Issue #32  8/15/2001
Lewis Carroll Sale Does Well For Sotheby's

By Alex Novak

"No, no!" said the Queen. "Sentence first verdict afterwards." Sotheby's London's sale of the Liddell family's Lewis Carroll memorabilia, considered the largest collection of its kind, bought in a total of just over two million pounds sterling. Like the total, the prices below all include Sotheby's buyer's premium. The dollar was about $1.43 to the pound at the time of the sale. Most of the photographic items sold (32 out of 34 items, including after-auction sales), and the overall auction had just over an 81% sell-through rate (slightly higher if you include after-auction sales) by lot.

"CURIOUSER and curiouser!" cried Alice. A private American collector, who is a graduate of Christ Church College Oxford, purchased Alice's photographic scrapbook and dedication copy of Alice's Adventures Under Ground and much of the Christ Church related material with the intention of putting them on display "back where they belong in Christ Church." The album, which many thought might be bought in before the sale, sold for the reserve plus premium of £465,500 ($656,470). The album did have a number of good images of children in it, but many had condition problems and the remaining images were frankly a bit boring, making the album an iffy proposition. The dedication copy of Alice's Adventures Under Ground, specially bound for Alice by the author in white vellum and personally inscribed by him "to her whose namesake one happy summer day inspired his story", sold for £157,250 ($221,760).

"Let's go on with the game," the Queen said to Alice. Besides this dedication copy and a letter from Carroll to Alice Liddell (lot 88, which set a new auction record for a letter by Carroll at 91,250 pounds when it was sold to a American collector), it was Carroll's photography that brought in the big bucks, or should we say pounds?

The first image (lot 6), a hand-colored one of Alice seated next to a potted fern sold for 15,450 pounds. Eight prints are recorded of this image. A full five were in this sale.

Lot 8, a group of letters and memorabilia of Dean Liddell, Alice's father, including a group of images relating to Christ Church, went to the American collector noted above for 8,225 pounds.

For me the most interesting lots in the sale were the original glass plate negatives by Carroll, and the best of these was the marvelous positive and negative combination of lot 17, Edith, Ina and Alice on a sofa. Michael Sachs purchased this wonderful combo for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art for 86,000 pounds. The print was an exceptionally rich version of this scarce image (only six prints are known). Sachs had also bought lot 1, a letter from Alice to her mother for 5,875 pounds, and, at the Paul Walter's sale just a few weeks earlier--again bidding for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art--he brought a lovely print by Carroll of Xie Kitchin on a Sofa for 58,000 pounds.

Lots 18 and 19 were rather scratched glass plate negatives of Ina Liddell (lot 18) and Alice Liddell (lot 19), which sold for 6,600 and 10,800 pounds respectively, still a bargain, I suspect.

Lot 20, a hand-colored image of Alice Liddell as the Beggar-Maid, failed to find a buyer at the sale itself. The estimate range was 100,000-150,000 pounds. It had to rank as the top disappointment for the day. But not to worry; this image was sold after the sale.

A good negative of the cover image of Alice Liddell in Profile, Seated, Facing Right, was the next lot up, and it sold for a whopping 48,800 pounds--at that point a world record for a single glass plate negative at auction.

Not to be outdone the very next lot, another glass negative (Alice Wearing a Garland) sold for 53,400 pounds to a private collector! It too was in very nice condition. World records do not last very long any more.

"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked. "Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad." "How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice. "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here." After the album (lot 32) sold for its mid-six figure reserve, several small photographs did fairly well (one might say ridiculously well considering the quality of a few).

Lot 33, a non-colored and cropped version of lot 6, sold for two and a half times its low estimate at 25,800 pounds. This was an example of the madness that seemed to affect some of the bidders. The image was pedestrian at best, and certainly not worth the attention and bids that it got.

Lot 34 was also a repeat: this time of lot 17. But this lot was a lightly printed cabinet card version, had no negative and was not even close to the print quality of the positive in lot 17, which was a dark untrimmed printing. Still, it was more interesting than the previous lot. It sold for 30,400 pounds, double its lower estimate.

Lots 35 (Ina Holding a Doll) and 36 (Edith Lying on a Sofa) were admittedly better, untrimmed prints. They sold for 21,200 and 39,600 pounds, respectively, which were at the bottom of the estimate ranges, and, in my opinion, worth the bids.

A new auction record was set for a photograph by Lewis Carroll when an uncolored version of his most celebrated study of Alice Liddell as The Beggar-Maid, sold for £179,500 ($253,140) to a private collector. This image was made in 1858 when Alice was just six years old. The albumen print more than tripled its presale low estimate of £50,000.

Lot 38 (estimate 15,000-20,000 pounds) and lot 39 (estimate 15,000-20,000 pounds) failed to go. The first wasn't so exciting and the second had condition problems, although both were very rare images (only two prints known of each).

One of the nicest of the single positive prints was lot 40, a group shot of Alice, Ina, Harry and Edith Liddell with Harry holding a cricket bat. Not surprisingly it did very well, pulling in 44,200 pounds sterling. Only two prints are recorded of this image.

"What is the use of repeating all that stuff," the Mock Turtle interrupted, "if you don't explain it as you go on? It's by far the most confusing thing I ever heard!" Lot 41, another hand-colored (by Carroll himself) and cased print of Alice Liddell and Fern (see lots 6 and 33) brought 22,350 pounds. Then lot 42, which contained still another print of this image in a triptych of the three Liddell sisters, sold for 21,200 pounds. Both lots drew bids at the bottom of their range of 20,000-30,000 pounds. One other of the Alice and Fern images was in the album, putting more than half of the recorded prints all in this sale.

Lots 43 and 44 were glass plate negatives in poorer condition than some of the others in the sale, but still interesting. They sold for 12,000 and 13,725 pounds respectively--a good price for the patient buyers who scooped them up.

The next group of Carroll images was of Alice at 18 years old (and the emphasis is on the word "old"). The first print, the best in the group, did astoundingly well. Against a presale estimate of 15,000-20,000 pounds, which some thought was actually reaching considering the subject was no longer a precocious youngster, lot 50 brought in an astonishing 48,800 pounds. Perhaps it was the Sotheby's catalogue notes that did it, indicating that this was Carroll's last session with Alice and Ina. However, other late portraits of Alice Liddell by Carroll sold at the bottom of the range or not at all. Oddly enough it was lot 53, a vignetted duplicate of the expensive lot 50, that failed to sell in this group at the sale, although it apparently sold soon afterwards. Lot 54, the second most interesting of the group made 16,600 pounds.

Two Julia Margaret Camerons did extraordinarily well considering their washed-out yellow condition (especially lot 56). Lot 56, Alice Liddell as Pomona, was sold for 17,750 pounds, and lot 57, King Lear and His Three Daughters, brought 28,100 pounds against an estimate of 10,000-15,000 pounds. Only provenance could be claimed as the excuse for these prices for prints at this condition level.

For those "Mad Hatters"; who got carried away and overbid at this auction, I will let the Queen of Hearts have the final comment: "Off with their heads!"

Novak has over 48 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.