Issue #96  11/1/2005
Sotheby's Regular Sale Nets $5,570,000; Sells 83%

Sotheby's New York's fall multi-owner sale did well, bringing in $5,570,000 and selling just over 83% by lot. That brought the house's total for its two sales to over $10.3 million. The multi-owner auction also managed to tie the world's auction record for a 20th-century photograph, set just the day before for the Weston "Breast".

Again, due to space considerations, I will largely limit my comments to lots that sold for over $40,000 with buyer's premium. The prices below all include that premium.

A slightly oversized and attractive print of Ansel Adams' "Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine" (lot 6) sold to a commission bidder for just shy of the midpoint of the estimate range at $40,800. Then the next print, another Adams' but of "Half Dome, Merced River, Winter, Yosemite Valley" sold to a phone bidder for the high estimate at $60,000. Two lots later, still another Adams' print, the plentiful "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico", sold to a commission bidder for over the high estimate at $43,200. It was a decent 16 x 20 print, but the mount had been cut down by the idiotic work of an inexperienced framer.

The next lot was a powerful and rare rendition of Geronimo by Edward Curtis. Curtis expert Chris Cardozo had to battle a woman in the room for this one. Estimated at $20,000-30,000, the price quickly soared to $78,000, but Cardozo did take home the prize.

I may be alone on this, but I happen to think that Edward Weston's (in this case, co-signed by Margarethe Mather) early pictorialist platinum and matte silver prints are some of the most overlooked, undervalued and underrated beauties on the market. And so, unfortunately, lot 22, a lovely print of the nude Marion Morgan Dancers by a pool, was bought in at $34,000 instead of selling for substantially more.

It was a while until a lot climbed up to my arbitrary $40,000 level, but lot 39, Walker Evans' Tin Relic, sold to the phone for well over the high estimate at $40,800. Lot 42, Evans' "Alabama Tenant Farmer" (Bud Fields: yes, that was the man's actual name) sold to the phones, which battled it out to just over the high estimate at $43,200. This portrait of a plum ugly, unshaven man with a red bandana draped over his shoulders prompted one wag in the audience to say that Bud Fields had "started the fashion revolution."

The next lot was some more FSA-era images--this time by Dorothea Lange. The group of 32 photographs, including Migrant Mother and other key images, were titled by Lange herself, leading some, including Sotheby's, to speculate that she might have actually printed these vintage images. The images had been printed under FSA auspices for exhibition in schools, libraries, etc. Estimated at an extremely low come-on range of only $50,000-70,000, the images were heavily reviewed during the auction previews. While Migrant Mother was somewhat damaged (although conservation might help some), there was no question that the group was important. Initially collector Michael Mattis, who later told me that there was 'only' "$480,000 retail tops in the lot," carried the early bidding burden. But soon he was relieved of that as a battle between a determined phone and a nearly equally determined San Francisco dealer Paul Hertzmann took over the bidding. When the smoke had cleared, the phone bidder had won at a price of $296,000. That put the lot into third place in the top ten list of this auction.

Lot 52, the Edward Weston 50th Anniversary Portfolio, sold to the room over a commission bid for $79,200. Perhaps the most overlooked Weston of the sales might have been lot 53, which bought-in at $16,000. The image was made probably in early 1930 for an article on his work by Merle Armitage. As Sotheby's notes in its catalogue, "This process of making the prints (on glossy paper) for this article marked a significant turning point in Weston's approach to printing." It might even be said to be the catalyst for the entire F64 movement. It was a shame that an institution didn't buy the piece to add to the scholarship on Weston.

Lot 66, a large W. Eugene Smith "Walk to Paradise", bought-in at $36,000 (plus of course the 20% premium if it had been bought). It was clearly a later print and--more importantly--had considerable damage. Likewise, the Rudolf Koppitz "Bewegungsstudie" bought-in at $42,000. It had been cracked in half but was neatly restored. I was actually pleased by both of these buy-ins because it meant that potential buyers were being more careful. Both images looked quite nice in the catalogue, but looks can be deceiving. The latter print was from the collection of the Museum of Science and Industry of Chicago, which was using Sotheby's to deaccess most of its photography holdings. The museum was to do very well with much of these pieces, including tying the world auction record for a 20th-century photograph, just set the night before.

There was another big gap before prices jumped up again. Lot 104, Edward Steichen's George Washington Bridge (13-1/2" x 10-1/2"), sold to a phone bidder in the midrange of the estimates at $78,000. It was underbid by Germany's Camera Works.

Clarence White's "The Old Ohio Canal" (lot 107) was admired by a number of photo dealers for its modernist feel, so I felt that it might set a new record for the artist, but it missed by quite a bit. Estimated at a reasonable $30,000-50,000, the image was bid on by Chicago dealer Stephen Daiter, New York dealer Tom Gitterman and the phone, which eventually reeled it in for $52,800. If it were a bit larger, I feel certain that the print would have broken the artist's auction record of $105,600 for "Drops of Rain, 1903", which was set just this past spring at Sotheby's.

Aptly titled, Pierre Dubreuil's "The First Round" (lot 110) must have made its bidders feel a little punch drunk. New York dealer Howard Greenberg and others in the room duked it out with a strong phone bidder, who ultimately won the title at a stunning $216,000--well over the estimate range of $100,000-150,000. That was good enough for a new world's auction record for the artist and sixth place in the day's auction.

