Issue #95  10/21/2005
Christie's Elfering Auction Nets $7,158,080; 88% Sell-Through

Christie's single owner sales broke world auction records for many photographers and netted the house $8,686,480--and that did not include the regular multi-owner sale on the following Wednesday.

The first of the single-owner sales was that of the Elfering Collection, which focused on many of the big names of post-war photography. Records were smashed for Avedon, Penn and Beard, and new records were also made for Horst, Brassai, and Cartier-Bresson (the latter record just edging the previous record held by Sotheby's Amsterdam), among others. The 162-lot sale netted $7,158,080 and had a hefty sell-through of 88%. The sold lots actually average over $50,000 each. And, although there was a large and involved crowd for the auction, the phones and commission bidders were extremely active as well, especially on the many high-end images.

Because the auction had so many high prices, I will have to limit myself to lots that sold for over $40,000, including premium. I know that most of my readers will shake their heads over that rather insane cut-off number, but that still means covering over 50 lots in just this sale alone. I also dislike having to report on the market as if only high five-figure and six and even seven-figure images are the only important part of photography. They clearly are not. But I am stuck with having to do this when it comes to the big three houses' auction market. The unreality of this market has struck me, and I will be doing a full analysis in the next newsletter, along with the rest of the auction coverage. And, interestingly enough, despite (or perhaps because) of the numbingly high prices, there was little real buzz in the rooms during this season. Much of the bidding was dominated by phones, commission bids and a small group of major buyers.

Alfred Stieglitz's "Fifth Avenue" (lot 5) sold to a phone bidder for $50,400.

The cover lot (#14), Irving Penn's "Two Liqueurs" was just a battle between two phones. The color dye-transfer print sold for $102,000. On Penn's late-printed large print of "Woman with Roses" it was a battle between the phone and a commission bidder. I believe the order bidder, an American collector, won this one at $204,000. But wait. That was not to be Penn's new record (at least not for long), although it was good enough for seventh place in this auction.

Helmut Newton was another big seller in this auction. Lot 21, his big "Nude III, Paris" sold to the phone for mid-point in the range at $60,000.

Contemporary work also did fairly well here. Thomas Ruff's "Nudes, em 10" (lot 23) sold for $48,000, again to the phone. An earlier nude from this series (lot 4) had sold to a different phone bidder for $38,400, but lot 23 was a warmer and more inviting image.

Peter Beard broke out at this auction. Lot 24, his "I'll Write Whenever I Can" self-portrait went way above the estimate of $20,000-30,000. In the battle between the phones and a commission bidder, the phones won at a whopping $66,000, which was ever so briefly a new world auction record for the artist. But, again, wait. The record for this artist would be broken THREE times more during this sale, and this price would look reasonable by auction end.

After Beard's straightforward "Ol Morani Zebra Rug, Lariak Estate" sold to a phone at a mere $40,800, things heated up again. Beard's El Moro Bay, Princess Loingalaire, Lake Rudolf, Kenya" collage went to the same phone for $72,000--the second time in the auction that a world record for the artist had been set. Two more to go.

Brassai's iconic "Couple in a Small Café", which was printed in the 1950s and had a very large hair mark in the ferrotyping, was sold to San Francisco dealer Robert Koch for a client at a just-record-breaking $48,000 (for a single print). That indicates that even earlier, non-vintage prints are in demand for this artist. Frankly, I feel that Brassai's key work may be some of the most undervalued in the market. However, until it is determined where the tens of thousands of prints in the estate will wind up, the market may remain in flux. However, key prints, such as this image, are rare. Brassai, unlike Cartier-Bresson, died before the biggest demand for later-printed images emerged in the mid-to-late 1980s, and never produced a lot of these.

Richard Avedon was another of the trio of post-war photographers (Penn, Newton and Avedon) that continued to be very hot this season. Several world auction records for his work were set during just this sale. The first of the records was set with his plentiful but entertaining "Dovina with Elephants" (lot 37). Previously the large print of this image sold at Christie's NY two years ago for just above $45,000 (nearly a record at that point for the artist). So what did American collector Leon Constantino plop down for this one? How about a record-shattering (again, only for the moment) $180,000? The estimate had been a "reaching" $60,000-80,000. Constantino was on a bit of a buying rampage at this sale.

Irving Penn's "Poppy: Showgirl" (lot 39) sold to the phone for $45,600.

