Issue #103  4/4/2006
Sotheby's Met Sale: Part Two

For a review of the important first night of this record-breaking sale, see my article in the March 15th newsletter at: http://www.iphotocentral.com/news/issue_view.php/109/102 .

The first part of the sale, while it set stratospheric new auction records, particularly for Steichen and Stieglitz, appeared to still be in keeping with the material and the current market. Yes, exuberance was generally the word of the day, but the bidding wasn't out-of-line yet, largely due to the extreme rarity and excellence of the images. The next day's auction was to spotlight some bidding that could only be described as extreme over-exuberance. This report will detail that second day of bidders caught up in the action.

Before I go a bit further, I can now reveal that Dan Solomon actually bought the Steichen cover image of "Balzac--the Open Sky" from the first night of this sale for his family. His wife Mary, who was a very active participant in the auction as an art consultant for numerous clients, was on the phone to a noted West Coast curator detailing the action, and was somewhat astonished when she realized that it was her husband bidding successfully on the "Steichen Balzac-The Open Sky" (lot 7). Dan had told me earlier that it felt like "the air had left the room after the Steichen "The Pond--Moonlight" had sold." He saw the $632,000 bid as a tremendous opportunity to purchase a true masterwork with the provenance of both the Met and the Gilman collections (not to mention legendary dealer Harry Lunn and the original owner, photographer Paul Haviland). He notes that this image will not be a part of his own photography collection; rather it will be treated separately as a family investment.

Considering that all the other top lots in this sale sold for approximately three times their high estimates, this lot might have brought around $2 million under other circumstances. Several institutions had focused only on "The Pond", and when they were well overbid, they had no contingency plan for the next most important Steichen in the sale. The underbidder was apparently dealer Lee Marks, who was probably bidding for collector Howard Stein, although she has been known to bid for other large clients as well. Both the auction house and the Metropolitan Museum of Art reportedly felt that this print was the second most important in the sale. Sotheby's had put the image on the front cover of the catalogue and the estimate was the second highest in the auction. But it--more than even the Pond--requires a certain level of connoisseurship so most of the well-moneyed collectors might not have recognized the importance of the piece, and most photography dealers just didn't have the money to play at this level and probably weren't prepared for a price this low--if $632,000 could be called "low".

Also I failed to note in my original report that two of the results on the first evening set new world auction records for the artists, namely Margrethe Mather's "Pierrot" at $228,000 and Margaret Bourke-White's "Gargoyle, Chrysler Building, NY" at $352,000.

As I did in the last article, I will generally limit myself to items that sold with premium for at least $35,000, although I will make a few exceptions that bear noting. All lot prices will include the buyer's premium, which at Sotheby's is 20% on the amount up to $200,000 and 12% thereafter.

The first lot, Stieglitz's "Going to the Start", a relatively common photogravure from Camera Work, should have sold for about the low estimate of $3,000, including premium. Instead it sold to a woman in a green blouse on the aisle for a whopping $7,800. This was clearly not going to be a morning of restraint and careful calculation.

Another Stieglitz photogravure, lot 41, the Hand of Man, was estimated at a too reasonable $25,000-35,000, but the $114,000 that a phone bidder plunked down for this large-format version, probably from the portfolio "The Work of Alfred Stieglitz", was more in line with reality--at least a sort of reality. A similar one sold at Sotheby's in 1999 for $107,000 (in perhaps another case of over enthusiasm), which was the previous record for the image.

Why Sotheby's would estimate this lot and so many others in this sale so low needs some examination. This auction seems to give us just one more reason not to believe that auction estimates have any value when they are so obviously being used by Sotheby's (and now Christie's--especially since the architect of this strategy, Philippe Garner, moved from Sotheby's to Phillips and then to Christie's) solely to promote rather than reflect the market. Many dealers were upset with this strategy, which more than a few felt was aimed at forestalling sales at the AIPAD show that immediately preceded the Sotheby's sale and that Sotheby's ironically was counting on to bring clients to town. They felt that Sotheby's aim was to get buyers to hold back on their purchases and instead bid at the Sotheby's auction. Considering the resounding success of both AIPAD (perhaps the best overall results ever for this show) and the Sotheby's sale, it is hard to know if this was indeed the strategy and how successful it turned out. In the battle for the minds of clients though, Sotheby's simply did a better, if somewhat misleading, job of it with these almost ridiculous lowball estimates.

