Issue #70  3/29/2004
Phillips Auction Of '100 Years Of Fine Photography' Will Serve As Benchmark Of European And Early And Experimental American Photography

(Note: because of my direct involvement in this sale and in the interest of journalistic balance, I have asked Stephen Perloff, editor of the Photograph Collector Newsletter, for the use of his preview of this auction sale.)

By Stephen Perloff

"A Century of Fine Photographs: 1840s-1940s," an exceptional selection of historic material consigned for sale by Alex Novak from his personal collection and from the inventory of his trading company Vintage Works at Phillips, de Pury & Company on April 22 and 23, is the most important single-owner collection to come to auction since the André Jammes sale. The material selected for this auction focuses principally on the earliest decades of photographic activity and on the flowering of avant-garde ideas within the photography of the first 40 years of the 20th century.

According to Novak, "Personal events in the last year--including my father's death--caused me to rethink where I am at this time in my life. I want to reduce the complexity and stress of my life. It has nothing to do with the photography market. In some ways, this is not an ideal time to be selling." While maintaining his status as an active dealer, Novak plans on reducing the inventory of Vintage Works from 3,500 images to 400 to 500. He also will be selling a personal collection of tintypes, which will likely go to a smaller auction venue.

Novak became interested in photography in his college days, making his first acquisitions in the mid-1960s. He started to buy more seriously in the 1970s. "It is hard for me to let some of these pictures go. The picture I have owned the longest that is in the auction I acquired in 1982," says Novak. "We often set the low estimate even below what it cost me. In many cases I have actually lowered the estimates that Philippe Garner set."

"The thing that distinguishes this sale from other single-owner sales," Novak reports, "is the universal quality of the images. Even at the Jammes sale a few of the images were not truly great. Here the condition and quality are strong throughout. And every print in the sale is a vintage print."

Two things Novak is keeping: Julia M. Cameron's "Holy Family" --"the first major photograph I bought in the early 1980s"--and an oversize "Running Stream", by Paul Caponigro. This latter print was the last one acquired from photo dealer Joe Folberg, a close friend who passed away, so it has personal significance. Novak is also keeping one small image collection on wine and some paper negatives for which he would like to do a book and exhibit.

Novak plans to put more effort into the I Photo Central website and the sale will provide funding to do this. "I'm excited about changes to the website, which will make major contributions to photography collecting," he says. He plans to add a photography bookstore and an auction function. "This will be somewhat like what Sotheby's had been doing, but simpler. For instance, dealers on the site will be able to easily move work from inventory to auction."

At the moment Charles Schwartz, Ltd., Lee Gallery, Galerie Hypnos, Martin Gordon Gallery, Christopher Cardozo Fine Art, and Northern Light are represented on the site along with Novak's Vintage Works, Ltd. Up to 12 other dealer are also in various planning stages. (Fees are a relatively moderate $500 to join and $250 per month.) Within perhaps two years, Novak hopes to have 20 dealers and 25,000-50,000 images and books represented on the site.

First and foremost in Novak's collection is perhaps the richest photogenic by William Henry Fox Talbot that you are likely to see--"Veronica in Bloom", c. 1840 ($200,000-$300,000 and likely to set a world record for Talbot). This print is hypo fixed, so unlike most of Talbot's photogenics, it can actually be exhibited. Also from Talbot is "Articles of China", c. 1845 ($30,000-$50,000), an image reproduced in "Pencil of Nature". This print did not come from that publication and is richer than the prints from it. Here one can also claim Talbot as the progenitor of Gursky!

Among the daguerreotypes, two by Southworth and Hawes stand out --"Young Sisters" ($80,000-$120,000) and "Two Sisters" ($40,000-$60,000). A full-plate daguerreotype, "In the Company of Philadelphia Publishers", 1856-57 ($25,000-$35,000), most likely depicts a group of power brokers meeting to support the presidential candidacy of General Fremont.

