Issue #95  10/21/2005
Phillips Leads Off in a Tough Spot, But Does Well At Nearly $4.4 Million and a 74.4% Sold Rate

The auctions this fall dickered with unreality, as some prices seemed frankly ridiculously high. The photography market has apparently segmented into several markets: the traditional photo market, the stratospherically priced traditional market, the contemporary art photography market and now the edgy, high-priced decorator market (think Helmut Newton, Robert Mapplethorpe, Irving Penn, Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon). Astonishingly, the three major houses took in well over $29 million, with Christie's taking home the prize for first at over $14.5 million from its three sales. All this took place amidst the backdrop of a terrorist scare in the New York subways (generated by announcements from the New York mayor who is running hard for reelection and later repudiated by the intelligence community). More about all this later and in the next few newsletters.

Phillip de Pury had the inauspicious first slot, which was scheduled for the Thursday and Friday prior to most of the action. That made it tough on this auction house, but it still performed well, bringing in a total of $4,363,948 including the buyer's premium. Phillips also managed a solid 74.4% sell-through rate. Of all the auctions, this could have been the only one where you might have found a relative bargain. For the sake of space, I will primarily cover only lots above $20,000, including the premium. For the other New York sales I will have to go up to $40,000 for my minimums.

No pussyfooting around here, the first lot on the first night was a later printed Diane Arbus of the "Boy in Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade". The phone bidder had to battle a determined San Francisco dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel to win this lot at $69,600, including premium (all prices below will include the premium), which was good enough for ninth highest lot of the two-day auction. The estimate was a sensible $25,000-$35,000. This kind of bidding well over the estimates became rather normal throughout the next week. Phillips did list an addendum that indicated that this was a print outside of the normal edition of 50 (not an edition of 75 noted in the catalogue), which was a rather peculiar thing in itself. Why the estate had printed extra copies, apparently outside of the edition is not known and frankly disturbing. There have been rumors circulating about the numbers of prints coming out of the Arbus estate, and this kind of thing does not help matters.

Lots 2, 3 (not the best images) and 4 (a poor print of Cartier-Bresson's Andalucia, Seville) passed. Then lot 5, a strong nude in a color Carbro print by Paul Outerbridge, Jr., caught the attention of the phones. The price was a fetching $50,400.

Lot 6, a phallic Karl Blossfelt plant study, became the first lot of the fall season to break into six figures, but certainly not the last, as even the seven-figure mark was breached for the first time this October. The phone had to fend off NY dealer Howard Greenberg to grab this one at $120,000, which was just at the low estimate. The print tied for third highest price in the Phillips auction.

NY dealer Yancey Richardson picked up lot 7, an Albert Renger-Patzsch, for a below estimate price of $31,200. The next lot, another Renger-Patsch, bought in.

The German Camera Works group was very active in the sales. The gallery took lot 9, an August Sander portrait of a woman for the low estimate at $24,000.

Santa Monica gallery owner Rose Shoshana took the cover lot, the Florence Henri nude, for just over the low estimate at $15,600. By the way, the Phillips oversized catalogue was a bit difficult to take on the subway or into a restaurant, given that it had full frontal nudity on the front (female) and back (male) covers.

New York art dealer Lisa Jacobs took home some real estate for a client, placing the winning bid on Margaret Bourke-White's Empire State Building (lot 11) for $31,200. Then she bought a more modest place, Kertesz's Le Gardien, Paris (lot 12) for $24,000.

Meret Oppenheim's 1964 x-ray self portrait (multiple copies) went to the phone for well under estimate at $20,400. The next lot, a Bravo (lot 17) bought-in at $24,000. Lot 18, a Frederick Sommer nude went to a phone for $24,000.

One of the true buys of the auction was lot 19, an oversized (18-3/4 x 12-3/4 in.) and vintage or near-vintage print of Robert Frank's "Fourth of July, Jay, NY" with great provenance. It went just above estimate at $38,400. Compare that to a printed-later 11-7/8 x 8 in. one that sold the following week at Christie's for $50,400. Christie's had tagged theirs with a circa 1970 date that I believe to be wishful thinking. It sure looked like a 1980s or later print to most of the dealers I talked to. Phillips' print went to an American collector via an order bid.

A phone bidder took lot 21, a Garry Winogrand print at $22,800. It was a 1970s print of the iconic "Los Angeles, 1964" (man with bandage on nose in car). The first time this image sold well and set an auction record for Winogrand--also at Phillips during the Seagram's sale in May 2003--it auctioned off for $21,510 to Thea Westreich over my own determined underbid. But that one was reportedly a vintage print from 1964. Another reported vintage print set a new Winogrand auction record when it sold for $33,460 at Christie's last October.