When the auction house not only knows the last sales results for a specific piece but is actually the auction house making those sales, how can it honestly put on estimates that are only 10-30% of those previous results for virtually identical pieces, as Sotheby's often did with this sale? Is Sotheby's expert staff, which arguably has the most experienced and knowledgeable group in New York auction circles, so far out of tune with its marketplace? I doubt it. And over-enthusiasm of the bidders can only be a partial explanation.

My only question next is: when are clients going to realize that they are being suckered into a game where the game is stacked? But hope springs eternal. That's why we have Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Just don't ask dealers next time why they are selling things for such "high" prices when an auction house has such "low" estimates. Please understand that auction estimates have become just a marketing tool, not a real guide and do not reflect real values in any way.

Lot 42 passed, the only lot of the auction to pass. But Denise Bethel reopened the lot at the end of the auction, and it sold then for an increment over the original buy-in, thus preserving the perfect 100% sold record for this auction. Los Angeles dealer Paul Kopeikin bought the image with the spirited encouragement of Dan Solomon. Dan's wife's company (Solomon Fine Art) later sold the image to a client.

San Francisco dealer Paul Hertzmann picked up lot 50, a reportedly unique portrait of Edward Weston by his lover Margrethe Mather, for more than double the low estimate at $40,800. Then Hertzmann battled fellow West Coaster Maggie Weston for Edward Weston's "Prow" (lot 51), but it was Weston who prevailed at $43,200, nearly twice the low estimate. Maggie had reportedly recharged the bank account by selling a beautiful Weston Shell for approximately $750,000 (at least that was the reported asking price) at the AIPAD Photography Show just a few days before.

The Steichen "Spiral Shell" (lot 52) was another blatant example of Sotheby's underestimation at $20,000-30,000. It tempted both astute collector Michael Mattis and Indiana dealer Lee Marks. Marks took this one for $96,000. Then Steichen's "Advertisement for Gorham Sterling" (lot 53), estimated at $10,000-15,000, sold to art consultant Lisa Jacobs for $38,400, who was on the phone to her client.

Walker Evans really shook up Sotheby's meager estimates. Lot 56, "Alabama Tenant Farmer" (Floyd Burroughs), a very good vintage print except for some indent marks on the surface, which probably could be fixed by conservation, was estimated at a silly $30,000-50,000. It soared as phones and the room bid it up aggressively. But at the end San Francisco dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel put up his paddle and took it home for $307,200--ten times the low estimate, but perhaps not really out of line on this image. The price did set a new world auction record for Evans. That was good enough for ninth place overall.

Lot 57, another Evans' print but of the "Tenant Farmer Wife" (Allie Mae Burroughs), was estimated at the same $30,000-50,000. It was being touted as a vintage print, and its provenance was from Arnold Crane. I and other dealers did not feel that this print was vintage, but instead many of us thought it was probably printed in the late 1950s or 1960s. The bright whiteness of the paper just did not look right to me. I would have tested the paper fiber on this one, even if it passed a black light test. Compared to the previous lot, this print just did not measure up. It is interesting that the Metropolitan decided to divest itself of this print instead of the Gilman version. What ostensibly was a more important image than lot 56, sold for "only" $132,000, about 43% of the winning bid on the previous Evans. The Milwaukee Art Museum was the winning bidder here.

The next lot, another Evans' image, "Bedford Village, Westchester County, NY", (Atlantic & Pacific Store) had been underestimated at $8,000-12,000 but went to the phone at $38,400. Lot 59, still another Evans ("Couple at Coney Island"), which I thought was one of the fairer estimates in keeping with the print quality, went in the midrange at $50,400 and was bought by the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Lot 65, Edward Weston's "Church, Hornitos", was bought by West Coast dealer Maggie Weston for $60,000. The next lot, Weston's "Nude on the Sand", was initialed by Weston and printed no later than 1957; but by whom? Sotheby's didn't have a definite answer, although the house surmised that Brett Weston was the "likely" printer. Estimated at $25,000-35,000, the print soared, aided by early aggressive bidding by West Coast dealer and Weston specialist Paul Hertzmann and a bank of phones. But in the end, it was Mary Solomon of Solomon Fine Art bidding for a New York collector that captured this lot at $168,000. At that price a year or two ago, you might have gotten a vintage print of this image.

