins in this period) since 1974 had any effect, although I believe it was at one point removed from its original mount. In any event, it passed without any discernible bid.

The evening finished with some strong prices for Adam Fuss, and everyone went home feeling pretty good. However the buy-in rate by lot was 41% (exactly identical to Swann's total) and by dollar would have been a lot higher. Nonetheless the big price for the Strand tilted the psychological scales to the plus side and was the talk of the town--for one day anyway.

The next day started with a run of eleven 19th-century pictures (with a Kertész and an Atget oddly thrown in), none with the quality to really inspire discerning collectors of 19th-century material. The first, a Pierson of the Comtesse de Castiglione, the subject of a recent Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, sold to a young couple in the room who immediately got up and left with the one prize they wanted. Only three others sold, two Watkins's--one to West Coast dealer Maggie Weston, another to the phone, both for $23,000, the low estimate--and a little Calavas (Editor's note: the Calavas went for $2,645, or about two grand too much). The Kertész, a 1929 vintage print of birds on phone wires ($15,000-$20,000), and the Atget ($20,000-$30,000) passed.

San Francisco dealer Michael Shapiro bought a Man Ray interior at the low estimate ($11,500), and Jane Jackson took a striking Herbert List picture looking down at pedestrians on a Roman plaza for $12,075, over the high estimate. Mack Lee bid the same price to wrest Walker Evans's vintage U.S. Rubber Sign away from Edwynn Houk. It was one of the few Evans prints to sell. Margaret Bourke-White's Rolling Coiled Aluminum Sheet fetched $23,000, one of the higher prices of the day.

But the passes were mounting as high as the sales. Auctioneer James Ulph, imported from England, could not keep up the energy of the room, now half-full as opposed to the night before, despite the fact that he kept startling everyone by periodically announcing bids in pounds. He also managed to give a British spin to the pronunciation of Richard Avedon's name, calling him "Av-don." After an anonymous 3"x2" contact of the Bauhaus sold, a 4"x3" contact by Claude Cahun came up. Ulph half-gasped in seeming surprise that people would pay money for such little pictures, "They're very small. I actually haven't had a chance to view them before. I'm glad you have." It did not inspire confidence. And it pointed out the great advantage Sotheby's has in Denise Bethel's handling her own sales.

Thirty lots went by after the Bourke-White before one again sold over the high estimate. It did seem that some estimates were too high, though where consignors were more reasonable on the reserves, prints sold more often than when they pushed the reserve to the low estimates.

A Peter Hujar portrait of artist David Wojnarowicz ($2,500-$3,500) brought a healthy $9,200 as a phone bidder outlasted Lee Marks. It is not a lot of money compared to some other things, but it does illustrate that the conjunction of photographer and subject can sometimes resonate beyond the expected market price.

The highest price of the day was claimed by William Eggleston's Cadillac Portfolio, $46,000, a bit over the high estimate. It's an important contemporary work, perhaps the most striking and engaging group of Eggleston's pictures. It was bought by a private collector who has been relatively active in the last couple of years.

The contemporary work at the end of the sale did all right, but there were more passes than the previous evening. Three Adam Fusses sold above high estimate and two others within the estimates. And that was that.

The buy-in rate for the day sale was a whopping 48%, the combined total 44%. The hammer total of $1,612,600 ($1,829,490 with premium) was well below the low estimate of $2,676,500. Still, the elegance of the enterprise and the huge price (Editor's note: a record for a photograph at a New York City auction) for the Strand made it seem better than it was. The experience gained should help.

Phillips's buyer's premium is substantially lower than Christie's or Sotheby's--15% on the first $50,000, 10% thereafter. That alone could be an inducement to lure consignors from the other houses (Editor's note: or at least buyers).

Sotheby's began their sale the next morning with a new, higher buyer's premium--19.5% on the first $100,000, 10% thereafter (effective April 1 and printed in the catalogue)--and with a relatively sparse crowd, but also with a run of 39 Ansel Adams lots. What followed was a winning streak that would humble the Yankees--or this year maybe we should say the Red Sox--as only one of those lots failed to sell (oddly, the portfolio of Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, which was sold afterwards).

Twenty-six of the lots were from the 1930s and achieved a stunning total of $417,353. These early, small Adams photographs, including many images rarely reproduced, were consigned to the sale by a private collector in Oakland, California, who had known Ansel during his Yosemite days. There was intense and strongly contested bidding from collectors in the room and on the telephone for these pictures. While Sotheby's photography director Denise Bethel claimed she estimated these lots based on their past performance, the estimates seemed low. Perhaps she was taking a page from Sotheby's London expert Philippe Garner's book.

