Issue #73  6/19/2004
The Nyc Spring Auctions Set Record Totals; Phillips' Sales Like A Rollercoaster

(Note: because of my direct involvement in the first sale and in the interest of journalistic balance, I have asked Stephen Perloff, editor of the Photograph Collector Newsletter, for the use of his report of the spring auction sales in New York City. Except as specifically noted as quotes, these are not my comments or observations.)

By Stephen Perloff

Despite stumbling out of the gate, the spring photography auctions sprinted across the finish line faster than Smarty Jones at the Kentucky Derby. Phillips, de Pury & Company totaled $4,216,720 for its three sales, Christie's reached $3,778,302 on its single various-owners sale, and Sotheby's amassed an astonishing $8,738,600 on its three sales, for record total season sales of $16,733,622.

Alex Novak and Phillips had high hopes for the auction of work from Novak's private collection and from his company Vintage Works, despite a few risky decisions that in retrospect seem to have all backfired. Essentially everything that could go wrong with this sale did go wrong, and the result poses sobering questions not only for Novak, but also for any dealer who may want to get out of, or lower his or her involvement in, the business.

The first major question was whether it was wise to offer a large number of 19th-century European photographs in the United States, where historically they have not performed very well, as opposed to in London. Secondly, how would the market respond to a dealer's collection coming to auction? The answer to both questions was not good.

There were difficulties to this collection. While there were many, many great images and a few truly stellar examples, many dealers commented that for them some photographers were not represented by key images and certainly many prints, some real gems in their own right, had an appeal to only a relatively small and esoteric audience. Sadly, all too often, the market goes with safer, better known material.

In some ways the collection was too diverse. And Novak had offered some of these pictures for sale at fairs or online in the recent past and so they weren't all fresh to the market. Likewise several items bought at auction over the past few years were being recycled back into the auction market too soon. The question arises: if no one bought these pictures before, what would motivate them to buy them now? The only answer is price, and despite what Novak considered reasonable estimates and reserves, the market did not agree. One answer would have been to offer many of the items at no reserve, which would have at least got some momentum going.

Also, despite the presence of Philippe Garner, Phillips has come to make a niche for itself more with contemporary work than with 19th century images. All those people who attend Phillips' other auctions were nowhere to be found at this sale. Perhaps this work wasn't sexy enough for them--or perhaps they haven't learned enough yet about this segment of the market. Plus, there seemed to be some difficulty getting the catalogue out and the number sent may have been cut back. And then people may have been holding their wallets in reserve for some of the best material in years that was being offered in the other sales later in the week.

The audience for an evening sale at Phillips was relatively small, with a higher percentage of dealers in attendance than usual. Auctioneer Philippe Garner took the sale himself, but it got off to a rocky start as the first five items passed. Peter Henry Emerson's Gathering Water Lilies sold to a phone bidder for $26,400, a world auction record for the photographer. That led to a bit of a run where the sold rate hovered around 50%. Southworth and Hawes's Young Sisters were orphaned, but the Le Gray-Mestral cathedral view went to collector Richard Menschel for $36,000, under the low estimate.

The magnificent Charles Clifford arch went to a phone bidder for $62,400, another world record. French dealer Serge Plantureux, one of the most active bidders here (and showing why some of this material may have done better in Europe), preserved Thomas Annan's Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow for $66,000, substantial, but under the low estimate. That was followed by Lewis Hine's iconic Girl Working in a Carolina Cotton Mill, which brought well over minimum wage as a phone bidder trumped Lee Marks at $90,000, well over the high estimate and a new record for Hine.

