Issue #73  6/19/2004
Sothebys Breaks New York City Record With $8,738,600 For Its Three Photo Sales

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector and Photo Review

In the evening, Sotheby's was offering a stellar collection of photographs from a private collection. While Sotheby's did not name the collector in the catalogue at the request of the family of the collector, it was common knowledge that the 43 lots on offer came from the collection of M. Anthony Fisher.

Fisher, 52, a senior partner at Fisher Brothers, a private family concern with extensive real estate and financial investments as well as the ownership and management of several important New York City buildings, and vice chairman of the Fisher House Foundation, which constructs comfort homes for families of hospitalized military personnel and veterans, and his wife, Anne, 41, a trustee of the International Center of Photography, were among six people who died tragically on April 4, 2003 in a plane crash. Tora Fisher, the couple's 13-year-old daughter, was the only survivor. The Fishers were en route to Cushing Academy for a day's visit. Fisher had been president of the board of Cushing Academy for 16 years. Their plane crashed into an industrial building in Leominster, MA, on approach to landing. The two pilots and two business associates of Fisher's were also killed in the crash.

Fisher also served as Chairman and CEO of the Intrepid Museum Foundation from 1999 until his death and was a member of the board of various other charitable institutions. Both Peter MacGill and Henry Feldstein counted Fisher among their most important clients.

Sotheby's large auction room was filled to overflowing. Bidders had their hands on their paddles like gunslingers at the OK Corral. It didn't take long for the action to begin.

First, Peter MacGill outgunned Edwynn Houk for Harry Callahan's Chicago (trees) at $96,000. (Almost all of these prices were over high estimate, so I'll skip the estimates here, except where particularly noteworthy.) Then Jeffrey Fraenkel outbid Richard Morehouse for Callahan's New York (Building Façade), at $45,600. But Morehouse came back to take Callahan's Barbara and Eleanor, Chicago over collector Michael Colacino for $43,200.

Robert Burge drove off in Robert Frank's Covered Car, leaving Bruce Silverstein in the dust at $78,000 (more than two-and-a-half times the high estimate). Peter MacGill attended Frank's Hollywood Premiere for $36,000 (at a similar premium). Robert Burge marched away with Frank's Chicago (the horn player at the Adlai Stevenson rally) for $131,200, besting Edwynn Houk at more than three times the high estimate--and not even good enough for the top ten!). Peter MacGill was back for Frank's motorcyclists, Indianapolis, for $33,600, the price of several Harleys.

Then came the cover lot, a vintage, signed print of Diane Arbus's most famous image, Identical Twins. An American collector on the phone doubled his pleasure by taking the top spot in this auction and setting a world auction record for Arbus at $478,400.

But this was only one-quarter of the way through the auction. Jeffrey Fraenkel relaxed with Arbus's A family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y., for $176,000 (tied for number seven) as Edwynn Houk was left looking for a beach chair. Howard Greenberg was hungrier than collector Jack Hastings as he bid four times the high estimate--$28,800--to take Weegee's Denver, Hot Tamales. As you can tell, this sale was a real battle of heavyweights, but I won't mix my metaphors with a sumo wrestling analogy.

Peter MacGill was the winner of Weston's most well known image of Dunes, Oceano, paying $176,000--a record for a Weston dune, to make that distinction, and a tie for seventh place. Weston's Nude on Sand, Oceano, went to Richard Morehouse for $265,600, good for fourth place. Michael Colacino, building a collection for his real estate firm, Julien J. Studley, Inc., won a different Weston Dunes, Oceano, for $108,000. A phone bidder took Weston's savory White Radish away from Maggie Weston at $55,200.

Another phone bidder carried off Frederick Sommer's stunning Livia, a haunting portrait that was one of my favorite images hanging in the old, old installation of photographs at the Museum of Modern Art and an image that is certainly a precursor of the work of Loretta Lux, although I haven't seen it referred to in that context yet.

Then we were back to an early Weston nude, Breast. Michael Mattis (and Judith Hochberg) outdrew Peter MacGill for this lot at $299,200, a record for a Weston nude, and second place in the sale. Tina Modotti's Telegraph Wires called on the usual suspect, Spencer Throckmorton, who wired $164,800 to Sotheby's account (ninth place).