A world-record price for the photographer at auction was set when an early, large-format print of his signature image, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, sold for $136,000 to a phone bidder who bested dealer James Alinder. Also of note were prices realized for the classic Monolith, the Face of Half-Dome, at $38,240, which went to a phone bidder, L087, who took six of the Adams lots for $130,255; Half-Dome, Yosemite, at $35,850, bought by gallerist Alan Klotz; and Mirror Lake, at $33,460, also won by L087. Californian Maggie Weston was an active bidder, corralling five of the lots and Lee Marks bought two others. Also, an oversized print of Aspens, Northern New Mexico sold over its high estimate at $88,430 to Peter MacGill.

As the last Adams lot was hammered down, Bethel wistfully remarked, "Regrettably, we have no more Ansel Adams's to sell today." Afterwards she commented, "We were thrilled with the performance of the Ansel Adams lots in our auction. The Adams market at auction has been due for an upward revision for some time, and with the strong performance of Adams's work in our auction today, we feel that this has been achieved."

Although the following Curtis lots stumbled, the sale moved rapidly along. A phone bidder bought an admirable Watkins for $59,750, the mid-point of its estimate. Then in a fierce battle Lee Marks, who often bids for former Dreyfus Fund honcho Howard Stein, prevailed in taking Baron Adolf de Meyer's Maria--A Study, a print that had originally been shown in the 1910 International Exhibition of Photography in Buffalo, for an auction record $125,000 and the third highest price of the day. Her unhappy rival, a new and unknown bidder left immediately with a glum and disappointed expression on her face.

But a while latter a phone bidder outlasted Marks in taking Lewis Hine's Young Girl in a Carolina Cotton Mill ($15,000-$20,000), an 8x10" enlargement of the 1908 image printed in the 1920s or 30s, for $35,850. A phone bidder gave a home to Lange's Migrant Mother, here titled Destitute Pea Picker, ($15,000-$20,000) a print from the first state of the negative showing the thumb in the lower right, at $31,070.

As the morning session came to a close a run of Berenice Abbott prints sold well, then, no matter what the cost, James Alinder fought another bidder in the air and on the beaches and never surrendered until he emerged victorious, capturing Karsh's famous Churchill portrait for $17,925, almost double the high estimate. The morning session had ended with a remarkably thin 23% buy-in rate.

Although there was a moderate crowd of 80 people in the room, the afternoon session picked right up where the morning session left off and opened with a remarkable 24 straight lots selling (on top of the five straight that closed the morning), with many selling at or over the high estimates. Paul Hertzmann bought Weston's Kelp, Point Lobos ($7,000-$10,000) for $19,120, then came back to take Weston's Hand of Amado Galvan, Tonala, Mexico for $35,850 at the high estimate.

A group of 10 vintage photographs by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, all on large, exhibition-style mounts and all of which came originally from the collection of Fernando Gamboa, a seminal Mexican art historian, museum curator, and diplomat, brought a total of $287,995. El Sonador, won by Edwynn Houk, was the top lot of the group, at $54,970, followed by Muchacha Viendo Pajaros, at $52,580, taken by Spencer Throckmorton. Dealers Rose Shoshana and William Schaeffer were also among a diverse group of phone bidders who took home one or more of the Bravos. (Bravo is now 100 years old and this is the centenary of Adams's birth. Numerologists out there can draw their own conclusions about the success of their pictures.)

An unlikely W. Eugene Smith print of an animal skull ended the streak with a pass and the next lot, Outerbridge's Two Eggs in a Pie Tin that sold at Christie's in 1996 for $40,250 on an estimate of $10,000-$15,000, passed this time at $46,000 on an estimate of $60,000-$90,000. I guess the roaring 90s are over. Then the next 16 lots sold all but three to phone bidders.

Robert Frank got two prints into the top ten. Charleston, SC, the image of the black woman holding an impossibly white baby, was bought by Jane Jackson for $43,020. And Robert Burge outlasted a phone bidder to snag Frank's vintage Motorcyclist, London ($25,000-$35,000) with a winning bid of $71,700.

Lastly, a phone bidder got lucky and took home Helmut Newton's large diptych of large women, Sie Kommen, Dressed, Paris, 1981 and Naked, Paris, 1981 for only $185,500, below the low estimate, but still the top lot of the day.

With a strong closing run of contemporary work, the afternoon session ended with a Kate Moss-like 17% buy-in rate, or a mere 19.13% for the entire sale. The total of $2,936,225 was just shy of the $3.1 million high estimate.

Following the sale, Sotheby's Denise Bethel commented, "We were thrilled with the enthusiasm and commitment from our bidders in all categories of photography in today's auction. Our solid results, right on estimate, show that the fine art market for photography continues to be vibrant and exciting."