A small portfolio of Helmut Newton's "15 Photographs, New York" sold to the room for a reasonable $50,400. I thought it was bought by the Camera Work people.

Robert Frank's London (Belsize Crescent) probably printed in the 1970s (not the 60s quoted in the catalogue) and reportedly having some light surface problems still sold to the room for $74,400, well over the estimate of $30,000-50,000 and good enough for seventh highest lot of the auction. It is one of my favorite Frank images.

A portfolio of Lewis Baltz's Nevada (15 prints) sold to the phone after some frantic bidding for $42,000. Baltz's work is hot and individual vintage prints later in the auction went into low five figures for two of the prints.

A rather depressing and mediocre image by Cindy Sherman (lot 30, "Untitled Film Still, #26) still went to the high estimate of $36,000. It sold to a phone bidder. Just think of the beauties that you could buy for $36,000, instead of this one. To be clear: I genuinely appreciate good contemporary work (even occasionally Cindy Sherman's), and this is not that.

The first of two Nicholas Nixon portfolios of "The Brown Sisters, 1975-2004" (30 prints) went on the block and was bought by West Coast dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel for the low estimate (plus premium) of $180,000. It turned out to be a modest bargain versus the one sold later at Sotheby's for $192,000. It also was the second highest priced lot of the auction.

Irving Penn's "Frozen Food (With String Beans)" received a warm welcome from a phone bidder, who plunked down $48,000 (the low estimate with premium) for the colorful still life.

William Eggleston's Greenwood, MS (better known as red ceiling with light bulb) sold to Fraenkel at $114,000, a price just below low estimate, but good enough for number five out Phillips' top ten prints. The back cover of a red-filtered male nude by Eggleston, which was estimated at a reaching $80,000-$100,000, was bought in at $24,000. At the same time, a copy of Eggleston's Guide, signed by the artist and John Szarkowski, brought an astounding $2,400 (estimated at $800-$1,200) from the phones--clearly a case of auction fever. West Coast dealer Rose Shoshana did have to compete for Eggleston's intriguing "Boy in Red Sweater (lot 42), which she paid $44,400, or about double the low estimate. While there are exceptions, Eggleston's prices seem to have topped out--at least for the moment.

Philip-Lorca Dicorcia's "Mario" (at Refrigerator) sold to a phone bidder over NY dealer Peter MacGill's underbid. The price of $54,000, while not a record for Dicorcia, was more than double the $22,705 that La Salle Bank curator Carol Ehler paid just two years ago for this image at Phillips' Joshua Smith sale.

Vik Muniz's "Historical Photo" (Landscape with Attached Mirrors) went unsold at $30,000.

One of the few Helmut Newton's to go unsold during this auction season was lot 47, a color coupler print of Naomi Campbell, at $24,000.

Philip-Lorca Dicorcia's "Eddie Anderson, 21 years old, Houston, TX" went to a this-time-successful Peter MacGill at $45,600.

Gregory Crewdson's strange and oddly disturbing "Untitled, Summer 2003" (lot 50) sold to an order bidder for the low estimate at $48,000.

Another Dicorcia image "Marilyn, 28 years old, Las Vegas, NV" nearly set a new auction record for the artist when a phone bidder doubled the low estimate at $60,000. This tied for tenth place among the highest priced prints of the sale.

The real excitement among Phillips' contemporary pieces was properly reserved for Andreas Gursky's magnificent "EM, Arena 1". This huge (109 x 81-1/4 in.) and graphic print has great presence. I was sorely tempted until the price soared well above first the low estimate and then the high estimate. It sold to a man in the room for $291,520. While it was the top lot of the Phillips' sale and normally would have been at the top or near the top of most auction season's, this fall this price only made this lot the 13th most expensive of the auction week.

There was no let down on the next lot. Peter Lindbergh's huge triptych of Mick Jagger was extremely wrinkled (almost as wrinkled as the singer himself), but the auctioneer swore that the artist would "fix" this problem--god only knows how. In any case, the bidding was between a man in back in a double-breasted suit and the Camera Work gallery group. The man won out at $102,000, which is the second highest price made at auction for this artist's work and was the sixth most expensive of the Phillips' sale.

Vic Muniz's "Double Elvis" in chocolate sold to a phone for $60,000, tying for tenth most expensive lot in this auction. His "Milan" (or Last Supper in chocolate) went to a commission bidder at $72,000, which was the eighth highest price paid at this auction.

Mercifully, Richard Prince's Untitled (Cowboy), or more appropriately "Rip-off of a Marlboro Ad", was bought in at $115,000--a price that would be a truly ridiculous example of cultural stupidity and greed if achieved.

