Issue #198  6/30/2013
Jeff Koons' Transparency Sets New World Record For A "Photograph" At Sotheby's Sale At $9.4 Million

By Alex Novak

A funny thing happened in the midst of Sotheby's auction of contemporary and post-modernist art in New York: another world record for a "photograph" was set when a Jeff Koons' 1981 Duratrans transparency and light box, "The New Jeff Koons", sold for a rather sobering $9.4 million over an estimate of "only" $2.5-$3.5 million. Like Richard Prince, Koons didn't really create the photograph itself but "appropriated" it. I'm not sure who was the bigger thief—oops, sorry, appropriator--Koons or Prince.

The sale dethrones Andreas Gursky's late 2011auction record for his three-meter wide photograph of the Rhine River, which then sold for $4.3 million. It also dethroned Christie's auction house, as Sotheby's regained the world auction record for a photograph after last having held it in late 2007 for Richard Prince's Untitled Cowboy (Marlboro Man) at $3.4 million.

The material that the transparency is made from is not thought to be very archival. Its usual use was for advertising signage. I wonder what Koons will ask for a new one to be made to replace this one. Will it be a price like the one that Damien Hirst demanded for replacing a poorly preserved shark that was rotting away despite its record-breaking price at auction? Hmmm. I wonder.

Koons is interesting in his own way, but perhaps more as a personality than for the importance of his art—a bit like Andy Warhol, whom he is frequently compared to (and I'm sure that many art critics among my readers may take exception to that last statement). In many ways it is not unexpected to see this photograph set another record, given that the Whitney Museum will have a major show of his work next year, and mega-shows of his work are currently or were recently playing in the New York art scene: one at Gagosian on West 24th Street, the other in David Zwirner's West 19th Street gallery, which just closed this past Saturday.

One caveat to easily dismissing any of the large contemporary photographs that have set records at auction now and in the past: these objects take on a different quality when seen in the flesh, much like the typical tourist spots become something entirely different and emotionally/intellectually more challenging than the viewer expects. It is sort of like visiting the Tower of Pisa or Trevi Fountain for the first time, or even the Dakota badlands. We should all keep that in mind. I remember seeing Gursky's 99-cent at the Tate Modern and being blown away. I still consider it one of the greatest contemporary pieces of art—and that is in any medium.

One further observation, with the addition of the Koons' transparency, Sotheby's contemporary art department sold nearly $13.3 million in photography alone on only 53 lots, although the buy-in percentage was a relatively high 37.74%. Compare that to Sotheby's photography department which could only manage to eke out a meager $5 million with two large catalogues of work, hundreds of lots, and a buy-in rate of 23%. Sad really, when you think about it.

Novak has over 47 years experience in the photography-collecting arena. He is a long-time member and formally board member of the Daguerreian Society, and, when it was still functioning, he was a member of the American Photographic Historical Society (APHS). He organized the 2016 19th-century Photography Show and Conference for the Daguerreian Society. He is also a long-time member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers, or AIPAD. Novak has been a member of the board of the nonprofit Photo Review, which publishes both the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector, and is currently on the Photo Review's advisory board. He was a founding member of the Getty Museum Photography Council. He is author of French 19th-Century Master Photographers: Life into Art.

Novak has had photography articles and columns published in several newspapers, the American Photographic Historical Society newsletter, the Photograph Collector and the Daguerreian Society newsletter. He writes and publishes the E-Photo Newsletter, the largest circulation newsletter in the field. Novak is also president and owner of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, a private photography dealer, which sells by appointment and has sold at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Classic Photography LA, Photo LA, Paris Photo, The 19th-century Photography Show, Art Miami, etc.