Howard Greenberg needed a trim more than Thea Westreich, as he paid $198,400 for Walker Evans's Negro Barbershop, Atlanta, a record for Evans and sixth place in the sale. Paul Strand's Toadstool, Maine was a veritable bargain, selling within its estimates to Maggie Weston, outbidding Jack Hastings, at $114,000. Larry Miller told me that his father, Robert, had once bought this very print for $1,350.

Edward Steichen's glamorous portrait of Gloria Swanson sold on the phone to a private European collector, over the efforts of Howard Greenberg, for $153,600 (tenth place). Peter MacGill snacked on Steichen's luscious Three Pears and an Apple for $114,000.

A phone bidder fell in a big way for Man Ray's solarized nude, Anatomies (Grand Dos Noir), bidding $108,000 over Edwynn Houk. Then Robert Burge was back again in a big way as he paid $288,000 for a Man Ray Rayograph, the third highest price of the sale. A unique Man Ray muli-media assemblage, Boite a Conserves, brought more than three times the high estimate, $209,600 (fifth place). Edwynn Houk broke through with Brassaï's Nu 132, at $43,200. Steichen's Dixie Ray for Woodbury Soap cleaned out a phone bidder at $66,000.

Irving Penn's Girl (in Bed) on Telephone went, appropriately enough, to the phone for $50,400. The same bidder then returned for Helmut Newton's Sie Kommen, Dressed/Sie Kommen, Naked, in a small size, for $114,000, almost quadrupling the high estimate. Newton's Rue Aubriot, Fashion Model and Nude seemed a slacker at $40,800.

When the smoke cleared, all 43 lots had sold, all but seven of them for over the high estimate (with only one selling under the low estimate), for a total of $3,949,600 or an astonishing $91,851 per lot.

The next morning Sotheby's offered 33 photographs from the Gordon L. Bennett Collection of Carleton Watkins "New Series" Photographs of Yosemite. Bennett had discovered them in a San Francisco rare bookstore in 1967 and traded some other artwork for them. Made in 1878–81, after Watkins had lost his gallery and his pioneering large-plate negatives made in the 1860s to creditors, these "New Series" images have rarely come on the auction market and not at these price levels. But the dramatic views, rarity, and high quality of these prints allowed Sotheby's to set some relatively aggressive estimates. They were not disappointed. As in the evening before, all 33 lots sold, 21 above the high estimates, only three below the low estimates.

Boston dealer Robert Klein took the first lot, On the Road to Yosemite Falls, for $84,000 (the eighth highest lot of the sale), and two other lots in the top ten: Cathedral Spires for $66,000 (tied for ninth place), and Washington Column for $102,000 (tied for fourth place). Illinois collector Joe Schieszler was also active as he bought six lots including Cathedral Rocks and Spires for $52,800, Mirror Lake for $28,800, and El Capitan for $52,800.

Jeffrey Fraenkel was of course in the midst of the fray and took four lots: Vernal Fall and The Half Dome, from Glacier Point, both for $90,000 (and tied for sixth place), Upper Yosemite Falls for $31,200, and the stunning, modernist cover lot, Agassiz Rock and the Yosemite Falls, for a world record $310,400, also obviously the top lot of the sale, reportedly for the Getty.

Lee Marks climbed highest for The Yosemite Falls, from Glacier Point, reaching $187,200 (third place). And a phone bidder survived Yosemite Falls, View from the Bottom with a bid of $265,600 (second place). The same bidder also took home Yosemite Valley, from Big Oak Flat for $102,000 (tied for fourth). Another phone bidder bought four lots, including The Vernal and Nevada Falls for $66,000 (tied for ninth) and Bridal Veil, from the Black Spring for $60,000.

Other winning bidders included Edwynn Houk, Maggie Weston, New York collector John Gibbons, and Willie Schaefer. The final total was $1,993,800, or a whopping $60,418 per print, a figure that would have been talked about for a long time had it not been for the sale of the previous evening.