Christie's sale the following day was not quite as lights out, but it was very strong, with a reasonable (at least for the current environment) 32% buy-in rate, $2,635,136 in total sales, and world auction records for Margrethe Mather, Irving Penn, and Frantisek Drtikol. Prices may have been affected a bit here as many bidders were grumbling about Christie's just announced hike in the buyer's premium, like Sotheby's, 19.5% of the first $100,000 and 10% thereafter. (But no collusion here!) It's not just that the rate is starting to get prohibitive, but that the rates went into effect two days before the sale and were not printed in the catalogue. I'm not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV--or in a newspaper column--but that sure seems to at least bend the spirit of the law. I wonder if Christie's informed all of their absentee bidders of the change after their bids were in.

The sale opened strongly when Frank Hurley's photograph of Shackleton's ship Endurance broke out of the ice floe--or rather, its estimate of $10,000-$15,000--to sail off for $35,850, just short of a top ten price. It couldn't have hurt that Kenneth Branagh's portrayal of the intrepid captain had just hit A&E and that an IMAX film of Shackleton's amazing adventure had recently opened.

Christie's run of Edward Curtis work did very well, with dealer Lois Flury taking the top two lots, both orotones, Tapah ($9,000-$12,000) for $38, 240 and Women of the Desert, Navajo ($18,000-$22,000) for $33,460. A much-anticipated orotone of Chief Joseph was withdrawn when it was tragically accidentally cracked during the preview.

The Drtikol nude brought $59,750 from a European collector. But from there the auction hit a stretch with numerous passes. The room seemed lethargic, and the auctioneer had no insistence or energy in his voice.

Finally there was a bit of action on Man Ray's Mannequin, as a phone bidder got it for $28,680. Next was a wonderful, unique Rayograph from the collection of René Laporte, publisher of Les Cahiers Libre. Bidding shot around the room until Robert Burge and Peter MacGill were left in the final duel. The auctioneer delayed forever in taking the bids as the audience grew restive and one dealer exclaimed loud enough for most to hear, "Hammer it down already!" Finally he did, with Burge taking it for $218,500, the top lot of the day and the second highest price ever for a Rayograph at auction. When a phone bidder took the next lot, a striking Man Ray solarized portrait of Alberto Giacometti for $38,240--below the low estimate--it seemed almost anti-climactic.

Dealer Henry Feldstein bought the Berenice Abbott portfolio Ten Photographs for its high estimate of $21,510, the same price a phone bidder paid for the Walker Evans portfolio Selected Photographs, but in this case below the low estimate.

The afternoon session opened with a run of Ansel Adams work, which did relatively well. James Alinder scooped up Portfolio I for $59,750 and the portfolio Taos Pueblo for $28,680, while a phone bidder grabbed Portfolio Two for $47,800, all near the low estimates. Then Barry Singer outbid Alinder for Brett Weston's White Sands ($10,000-$15,000) at $26,290.

Margrethe Mather's portrait of Edward Weston earned the title of cover lot. Mather's work rarely comes up for auction. Her print of nudes sold in 2000 for $32,950, but expectations were much higher here, likely boosted by Beth Gates Warren's excellent book on the photographer and of course the draw of this particular sitter. Inexplicably, the estimate was "on request." Maggie Weston and Lee Marks vied for the prize, with Mather's Weston setting the new record at $207,500.

As noted, Irving Penn's work set an auction record as his Cuzco Children ($40,000-$60,000) grew to $74,090 as two phone bidders tried to adopt the youngsters. And Penn's luscious print of Nude 150 ($6,000-$8,000), featured in Penn's recent show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, went to a phone bidder at $45,410 as Peter MacGill fell short. Then an impatient phone bidder jumped the bid from $19,000 to $25,000--or $29,875 with premium--to claim Penn's Three Poppies, Arab Chief ($9,000-$12,000). But MacGill came back to steal Duane Michals's unique portfolio Album Number Four for $21,510. Adding to the interest in portfolios, a phone bidder took Helmut Newton's 15 Photographs for $38,240.

The spring auctions had some rough spots and some extraordinarily successful ones. With just under $8 million in sales at the four houses, the total was well short of the records of a few years ago. Yet on the heels of the $11 million Jammes sale, in this case I'd say the successful moments were more indicative of the market now. That market is clearly in recovery with a slowly expanding number of collectors and established collectors who are still willing to pay top dollar for the best material.

(Copyright © 2002 The Photograph Collector.)

My thanks to Steve Perloff and The Photograph Collector Newsletter for giving me permission to use this information. The Photograph Collector, which is a wonderful newsletter that I can heartily recommend, is published monthly and is available by subscription for $149.95. You can phone 1-215-891-0214 and charge your subscription or send a check or money order to: The Photograph Collector, 340 East Maple Ave., Suite 200, Langhorne, PA 19047. Or to order The Photograph Collector Newsletter online, go to: http://www.photoreview.org.