Issue #64  11/7/2003
Phillips' Sale Of Joshua P. Smith Collection Brings In Nearly $1.4 Million

The first commercial sale of the auction week was the Joshua P. Smith Collection, which was sold at Phillips. Phillips continued its string of successful auctions by netting $1,383,595 for the 261 lots offered. Because the sale was a no-reserve sale, the sold rate was 100%. The only negative here was that the total hammer price was considerably lower than the total low estimate ($1,478,050), but the material was also not the most exciting.

Usually when a personal collection is auctioned, you will see rare material that shows the impact of the eye and the emotional involvement of the collector. Here the material was sometimes pedestrian and did not seem like the collection of just one individual. Certainly there were a few wonderful lots, particularly the true vintage (this time) Helen Levitt prints, but much of the material was low end, but without true excitement even for its price category. In fact, except for the cover lot of a Helen Levitt image of a young boy with a toy gun, a vintage Manuel Bravo and a Lee Friedlander lot, all of the sales top ten list consisted of groups of photographs, rather than the exceptional single image that usually makes up this kind of list. I was a bit disappointed with all of this, because I expected more from the nephew of photographer Dan Weiner, whose work I have always admired. In fact, I bought the two Weiner images in the sale.

The prices below will include Phillips 19.5% buyer's fee. Most of the lots did not hit a level high enough for coverage, but I have noted the highlights. With this sale Phillips instituted a new and highly confusing policy of dating lots by the image date and NOT the print date, unless that print date was known or absolutely obvious to the auction house. The intent was good, but the execution was downright confusing, considering that the auction industry only provides one date when that date is sufficient for image and prints, in other words, only if the print is a vintage one. The result was that many of the Phillips lots in this and its regular sale listed the early image date for printed later images as if they were vintage images. I spoke with expert Philippe Garner about the new policy, and he agreed that it might be confusing to some bidders, so Phillips was again considering other language to make the ambiguity of the actual print date known to bidders. Stay tuned for the results.

Kicking off the higher end lots was a portfolio of 18 images (Le Gente) by Mario Giacomelli (lot 32), which sold to an order bidder for $14,340. The next lot, also another portfolio of 18 photos of landscapes by Giacomelli, sold for $16,730, again to the commission bidder versus a phone.

The Water Towers (two prints mounted together with one print showing nine images) by the Bechers drew the expected attention of a phone bidder, who purchased lot 39 for $21,510, which is a reasonable price.

Massimo Vitali's huge color images of beaches and parks (lots 69-72) got to their low estimates, especially with the assistance of dealer Bonnie Benrubi, who represents this artist and obviously stands behind the work with her own bid support--a very laudable action. Most went for about $11,000 to $12,500.

Then came the Manuel Alverez Bravos, which were probably the surprise of this auction. The first Bravo was a vintage print of an animal's skeleton (lot 73) that sold to New York dealer Ramis Barquet for $27,485, which put it in sixth place for the auction.

Barquet then picked up the next two lots of printed-later Bravos. Lot 74, a group of four photographs, sold for $22,705, which was more than double the low estimate and good enough for tenth place in the auction. Lot 75, six portraits and one self portrait, sold for $31,070, which was again more than double the low estimate and made this lot the fourth most expensive of the auction.

London dealer Michael Hoppen scooped up lot 76, two important printed-later nudes by Bravo, for a reasonable, but mid estimate $8,365. Barquet returned to the fray on lot 77, a printed-later Bravo group of nine images that sold for $26,290, which was the high estimate and was good enough for seventh place.

But on lot 78, a good group of 11 printed-later Bravos, he met his match. A phone bidder (paddle 1040) pushed the lot up well past its estimate range of $20,000-$24,000. Up and up it went, until that pesky phone took home the prize at an astounding $95,600, making this the top lot of the auction.

But Barquet came back on the next lot, taking the eight late-printed nudes (lot 79) for double the low estimate at $43,020, putting this lot into third place in the top ten list of this auction.

There was considerable buzz in the room among photography dealers, most of whom felt that the prices were exceedingly high for late-printed Bravos, which are fairly plentiful on the market--at least they were.

Oddly enough Barquet was back on the next big lots, the Helen Levitt prints. Last Spring I reported that most of the dealers who saw the Levitts in the Seagram sale felt that they were not vintage prints as the catalogue had indicated. This time the group were vintage or certainly close to vintage (perhaps 1940s prints in some instances). Because of this, the prices were generally real "buys" this time around.