Oddly, as poorly as this sale did, there were numerous auction records, a true sign of schizophrenia. As Novak told me, "Despite the poor showing for the overall auction, we still managed to set world auction records for the following photographers: Louis De Clercq, Louis Igout, André Disderi, the Duc de Massa, Thomas Annan, Peter Henry Emerson, Arthur Siegel, Eugen Wiskovsky, Henry Hunt Snelling, Lewis Hine, Sidney Richard Percy, Baron Von Stillfried, Rene-Jacques, Milton Miller, Charles Clifford, Gabriel Loppe, James Hamilton Brown, Lloyd Ullberg, and Franz Roh. We also managed to get the second highest world auction price for Heinrich Kühn and Adolf Fassbender. If we had had an average auction, I feel we would have set about 40 new world auction records and the prices on the ones that sold would have been considerably higher in most instances."

Richard Menschel came back to march off with Snelling's picture of George Washington's statue on Union Square for $30,000, a bit below the low estimate. Also, selling just under the low estimate was a Louis De Clerq paper negative of the Temple of the Sun, which went to the phones for $26,400.

The star of the sale, William Henry Fox Talbot's Veronica in Bloom, wilted. But Edward Weston's early nude brought $60,000 from the phone. Several interesting Le Gray's passed, as did Edward Steichen's magnificent Isadora Duncan at the Parthenon, which Novak had featured at the AIPAD photography show a couple of years ago. A glass-plate negative of Marey's Man Jumping over a Hurdle hopped to $20,400. But the mood was glum.

The next day proved even more desultory as what passed was much more notable than what sold. Other than a phone bidder taking a Heinrich Kühn domestic scene for $20,400, just over high estimate, there was nothing of note to report. The sale ended with 18 passes in a row.

In all, the buy-in rate was a staggering 66.5%. By regular auction standards, the sale was a failure. Too many people who might have been bidding sat on their hands. On the other hand, how many dealers sell 76 pictures in a day for $846,360, as Novak did here? It wasn't the outcome hoped for and the sale deserved better, but we'll have to be satisfied with the modest silver lining.

After spending the afternoon previewing at Christie's (where the image of Helmut Newton's vertical Panoramic Nude pointing a gun at you, situated right at the end of the narrow corridor leading into the preview room, was as arresting as the photograph itself) and at Sotheby's, I returned to Phillips for the various-owners evening sale. It was like entering a parallel universe. The room was overflowing with not only the usual suspects but also with the "who are these people" crowd that Phillips attracts.

While 16 lots sold under their low estimates in the evening, 17 sold over, and most things were selling as multiple bidders weighed in. Perhaps frenzy is a slight overstatement--except on a few lots--but there was electricity in the air.

The first major battle of the sale was over Vik Muniz's Bloody Marilyn ($25,000-$35,000), a perfect Warholian gesture and a major piece by this clever artist. After an intense contest, it sold to the phone for an amazing $69,600, a world auction record for the artist.

A classic Drtikol pigment print nude ($40,000-$60,000) was taken by a phone bidder at $52,800. Irving Penn's fashion study, Girl Drinking ($25,000-$35,000) proved an expensive date at $50,400. And Helmut Newton's Nude Descending a Staircase ($15,000-$20,000) walked off with a private collector known for his collection of Newtons for $28,800. Peter Lindbergh's Mathilde on Eiffel Tower ($20,000-$30,000) soared to $38,400. Thomas Ruff's Nude GF10 ($30,000-$40,000) seduced $42,000 from a phone bidder. It was a good showing for the ladies of the night.

Edward Weston's Rag Doll and Sombrerito ($30,000-$50,000) sold to Galeria Ramis Barquet for $45,600, but his Shell ($200,000-$300,000) washed up on shore without a buyer. Ramis Barquet was back to take Bravo's bloody Striking Worker Assassinated ($30,000-$50,000) for $72,000. And a phone bidder provided sustenance to Dorothea Lange's White Angel Breadline ($30,000-$50,000), a 1940s print, at $64,800. Surely this was much better than the working class ever fared in the 1930s.