After a moment for everyone to catch their breaths, auctioneer Denise Bethel plunged right in to the various-owners' sale. New York gallerist Robert Mann, on a cell phone, bid up a c. 1976 print of Ansel Adams's Georgia O'Keeffe and Orville Cox ($6,000-$8,000) to a substantial $43,200. According to Mann, this is a very rare image of which Adams made few prints. And Mann considers it "by far the best portrait he ever made." It rarely comes up at auction (the last time was in 1999), and Mann reports that he has had a client who has been looking for it for years. But the estimate was rather misleading as the last time Sotheby's offered one, in April 1998, it was estimated at $3,000-$5,000 and sold for $14,950, and at the Butterfield's sale in May 1999 it was estimated at $4,000-$6,000 and sold for $13,800. Still, it was a record price for the image. To continue the unexpected, Henry Feldstein, of all people, bought the Adams Portfolio VII for $52,800.

Then it came, Lot 85, a group of three of the lesser-known images from Portfolio VII. Down came the hammer: "Pass." A wry smile came over Bethel's face. Had anyone else noticed? After the auction she told me that appraiser and consultant Dale Stulz, a former auctioneer who was sitting in the first row, had noticed and had made an "OH NO!" face at her, thus her reaction. Yes, after an unprecedented 84 straight lots sold, finally one had passed. There would be other passes, of course, but the first of this extraordinary series of auctions made one pause for a moment.

A half-plate ambrotype of a young (white) boy with a black family sold for $28,800, three-and-a-half times the high estimate. Then came lunch.

The afternoon session led off with a selection of 37 lots from the collection of famed cinematographer Robert Richardson. Harry Callahan's Eleanor (Double Exposure) brought $52,800 from the phone. A phone bidder bested Spencer Throckmorton for Tina Modotti's revolutionary Corn, Guitar, and Cartridges at $120,000 (tied for second). Howard Greenberg paid the same price for Weston's rare Pepper (3P). William Eggleston was hot here, too, as his Morton, Mississippi sold to the phone for $45,600, more than double the high estimate.

A Selkirk print of Arbus's Midget Friends in a Living Room ($7,000-$10,000) reached $33,600. And Robert Adams's tract house, Colorado Springs, got a bid of $21,600, three-and-a-half times the high estimate. Now Richardson can fund his own blockbuster.

Moving on to the rest of the sale, Howard Greenberg returned to take another Weston, and the top lot of this sale, Shells, for $232,000. A phone bidder snared the cover lot, Man Ray's surrealist portrait of Harry Melvill for $52,800.

Edwynn Houk lavished $102,000, just over high estimate (and fourth place), on a vintage print of Arbus's Waitress, Nudist Camp. Jeffrey Fraenkel took home the Garry Winogrand Fifteen Photographs portfolio for $55,200 (seventh place).

Eggleston's Sumner, Mississippi was hammered down for $48,000 and his Greenwood, Mississippi (the red ceiling in a slightly later print than the one at Phillips) lit up the scoreboard at $84,000 (tied for fifth). Lastly, Robert Mapplethorpe's Torso (Lisa Marie) nearly tripled its high estimate at the same $84,000 price.

This portion of the sale totaled $2,795,200 with a minuscule buy-in rate of 19.6%. As noted above, the three sales totaled a record-breaking $8,738,600. Wow!

Denise Bethel, Director of Sotheby's Photographs department and the auctioneer for the sales said, "We are thrilled with the highly successful results of our three April photographs auctions. The three sales taken together are a record for a series of photographs auctions in New York. The combined total of $8,738,600 was more than $2 million dollars above our pre-sale high estimate, and is especially gratifying to us, given the small number of lots offered, which totaled 255 for all three sales. For the 220 lots sold, the average lot value was extraordinarily high, at $39,721. Four artist records were set: Diane Arbus, Carleton Watkins, Walker Evans and Robert Frank. The two single-owner sales, Important Photographs from a Private Collection, and The Gordon L. Bennett Collection of Watkins 'New Series' Photographs of Yosemite, had no unsold lots, something unusual in recent years. These two white-glove sales, back to back, took the market for fine art photographs to a new level."

Surely this is a new level. But it may be a while before the auction houses can coax this much high quality material onto the market at one time. We shall see.

(Copyright ©2004 by 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.