On the first lot (99), the phone took three Levitt images of New York for $19,120 over Barquet's bidding, but Barquet then came back on the next lot, another group of three images, with a winning bid of $11,950. He also took the next lot, one more group of three, for $14,340. All three bids were bargains, although I preferred the first lot myself.

The next lot was a wonderful and poignant image of a young girl with her arms crossed and a young boy in the background. I underbid this lot against the phone, who stole it away for $16,730--a truly great buy, considering that the estimate of $20,000-$25,000 was very reasonable. Fortunately for me, I was able to buy a great vintage print of this image after the sale, so we both went away happy.

Lot 103 might have gone for considerably more if it had been a better print. It was a tad flat and looked to be a bit later than the other prints, maybe circa 1950, but the image is one of Levitt's best and it was clearly early. It brought only $9,560 from phone bidder 1025, against the estimate of $18,000-$22,000. That is still an incredible bargain for the image.

The cover lot of the little boy with a Popsicle and a gun by Levitt really took off. I was prepared to bid it up myself, but then it soared on past its high estimate and then past double the high estimate. New York dealer Deborah Bell finally got it for her client for $50,190. A rare and wonderful image but certainly bought at a premium, the lot came in at number two on the top ten list for the auction and set a new world auction record for the artist.

Barquet then took the three Levitts of Mexico City (lot 105) for $7,409 and New York dealer Lawrence Miller, Levitt's primary dealer, finally picked up lot 106, two chalk images, for $6,214. Lot 107, Levitt's image of boys at play, sold for $8,365. Barquet then bought the last Levitt of a woman on the stoop with a newspaper for $4,780.

The next lot of note from a financial point of view was lot 159, a William Klein group of 12 printed-later images of New York. The lot went to Carol Ehlers of the La Salle Bank of Chicago.

Lot 173, an image by Garry Winogrand, went to New York dealer Katrina Doerner, who bought it for a client. The price was $14,340, considerably over the estimate range of $6,000-$8,000.

Another Winogrand went for big bucks when the phone picked up lot 179, seven images from the double elephant portfolio for $21,510, about the mid part of the estimate range. Most of the Winogrands either fell below or just in the estimate ranges.

Two vintage Lee Friedlander images of early 1960s television sets captured the attention of a number of bidders. They were pretty interesting images. The price zoomed up way past the estimate range of $8,000-$12,000 to hit $23,900, pushing it into ninth place in the auction's top ten.

Lot 197, a possibly vintage self portrait by Friedlander (his shadow on a wall), got lots of bidders excited. At one point San Francisco dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel jumped the bid from $1,100 to $7,000. He and others still got outgunned by art consultant Thea Westrich, who took it for a stunning $25,095, over an estimate of $8,000-$12,000. That price was good enough for eighth place in this sale and a new world auction record for the artist.

All the other Friedlander lots oddly fell well under their estimate range. Friedlander still gets very erratic results at auction.

On Larry Clark's Tulsa Portfolio (lot 206), the phones provided the action. Estimated at $10,000-$15,000, the portfolio sold to phone bidder 1016 for $31,070. For dealers Clark and Danny Lyon's work is difficult to sell due to the tough subject matter. Lyon's work all sold for considerably under estimates.

Lewis Baltz scored well with his Candlestick Point portfolio (lot 229), which sold for within estimate at $16,730.

Nicholas Nixon did even better against his estimate range for a selection of 11 photographs (lot 241) that sold to a commission bidder for $16,730 over an estimate of $8,000-$12,000.

Two groups of six images by contemporary photographer Abelardo Morell (lot 259, camera obscura images and lot 260, images from the "book" series) sold to the same commission bidder for $15,535 and $14,340 respectively. The winning bids were well below estimates.

Showing considerable variation in his auction results, Philip-Lorca Dicorcia's large color work ranged from a winning bid of a mere $700 (lot 94) against an estimate range of $8,000-$12,000 (this is not a typo) to Dicorcia's signature image of Mario at the refrigerator door (lot 266), which had the same estimate range as lot 94 but sold to Carol Ehlers of La Salle Bank for $22,705. Content certainly matters when it comes to contemporary work.

I will be reporting on the rest of the fall auctions after I return from Paris Photo.