And then once again, Penn's auction record would be broken. An American collector on the phone battled New York dealer Peter MacGill in the room for Penn's "Black and White Vogue Cover" (lot 40). When the smoke had cleared, the phone had won, but at a new record price of $216,000, which was only good enough for a tie for fifth place in this sale. And, to add insult to injury, the new record would be broken again later in the sale.

Santa Monica dealer Rose Shoshanna got Man Ray's "Gypsy" for its reserve at $72,000. The image strikes me as more pictorialist than modernist, although it is a decent nude.

Henri Cartier-Bresson's early but later-printed "On the Banks of the Marne" sold to the phone over Peter MacGill's strong underbidding. The print had been bought from MacGill by Elfering. Here it set a new world auction record for the artist at $132,000--not even enough to put it in the top ten of this sale. Frankly the price seemed very high for a print made at least 20 years after the negative.

The German gallery Camera Works took lot 50, a 12-print portfolio by Horst for $84,000.

Edward Weston's "Nude-Dunes at Oceano", estimated at $150,000-200,000 sold to a phone bidder (among many), who plunked down $284,800, good enough for third place in this auction's top ten and the only "traditional" photographer to have broken into this level.

Another Horst portfolio (lot 56) went to the phone for $84,000.

The next lot, Richard Avedon's "Marella Agnelli", sold to Thea Westreich for $45,600--well more than double the high estimate. Avedon's "Marilyn Monroe" sold to a collector in the room for $57,600--just shy of the high estimate.

Helmut Newton's larger print of "Elsa Peretti as a Bunny" turned into a battle between the phones and a commission bidder. A phone got the key to the mansion, but at a cost of $98,400.

But a squeaky-clean commission bidder outlasted the phones on Newton's "Domestic Nude III (Chateau Marmont Laundry)" at $57,600. The ever-puckish Michael Mattis, collector extraordinaire, commented: "I've definitely been going to the wrong Laundromat."

Irving Penn's popular "Cuzco Children, Peru" sold to the room for below the low estimate at $54,000. But his colorful "Still Life with Watermelon" sold to the phone for well over the high estimate at $45,600. So did the next color Penn lot, "After Dinner Games", which sold to a man in tan for $96,000, who then promptly left the auction. Penn's color work did very well here.

His black and white work did ok too. The phone took lot 70, "Picasso, Cannes" for $60,000, under the low estimate.

Horst Paul Horst's "Mainbocher Corset", apparently the print used in Vogue, the original that a master copy negative was made from, and only one of six vintage prints known, drew strong commission and phone bids. The commission bidder went home with this beauty for a mere record-breaking $216,000, which was at the high edge of the estimate range. The price was only good enough to tie Penn's "Black and White Vogue Cover" for fifth place in this auction's top ten.

Peter Beard's Camera Work portfolio (lot 74) sold to a phone for well over the estimate of $30,000-40,000. The final price was $66,000.

Beard's "Mingled Destinies of Crocodyles and Man" (lot 76) went to a man in the back of the room for a whopping $96,000. It was well over the estimate of $40,000-60,000 and not my favorite of the Beard's, but it managed to hold the world record for the artist--at least for a few minutes.

London dealer Michael Hoppen hitched a ride with Jacques-Henri Lartigue's "Renee Perle with Motoring Goggles" (lot 77), paying $45,600, or about midway in the estimate range.

X-Series, a life-size triptych by Floris Neusüss, wonderful and unique photograms of the female form, sold at reserve to Santa Monica dealer Rose Shoshanna, who stole this piece for only $50,400.

Irving Penn's "Girl in Bed on Telephone" (a near vintage print) seemed to stall at $65,000, but then it just took off. A determined collector Leon Constantino against dealer Peter MacGill sent this one off into the stratosphere. Estimated at $40,000-60,000, it eventually sold to Peter MacGill for $192,000--four times the low estimate. That price allowed the lot to tie for eighth in the top ten for this sale.

But Constantino was not to be deterred. He came back on Helmut Newton's bizarre "Madonna Dancing on a Bar with Beer Bottle (in her mouth yet!), Hollywood". Estimated at $20,000-30,000, the lot (#107) enticed $96,000 from the collector.

A commission bidder took the Helmut Newton Camera Work portfolio (10 images, lot 111) for the reserve at $108,000.

Avedon's bit of nostalgia, his black and white "The Beatles, London" (lot 116), was captured by a woman in the room for just a little above the low estimate at $102,000.