Two early salt prints of American cities are extraordinary historical documents and are among the first photographs of those cities. "Nashville", c. 1856 ($15,000-$20,000), shows the bustle of the street captured by the god-like eye of photographer from above. "Lexington", c. 1855 ($15,000-$20,000), with its jumble of awnings and signs, provides an engaging commercial and architectural history of the town.

Henry Hunt Snelling's "Union Square, New York City", c. 1857 ($30,000-$40,000) captures the formality and grace of Washington's gesture as a group of diverse figures are arrayed in the foreground in front of the statue. A rare full-length portrait of Sam Houston, 1856-7 ($20,000-$30,000), came from the John Johnston album (Johnston was a colorist and painter for the Whitehurst studio and possibly opened a studio for Jessie Whitehurst.).

Two anonymous images show the range of Novak's collection and provide amusement at lower prices. A sixth-plate ruby ambrotype, "Photographer with Camera on Tripod", c. 1850s-60s ($3,000-$5,000), is a sturdy representation of the artist with ample sideburns bedecked in a frock coat and cravat, the decorative columns of his trade beside him. A larger than full-plate tintype, "Student with Top-Hatted Skeleton Buddy", c. 1870 ($4,000-$6,000), shows the two bon vivants puttin' on the Ritz.

Among the early European work, Gustave Le Gray and Oliver Mistral collaborated on "Le Cloitre de la Cathédrale Notre-Dame, le Puy en Auvergne", c. 1851 ($40,000-$60,000), for the Mission Héliographique. Prints of this quality have sold privately for as much as $125,000 in Paris.

An anonymous "Nubian Study of an Odalisque", c. 1850s ($20,000-$30,000), is a large, beautiful salt print, possibly by Roger Fenton. Ludwig Belitski produced three starkly modern, dark, exquisite salt prints of "Glassware" in 1855 ($15,000-$20,000), using lighting techniques not commonly seen until the mid-20th-century.

Charles Negre's "Laundry Room, Vincennes, Imperial Asylum", c. 1858 ($20,000-$30,000), depicts a wonderfully surreal, vignetted scene from the new hospital. It s a rare untrimmed print that came from André Jammes, although not from the Jammes Sale. Charles Clifford's "Sevilla, Alcazar Real, Arch, Details of the Principal Patio", 1858 ($40,000-$60,000), is another print likely to set a world auction record.

Novak says his print by Gustave Le Gray, "Navires de la Flotte Français en Rade de Cherbourg", 1858 ($60,000-$90,000, and likely well under-estimated), "is the single finest Le Gray marine I have seen in the marketplace." Only two other prints are known of this image.

Louis De Clerq's "Héliopolis (Baalbeck) (The Temple of the Sun, Syria)", 1859 ($25,000-$35,000) is a stunning waxed paper negative. Another fascinating negative is Étienne Jules Marey's "Chronograph of Man Jumping over Hurdle, July 18,1886" ($20,000-$30,000). "Nude in Mirror", c. 1860 ($25,000-$35,000), by Étienne Carjat, is a unique positive print. Only three glass plate negatives of Carjat nudes are known to exist (no positives)--all in French institutions, including the negative for this print, which is in the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Mangel de Mesnil's "Pifferari with Repast", c. 1865 ($30,000-$40,000), is a rare Worthlytype print. It depicts the incongruous picnic of three hombres having a meal in an elegantly appointed room. The only other known print of this image is in the Bibliothèque Nationale--and it has the background removed, destroying the preciously odd environment of the image.

From later in the century, Thomas Annan's, "Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow", 1868-77, with 40 carbon prints ($70,000-$100,000), is especially fine. While there is some minor foxing to some of the mounts, the prints are rich and one can see how Annan presages the work of Jacob Riis some 30 years later.

Peter Henry Emerson's classic platinum print, "Gathering Water Lilies", 1885 ($12,000-$18,000), is a model of delicacy, of the woman's touch of the flower, of the oar's touch of the water, and of the elegant tones of the print.