London dealer Michael Hoppen flew in to grab the next Dubreuil, "The Aviator" (lot 111) for well under the low estimate at $57,600.

Lot 112, Dubreuil's "Spectacles", was almost a complete duplication of what happened on lot 110. Again it was Howard Greenberg and again it was the same phone bidder, who once more outbid Greenberg at $105,600.

The second Dorothea Lange "White Angel Bread Line" of Sotheby's fall sales was estimated at what I felt at the time to be a realistic $200,000-300,000. After all, the most expensive "White Angel Bread Line" at auction before this one sold for only $141,500. But this one was bigger (13-1/4" x 10-1/4") and fully signed. Then the room exploded with bids from numerous locations. I saw Ken Wynn, Lee Marks, Thea Westreich and Peter MacGill all bidding on this piece at one time or another. The price quickly soared, and in the end it was once again Peter MacGill tying the world auction record for a 20th-century photograph that he helped set just the night before at $822,400. Obviously, he was bidding for an icon-hunting collector with deep pockets--very deep ones to pay this much for a print that probably would have been difficult to sell for over $300,000 the year before. The Museum of Science and Industry had picked up a chunk of change on this one, which also was the highest price on a lot in this auction.

The Sotheby's sale was just over the halfway mark, but there was still plenty of action to come.

Lot 124, Andre Kertesz's portfolio of the same name in small format, sold to a commission bidder (one of several) for well over the high estimate at $48,000.

The Frederick Sommer prints in this sale had a mixed time of it. Perhaps it was the aggressive estimates, or perhaps the largely difficult subject matter (pretty gross body parts in three of the lots, although two sold). The first lot, and most accessible of the group, was the ever-popular "Livia" (lot 135), which sold to Peter MacGill for $45,600 over a strong effort by a man in the back of the room. It was near the top of the estimate range. Lot 136, "Ondine" bought-in at $15,000. Lot 137, "Duck Entrails, Chicken Heads", sold to dealer Lee Marks for just over the low estimate at $43,200, as did lot 139, "Placenta". Lot 138, "Amputated Foot" was just a bit too funky for anyone, and it bought-in at $26,000.

Another Irving Penn's "Woman in Palace, Marrakech, Morocco", but in a silver print, rather than the platinum of the Christie's Elfering sale and four inches smaller (but also in another edition of 40), did not quite go as insanely as the one at Christie's. Let us be straightforward: this is NOT A RARE PRINT. Several editions of 40 prints exist. Yet, the Christie's one set a world's auction record for Penn at over $307,000. This one here still managed to nearly double the high estimate at $52,800 and was bought by a phone bidder.

Likewise Penn's "Woman with Roses on Her Arm" (lot 149), which had sold to an American collector at Christie's Elfering sale for a stunning $204,000 (momentarily holding the world's auction record for Penn), here sold in a virtually identical print (same size, same type of print, same edition) for $81,600 to Penn dealer Peter MacGill. Several other astute players, including collector Michael Mattis, were also bidding on this one.

Lot 152, an interesting Irving Penn ("Nude 58"), had several dealers bidding for clients. At one point dealer Tom Gitterman had won the lot, but then the client on the other end of his mobile phone line must have gotten confused with the bidding levels, and so the lot went to dealer Deborah Bell for $45,600--nearly double the high estimate. London dealer Michael Hoppen was also heavily involved on this one.

Collector Ken Wynn picked up Penn's "Collapse" for nearly double the high estimate at $40,800. It was a great piece that even tempted me until the price got up there.

A Neil Selkirk-printed Diane Arbus "Twins" (lot 171), apparently not a portfolio print, sold to a group of men in the room for $110,400--just over the high estimate. I remember (and not too long ago) when that would have been a high price for one by Diane Arbus herself. The price made this the ninth highest price of the sale.

An Arbus-printed "Exasperated Boy with Toy Hand Grenade, N.Y." (lot 172) sold to Peter MacGill, who seemed to be on a buying tear for one or more clients. The price of $374,400 was well below the estimate (plus premium, of course) of $350,000-500,000. But it did put this lot into second place in the top ten of this auction.

Another Arbus vintage print of "Patriot with Proud Button and Flag" sold to a phone bidder at the low estimate of $120,000. Then another phone bidder picked up seven Selkirk-printed Arbus prints from the portfolio, "A Box of Ten Photographs"--again for the low estimate of $240,000. That was a fifth place finish for this lot.

MacGill came back to take another vintage Arbus, "A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents" (lot 175), for just over the low estimate at $262,400, which was good enough for fourth place in the top ten.

A Selkirk print of "The Junior Interstate Ballroom Dance Champions" pushed bidders to exceed the high estimate. A buyer in the room got it for $45,600.

A Selkirk-printed "Exasperated Boy with Toy Hand Grenade, N.Y." (lot 180) got well into its estimate range at $108,000. It sold to a group of three men in the room.

The Nicholas Nixon portfolio of "The Brown Sisters" was the last lot to hit my minimum. It sold to the phone for $192,000 over active bidding in the room and on the phone, including dealer Howard Greenberg. That price was $12,000 over the same portfolio that had sold the previous week at Phillips. It was also strong enough to boost the lot into seventh place in the top ten of the day.

Only one more auction to go: Christie's multi-owner sale.