Issue #51  11/27/2002
Sotheby's MOMA Sale Drew Most of The Attention

Sotheby's evening sale of material from the Museum of Modern Art drew a large and expectant audience. Here was an opportunity to acquire some outstanding work--and some interesting if not outstanding work--with impeccable provenance, for all that provenance is worth (not much, once an item has auctioned). Like the first MOMA sale, condition was sometimes an issue with this material, but that did not seem to stop the bidders.

And for the first time, Sotheby's photography department had to guarantee a consignor a minimum price, apparently under pressure from competing bids this time around from both Christies' and Phillips auction houses.

While the sale was marked by numerous strong prices, it was also helped immeasurably by reasonable estimates and very reasonable reserves, many well less than the traditional 80% of low estimate. This is getting to be a trademark for Sotheby's, and it works.

Harry Callahan's Wells Street, Chicago, was the first picture to break through its high estimate ($8,000-$12,000) as a phone bidder moved in at $29,875. Edwynn Houk, who was the most frequent buyers at the sale, walked off with László Moholy-Nagy's Sand Architects, No. 2 ($10,000-$15,000) also for $29,875, and followed that up with Moholy-Nagy's In the Swim for only $7,170 on the same estimate. Then Houk bested Michael Senft for Man Ray's Untitled (Rayograph with lock of hair) ($100,000-$150,000), parting with $130,500 in the process. It tied for third highest lot of the sale.

Next, auctioneer Denise Bethel advanced Man Ray's Untitled (Rayograph with flowers and ferns) (estimate $150,000-$250,000) in tension-building $5,000 increments up to $300,000 ($339,500 with premium), a record for a Rayograph at auction and the top lot of the sale. The battle was between two phones.

There was a lot of negative comment about the museum selling off this image. The rationale for these sales by MOMA was always that MOMA was selling off its duplicates or lesser-valued images to make other purchases. But this was a print that was not only a unique print, but came from major trustee and patron James Thrall Soby. It was clearly a very important image by a major photographer. Some of the more cynical in the back rows were quipping that soon you will be able to buy the museum's Picasso's and Monet's Lilly Ponds next, or worse. This kind of image is a major work and clearly should not have been sold in the view of most observers that I talked to. What is astonishing is that there is not even a squeak of controversy in the New York press about it.

Collector Michael Mattis got a Man Ray Nude for $46,605, a below-estimate bargain. Robert Burge, consulting on a cell phone, took Man Ray's Meret Oppenheim in Bathing Cap for $29,875. Kaspar Fleischmann of Galerie zur Stockeregg outbid collector Kenn Wynn for Drtikol's luscious print, The Bow, setting an auction record for the artist at $76,480. Charles Isaacs made off with the next nude, Edward Steichen's Dolor ($70,000-$100,000), for just a tad less, $74,090. He overbid Howard Greenberg.

A platinum print of the Colorado River from Hermit Point by Alvin Langdon Coburn sold to the phone for $62,140, considerably under the estimate of ($70,000-$100,000).

Alfred Stieglitz's Venetian Gamin went well over its high estimate at $31,070, but the iconic Apples and Gables (but in a weak unsigned print) passed at only $54,000 on an estimate of $100,000-$150,000. Several of the cloud studies by Stieglitz did sell to the phone and order bids for just under the low part of their estimate range: lot 45 brought $22,705 and lot 46 got a bid of $33,460.

Dealer Charles Schwartz got one of the bargains of the day when he bid $5,975 (within the estimates) for John Paul Edwards' lovely 1920s pictorialist street scene, The East Side, New York. Then the Sherrill Schell of Wall Street, NY sold for nearly $18,000 in the room.

An Edward Steichen of Gertrude Lawrence, which was printed later by Rolf Petersen, went well over estimate at $35,850 to the phone. The image had featured in much of Sotheby's promotion around this event, even though it probably set a world record for a Rolf Petersen-printed image.

Charles Isaacs and Edwynn Houk battled it out for Charles Sheeler's Modernist masterpiece Pulverizer Building, Ford Plant, Detroit ($70,000-$100,000). Isaacs was left standing, but $130,500 lighter.

Then a little run of important Walker Evans pictures came up to end the evening. Sashi Caudill, bidding on the phone for a private collector, bought Evan's Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Family, for $62,140, just over the high estimate and Howard Greenberg's persistent paddle in the room. And Evans' Negro Barbershop Interior was finally sold at $95,600 (fifth place) to a man in the room. Next, heavy phone bidding for the cover lot, Evans' Breakfast Room, Belle Grove Plantation, ended at $141,500, again going to Caudill at a bit below the low estimate, but still good for the second highest price of the sale. Peter MacGill then completed the shopping with Evans' Country Store and Gas Station for $64,530. He had to compete with bids from the phone and the room on this one.

Sotheby--and everyone else in the photography community--had to be pretty relieved by the active bidding and the low numbers of buy-ins. Especially Sotheby's, who had guaranteed a certain amount to the seller.

Prices remained steady the next day with fewer big lots, but still a few good prices. Michael Mattis outlasted Howard Greenberg for Clarence White's haunting picture The Mirror ($10,000-$15,000), bidding an auction record $62,140. Edwynn Houk went over high estimate to wrest Stieglitz's portrait of Dorothy Norman away from Deborah Bell for $11,950, but Norman's two portraits of Stieglitz passed at only $2,000-$3,000.

Houk battled David Raymond, consulting with a client (we suspect the Getty Museum, which he has bid for in the past) on his cell phone, for Charles Sheeler's Coke Ovens--River Rouge (estimate $10,000-$15,000). Houk finally prevailed at $57,360. A couple of lots later, they staged a rematch on Sheeler's Generator ($5,000-$8,000), with the same outcome at the same price. I think both were still good buys.

Mack Lee waged a similar tussle with David Scheinbaum and Janet Russek, taking two Eliot Porter landscapes for $17,925, three times the high estimate, although Scheinbaum and Russek bought two other color groups by Porter, including one of birds, for a song (sorry about that). And Minor White's Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, more than doubled its high estimate at $13,145.

When the session ended everyone was feeling pretty buoyant--and the Modern was feeling $2,691,642 richer (less commission of course). The 21% buy-in rate was minuscule, even for good times.