Issue #98  11/30/2005
Sotheby's London Sells About $1.1 Million and 72.2% By Lot

Sotheby's London's November 15th sale virtually matched the results of its competitor's earlier auction at just under $1.1 million, but did just a bit better on the sell-through numbers--over 5% better in fact--at 72.2%. Still the numbers were not stunning, but were in line with a typical fall London auction. All the numbers below include buyer's premiums.

Like its counterpart in South Ken, Sotheby's too had its Helmut Newton big nude (this time Verina, Nice, Big Nude XI, lot 114). While it didn't break the record set just two weeks before at the Christie's London auction, it still brought in over $177,000 (102,000 pounds sterling), which made it the top lot of this sale as well. Again, it sold to a private U.K. buyer--perhaps the same buyer as at Christie's. If that was the case, now he might have a matching set, so to speak. I have already had my small tirade about this type of image and its market value in the Christie's London auction story above, so I will leave it at that, except to say that $30,000+ per foot is still a lot to pay for a cardboard doll. And what goes up sometimes does go down.

Unlike New York, there just were not a lot of expensive images selling here in London, so I will give you the rest of the Top Ten list at Sotheby's, which just cleared the bar of 10,000 pounds for No.10, including the premium, which is less than $18,000. Remember I had to use $45,000 as my cut-off on my earlier coverage of the New York fall auctions, and even then the stories were extremely long.

Man Ray's later-printed, but still scarce, Le Violon d'Ingres, sold for a rather astounding 78,000 pounds (a little over $135,000) to a collector--astounding because of its less-than-perfect condition, prior restoration work and indistinct pencil signature. It was still number two on the Top Ten list of this auction. Other copies of this image have sold for $200,000 privately. Man Ray dealer Michael Senft told me, "To keep you up to date on the Kiki de Montparnasse market: I am currently offering a different and more rare, printed-later Violon d'Ingres. This one, which Man Ray made five years earlier (1965) and also signed, is from an edition of only three. However, it is a large rare collage--Man Ray stretched four wool strings vertically down Kiki's back to create a most spectacular impression. It will sell for over $300,000."

Robert Mapplethorpe dominated the list of this auction's Top Ten and soared over most of his reserves. After New York and London, it looks like Mapplethorpe is undergoing his third resurrection and increase in pricing and interest. Lot 99, the portrait of Andy Warhol, went to a European collector for 18,000 pounds (just over $31,271) against an estimate of 6,000-8,000 pounds. It was sixth on the list. Lot 100, another image of Warhol, sold to a U.K. dealer for 19,200 pounds (just over $33,000) against an estimate of 5,000-7,000 pounds. It made fifth place. Lot 101, Hyacinth, a photogravure flower, sold for 12,000 pounds (nearly $21,000) to a European collector, against an estimate of 7,000-9,000 pounds. It tied for seventh place. And, finally, Mapplethorpe's Apollo, the catalogue cover image (lot 102) in an edition of two, sold to a U.S. dealer under the low estimate at 36,000 pounds (about $62,500). That last price put this piece into third place in the Top Ten of the sale.

One print that I was personally fascinated with was a large-scale cyanotype by Francesca Woodman of a caryatid figure (lot 106). It sold at the low end of its very reasonable range at 30,000 pounds (just over $52,000) to a collector. That was still good enough for fourth place.

A museum purchased Julia M. Cameron's unrecorded variant of St. Agnes (Alice Liddell) (lot 169) at its low estimate for 12,000 pounds (about $21,000). This made the print the only 19th-century work here to crack the Top Ten in a tie for seventh place. It is getting difficult to find quality 19th-century pieces, and the few new pieces that do come on the market are now being auctioned off in Continental Europe or sold by private dealers.

Bill Brandt's oversized (and possibly printed in 1940 for exhibition) "An Ascot Grandstand" (lot 20) sold for over its high estimate at 10,800 pounds (about $19,000) to a U.S. dealer. That just pushed it into ninth place.

Finally, in tenth place, a set of photographs by Bettina Rheims (Chambre Close, lot 134) sold to a European collector for 10,200 pounds (nearly $18,000) against an estimate of only 2,000-3,000 pounds.

I asked Sotheby's expert Juliet Hacking for a few of her observations about the sale and she was very forthright with those comments, which follow.

"We are all delighted that, in recent years, we have seen some remarkable jumps in the figures achieved in certain sectors of the market (e.g. fashion, early 20th-century U.S. vintage, Mapplethorpe). It is no secret that works such as the 'Big Nude XI' by Newton were on sale commercially just ten years ago at figures much lower than that for which they are currently selling at auction.

"We are also delighted that there is more and more crossover between the markets for Contemporary Art and for Photographs. Subscribers will have noticed that our catalogue began for the first time with the 20th century and ended with the 19th, rather than the other way round. This is not, as some have suggested, evidence of a lessening commitment to 19th-century photography. Instead it is an acknowledgement that Contemporary Art is the dominant art form at the current time and an engagement with any earlier works will be filtered through our expectations of, and responses to, the works of leading contemporary artists.

"The increasingly high prices paid for certain photographs is, in general, great news for vendors, collectors and the market. However, when financial speculation enters the photography arena, there are many more vested interests and therefore many more pitfalls for the uninitiated. At Sotheby's we are committed to doing what we do best, which is to give vendors and buyers the best possible specialist advice and to therefore ensure that they do not get their fingers burned."

I found it particularly interesting that Juliet made the last statement. And I feel she really does mean it. It is just hard to reconcile it with the overly high prices on some items achieved at auction and not elsewhere. Of course, clients can make up their own minds to overpay and apparently often do. And I beg to differ with her that we need to filter our perceptions about work through a contemporary eye, rather than the contrary: that art history informs our view of the contemporary. But there is no doubt that the auction market is a changin'.