Sugimoto lit up the phone banks with his "Eiffel Tower-Gustave Eiffel" (lot 130). It hammered down with premium for $42,000, a bit over the high estimate.

Peter Lindbergh's "Mathilde, Eiffel Tower, Homage to Blumenfeld and Riboud, Paris" (lot 131, a fetching nude out on the scaffolding of the tower) created a stir, especially from phone bidders, one of whom bid the work up to three times its high estimate at $72,000, which would have been a new world record for the artist, except for the large portrait of Keith Richards that sold last fall at Phillips for $120,000. Give me Mathilde instead of Keith Richards' drug-shriveled façade or even Sugimoto's out-of-focus tower any day.

A woman in the front of the room wrestled down a small "Big Nude I, Paris" (lot 141) for about the reserve at $42,000. An order bidder did the same for the late-printed Leni Riefenstahl Olympic Album (lot 144) at $84,000. It is interesting to note that Leni Riefenstahl is always credited for this work, for which she merely hired the photographers and directed them--much like Mathew Brady's "coverage" of the American Civil War.

Peter Beard's sexy Maureen Gallagher and Night Feeder (a Giraffe) tied the earlier world record for the artist when it went to a man in the back of the room for $96,000.

Beard's next lot (148) "Nor Dread Nor Hope Attend" sold to the phone for the low estimate at $48,000, over the underbid of London dealer Michael Hoppen.

Hoppen also played bridesmaid on the next lot (149), Beard's amazing "Self Portrait for Centre Nationale de la Photographie, Paris." This huge collage was my favorite object of this fall's auctions. This stunning tour de force was estimated at $80,000-120,000, so the room quickly realized that another world mark would soon be set. Hoppen persisted courageously, but so did an American dealer on the phone, who eventually got it for $192,000. Yes, it is a lot of money, but at that price for this piece, that was a true bargain. That price managed to tie Penn's "Girl in Bed on Telephone" for ninth place. No other Beard material of this caliber had ever come up for auction (and may never again in this quantity), and now we know what kind of prices his great work can command.

For the stargazers among the auction bidders, lot 151, Thomas Ruff's "12H 06M/ -75" drew their eyes and money ever upward. It sold to the phone for $57,600, about midpoint in the estimate range.

The sexiest photograph of this auction season had to be lot 152, Richard Avedon's huge print of "Stephanie Seymour, Model, New York City". Estimated at $80,000-120,000, it quickly seduced bidders. When the smoke (and heat) had cleared, Leon Constantino had taken the image away from the phones for the mind-numbing and new world record price of $262,400. But even that mark for Avedon would be shattered (and I do mean shattered) moments later. In fact, it was only good for fourth highest priced lot of the sale.

But first we have to get to Irving Penn and his new record. Lot 154, Penn's "Salad Ingredients" was just the appetizer, selling to a man in an orange shirt in the room for well over estimate at $45,600. More food from Penn, as the next lot, "Italian Still Life", sold to the phone--again over estimate--for $50,400. But finally, we get to the main course, lot 156, Penn's "Woman in Moroccan Palace" in a platinum-palladium print. The phones were buzzing on this one, and when the bidding stopped, a new world record for the artist was set at $307,200. The print was bought by an English dealer--I assume for a client. However, it was only the second highest lot in this auction and only tied for tenth highest lot of the auction week.

Penn continued on a hot streak as his large four-panel platinum-palladium print of "Cigarette No. 37" sold to New York dealer Peter MacGill at the high estimate of $180,000.

The contemporary photography art market showed it still had some kick left, as Thomas Demand's Flugel (Grand Piano) took off to nearly double the high estimate at $156,000. Maybe the phone bidders got confused and thought they were bidding on a Penn or an Avedon.

Helmut Newton's "Sie Kommen" in a 16-3/8 x 14 inch print sold to the room for $72,000.

Richard Avedon's psychedelic dye-transfer color prints of "The Beatles, London" became a battle between the room, the phone and a commission bidder. Finally an American collector on the phone (and obviously a big Beatles fan) had to pay $464,000 (yes, those are three zeros on the end) for the Fabulous Four. That easily became the new world's auction record for this artist, and was the top lot of this auction. However, it would only be the fourth highest priced lot of the week.

The last lot of the sale was no dud. Thomas Struth's nearly life-sized "Paradise 25, Yuquehy, Brazil" sold nearly at the top of its estimate at $90,000. It was indeed an expensive day in Paradise.

Mapplethorpe's flowers were next.