From the beginning of the last century, Lewis Hine's "Carolina Cotton Mill", 1908 ($50,000-$70,000), is the classic early documentary picture. This print, which is slightly oversized, came from Hine's personal collection and had been loaned to Beaumont Newhall for a New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition of modern American photography in Paris.

The work offered here is especially strong in material from between the World Wars. Brassaï's "Self-portrait in Darkroom", 1932 ($15,000-$20,000), shows the portrayer of Paris's demimonde casually standing with a cigarette with his decidedly low-tech equipment. Another Brassaï, a cliché verre, "Young Girl Dreaming", 1934-35 ($20,000-$30,000), could also eclipse its estimates and set a world record.

Jacques Henri Lartigue's "Coca, a la Chasse aux Papillons, Antibes", 1936 ($10,000-$15,000), depicts the joie de vivre of youth, as Coca leaps with her arm extended for a ball in a manicured allee of conical and spherical trees--presaging the Trylon and Perisphere of the 1939 New York World's Fair.

The Polish photographer Janusz Maria Brzeski is represented by a fabulous photocollage with ink, "From the Collection: Sex, 'Progress,'" 1930 ($18,000-$22,000), combining a three-wheeled car, a single-engine airplane, and an ocean liner. "Le Combat de Penthésilée (Battle of the Amazons)", 1937 ($50,000-$70,000), a wild montage by Raoul Ubac, is perhaps the finest print to come from the estate. Another great Ubac sold for $125,000 at the Breton sale last year. Maurice Tabard's "Surimpression in Solarization", 1947 ($12,000-$18,000) is a unique print.

Among 20th-century American work, an exotic Edward Weston print, "Nude Study", c. 1919 ($60,000-$90,000), represents his striking early pictorial work. Edward Steichen's "Isadora Duncan, the Parthenon", 1921 ($60,000-$90,000), is a gorgeous over-sized print of the modern dance pioneer. His "The Maypole (Empire State Building, New York)", 1932 ($50,000-$70,000) is another highlight. A very distressed copy of The Maypole sold at Sotheby's in April 2003 for $10,800, but a "Maypole" in similar condition was reportedly sold privately for $125,000.

While it is usually difficult to predict how the state of the economy and the week's following sales--and dealer "partnerships"--will affect the outcome, given normal conditions, this sale should see numerous world auction records.

In the fall, Novak will sell a second selection of 350 to 400 items at Phillips of strong but affordable material at no reserve. That sale will total in the $1,000,000 range with most images estimated at $2,000-$5,000. Half of the proceeds of that sale will be donated to a charity for victims of domestic abuse.

The previews and receptions for this auction have finally been set:

--London at the Phillips office, 25-26 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4HX, phone +44 (0) 207 318 4014, March 29-30, Monday-Tuesday from 9am-5 pm with the reception on March 29, Monday from 6-8pm.

--Paris at ArtCurial, 7 Rond-Point des Champs-Elysees, Paris 8e, phone +33 (0) 679 80 97 79, April 1-2, Thursday-Friday from 10am-6pm with the reception on April 1, Thursday from 6-8pm.

--Berlin at the Phillips office, Auguststrasse 19, Berlin-Mitte, phone +49 (0) 30 880 018 42, April 4, Sunday reception 11am-3pm and April 5, Monday 9am-6pm.

--New York at Phillips headquarters, 450 West 15th Street, New York, NY 10011, phone for the photography department 1-212-940-1245, April 15-21 Thursday-Wednesday 10am-5pm, with the reception April 14 Wednesday 6-8pm.

To order catalogues and leave bids, you should call the photography department at 1-212-940-1245.

The online version of this sale will go up on the Phillips de Pury website by the end of this week. You will be able to go to that site by clicking on the banner ads for this auction on the iphotocentral website. Currently those banners only go to the page with the New York information on the sale, but the new URL address will be added once the sale is online.

(Copyright ©2004 by The Photo Review. 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 (overseas airmail is $169.95). You can phone 1-215-891-0214 and charge your subscription or send a check or money order to: The Photograph Collector, 140 East Richardson Ave, Langhorne, PA 19047.)