But then we still have the next lot by Roni Horn "Clowd and Cloun (Grey) Group 2". This silliness went to a phone bidder at $36,000.

Vanessa Beecroft's huge image, on the other hand, is a masterful performance of political consequence. You simply must read the catalogue notation on this item. It sold to a phone bidder for $31,200.

All chocolate must melt, and so lot 60, Vik Muniz's Olympia (in chocolate), 2000 failed to find a bidder even at $26,000, which is where it bought-in.

The two Hiroshi Sugimoto's both did well, although were bargains compared to others auctioned the next week. The first, which in the catalogue resembles a solid black rectangle, sold to a phone bidder for $31,200; and the second sold to a man in the room for the same $31,200.

After another three lots the evening session closed out and after a good night's sleep, we all awoke to the traffic jam that was New York City during a subway scare coupled with drenching rain.

The morning session had more lower-priced lots and so it was not until lot 92, Andre Kertesz's Épicerie, that a lot broke over my minimum. This lot went to a commission bid at $24,000.

Rick Wester, who was auctioneer for most of this day's session, noted on one lot when it bought-in at $1,700 that it was "only cab fair uptown." He wasn't exactly kidding on this day. But Wester did have to struggle a bit, as most of the buy-ins came early in the session. When he finally did get some bids, he joked, "Hey, it feels like an auction."

But the bids did finally get going. On lot 133, Dorothea Lange's "Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, AZ" dealers Peter MacGill and Rose Shoshana got into a bidding duel. MacGill came out the winner at $33,600, paying near the high estimate.

An Edward Weston "Shell and Rock Arrangement" (one of two in the auctions) sold for the reserve at $21,600. At least it was printed by Weston and signed by him. The other offered later at Sotheby's was not.

Another Outerbridge carbro color nude (lot 146) went to the phone at $24,000. In fact Outerbridge's color work had a small revival, as all the prints offered found buyers. Perhaps the contemporary focus on color is bringing the attention back around to this early color experimenter. Much of the work was bought by dealers for inventory.

Robert Frank's "Daytona" (lot 163) went to the Camera Works crew for $24,000--just over high estimate. Deborah Bell took the next Robert Frank "Thru a Window" for $19,200, again also over high estimate. Frank is still plenty hot, and he would get more attention later the next week.

A phone took the Louis Faurer "Suite of 40 Photographs of Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New York" (lot 165) for the low estimate of $48,000.

We hop a few lots to lot 205, a Man Ray Rayograph printed reportedly about 1960. The provenance was good. Collector Jack Hastings took this lot for the low estimate of $24,000.

Rose Shoshana bought lot 214, Robert Frank's "Approaching New York Harbour" for its low estimate of $24,000.

An Irving Penn of "Cigarette #37, New York" sold for $31,850, well over its high estimate, foreshadowing things to come. I am not positive but I think it sold to the room.

Cindy Sherman's Untitled E (lot 258) sold to a phone for the low estimate at $24,000.

Stephen Shore's Twelve Photographs (lot 273) was bid up by several phones. One phone finally took home this ticking time bomb at nearly two and half times low estimate. The $56,400 price was pretty steep for color work that is likely to fade quickly. Shore's work is clearly important, but the lack of print stability should have made people hesitate a bit. Early color coupler prints have little staying power, unlike current "C-print" versions or dye transfer/destruction or color carbro prints.

The Diane Arbus prints in this auction were some of the more reasonably priced ones to come up this fall. Many fell into high four and low five-figure price levels including buyer's premium. Lot 279, Untitled #7, sold to the phone for $24,000. That was a bargain compared to the other auctions.

Lee Friedlander's also seemed more reasonable here. Gary Wolkowitz did pay a lot for one of Friedlander's best, "Father Duffy, Times Square, NYC". But frankly the $30,000 seems very low for the importance of the image.

Another hot property, Garry Winogrand, attracted strong bidding on his portfolio, "Women Are Beautiful". Lots of dealer and collector interest on this one, but it was Lee Marks that took home the prize for one of her clients at $120,000. That was over double the low estimate, but frankly not that unexpected.

Even the Internet chimed into this sale, claiming William Eggleston's "Outskirts of Morton, MS, Halloween, 1971" for $49,000. Now that is the power of cyberspace!

Vik Muniz last piece of chocolate also melted away in Phillips' hands, failing to find any bidders on lot 343, "Photo Op".

Philip-Lorca Dicorcia's "Mario, Hartford, 1980" sold for $42,000, well over the high estimate.

Hiroshi Sugimoto's seascapes helped to close out the auction in high style. Against estimates of $15,000-20,000, lots 353 and 354 posted bids of $39,600 and $42,000 respectively.

Up next Christie's single owner sales.