William Eggleston continued his upward trend as his red-haired girl, Biloxi, Mississippi ($10,000–$15,000) heated up the room at $31,200. Red seemed to be the color of the day as Eggleston's Greenwood, Mississippi (the red ceiling with the light bulb) ($100,000–$150,000) was finally hammered down to Julie Saul, conversing with a client on a cell phone, for $217,400, a world auction record for the artist. The Eggleston portfolio, Graceland ($90,000–$120,000) went to a phone bidder at $114,000.

A group of 14 Richard Prince color prints, Cowboys and Girlfriends ($25,000-$35,000) rode into the sunset at $50,400. Larry Clark's Teenage Lust portfolio, with an extra five prints ($20,000-$30,000) soared to $60,000, a record price for Clark.

A rare vintage print of Diane Arbus's A Young Man in Curlers ($100,000-$150,000) was bid up by Jeffrey Fraenkel but ultimately went to the phone for $198,400, the second highest price for a single print by Arbus--at that moment. An interesting Man Ray print in which he combined an image from a negative and a photogram ($60,000-$80,000) went to Thea Westreich on a cell phone for $81,600.

Thomas Ruff's large psychedelic inkjet print, Sub 01, ($40,000–$60,000) sold to the phone for $66,000. Groovy! Thomas Struth's Paradise 20 (there's more than one?) ($40,000–$60,000) just missed its low estimate at $44,400 ($37,000 hammer), but still enough to buy a lot of apples.

A group of three Lake George images by Stieglitz, including one equivalent ($40,000-$60,000) was taken for $54,000. And the heady evening ended with another world auction record price, as Gregory Crewdson's untitled picture (nude reflected in mirror) ($15,000-$20,000) was won by a phone bidder for $48,000.

The next day saw active bidding, but at much lower price levels. Edwynn Houk bought André Kertész's Bibliothèque, Paris ($30,000–$40,000) under estimate at $31,200. And another Thomas Ruff "porno" image, MN23 ($25,000-$35,000) was bought by a phone bidder (is that the equivalent of the plain brown wrapper?) for $28,800. Also notable, Deborah Bell wrested a rare Guy Bourdin photograph, Gilles ($8,000-$12,000), away from Edwynn Houk for $21,600.

A range of other dealers and collectors made purchases--Willie Schaefer, Michael Mattis, Steven Kasher, Burt Finger, Penelope Dixon, Jo Tartt, John Cleary, Alice Ross George, Katrina Doerner, Rick Wester, and Stephen Reinhold, among them--as active bidding continued throughout the day.

With a buy-in rate below 25% and total sales of $2,800,300, Phillips's various-owners sale was a strong success.

In the afternoon, bidders returned for Phillips's sale of material from the Magnum archive. While the buy-in rate was just over 50%, the sale did pretty much as expected. There were many lesser-known images by lesser known photographers and prints not in the best of condition that would have trouble finding a home no matter what. The $570,060 total for the sale was thus quite reasonable.

A phone bidder outlasted Howard Greenberg to take a group of 28 images from World War II by Robert Capa ($20,000-$30,000) for $26,400. An archive of 100 prints by David "Chim" Seymour of Europe's Children after the War ($40,000-$60,000) passed at the auction but was sold immediately afterward for $36,000. The maquette for Leonard Freed's important book Black in White America ($40,000-$60,000) brought $38,400 from the phone.

Surprisingly, the cover lot, Marc Riboud's iconic image of a young woman with a flower confronting a row of soldiers holding bayonets, Anti-Vietnam War Demonstration ($6,000–$8,000), passed. But Howard Greenberg came back to take Bruce Davidson's amazing maquette for East 100th Street, with 124 prints ($100,000–$150,000) for $136,800, as Katrina Doerner underbid.

The last lot, an archive of 302 prints from the Magnum magnum opus, In Our Time, 1932--1988 ($300,000-$400,000), not surprisingly bought in. It was just too much of an investment for some dealer who might take many years to sell enough to recoup that investment. It's an archive that really should go to an institution.