The next lot (67), an Albert Renger-Patzsch image of a baboon estimated at $10,000-15,000, sold to New York dealer Peter MacGill of Pace/MacGill for $38,400.

Lot 72, Raoul Ubac's "Objects", estimated at only $8,000-12,000, became a battle between two art consultants, Parker Stephenson and Tamara Corm, in back on phones, who pushed up the bidding to $43,200, with Stephenson winning the lot.

Martin Munkacsi's Muddy Weather (lot 76) was estimated at a ridiculously low $4,000-6,000. Important Belgium collector Sylvio Perlstein braved the rain of bidders to take the lot at $38,400. Perlstein also picked up the next lot, Hannes Beckmann's wonderful "Glasses", estimated at a mere $2,000-3,000, for $18,000 (six times the high estimate).

The Milwaukee Art Museum's final bid set a new world's record for Werner Mantz at $72,000 for his "Pressa at Night" (lot 78). It had been estimated at $10,000-15,000, which I frankly thought was a fair estimate range for the print.

But if there was a lot that was underestimated, it was the next one (lot 79). A group of three photographs by Jaromir Funke were estimated at only $5,000-7,000. Clearly that range would be breached by several multiples, but even I did not expect the lot to climb to $156,000. Even with the premium added to the low estimate, that is still 26 times that estimate! Lots of people in the room on this one, but it came down to Parker Stephenson bidding with a phone in her ear, taking it against underbidder San Francisco dealer Robert Koch. Two great images (the landscape was rather mediocre), but there are other existing images of the two, so I really didn't understand this price myself. The highest priced Funke at auction before this went for under $33,000. Yes, some of Funke's large, rare and stunning photograms would sell for low six figures, but none of these three were in that kind of category in my opinion.

After seeing an advanced copy of the catalogue in L.A., I had asked Denise Bethel of Sotheby's how she could have estimated the two 1950s prints by Henri Cartier-Bresson so low ($7,000-10,000), considering that her own auction house in Amsterdam had recently sold similar prints (and one of the same image) for four times these low estimates--and this was the Met/Gilman sale! I didn't really get a clear answer. Sure enough lots 84 and 85 took off like shots out of a rifle. With dealers like Bruce Silverstein and myself bidding them up, both lots quickly passed through the estimates and on to more serious bidding. When it was done, lot 84 (Valencia) had sold to New York dealer Howard Greenberg for $48,000 and lot 85 (Seville) for $43,200 to another bidder in the room.

Another 1950s print by Cartier-Bresson of "On the Banks of the Marne" on a photography art paper was estimated at an even lower $3,000-5,000. Some of the dealers said they thought it was later, but I disagree. The print sold to Lee Marks, perhaps for Howard Stein, for a whopping $96,000. This is what happens when there are not any vintage prints available on an iconic image and a good early print comes on the market. But the price at nearly 27 times the low estimate (including premium) still seems a bit high to me.

A late-printed (1971) Paul Strand photograph of "Young Man, Gondeville, Charente" (lot 91) had been estimated at only $10,000-15,000. Ok, that was way too low an estimate. But how can anyone say that this was a bargain when it sold for nine times the low estimate (including premium) at $108,000? New York dealer Peter MacGill took this one over the underbid of New York dealer Tom Gitterman. Both appeared to be bidding for clients. Sotheby's indicates that they know of a dozen prints, including four vintage ones, of which this is not. I suspect the number is greater than that considering there were also prints made in the 1980s not counted and three vintage prints had come up in the mid-to-late 1980s at auction. But, considering what late-printed Diane Arbus prints in editions of 50 or 75 are bringing now, I guess you could claim that this is a bargain after all.

But wait, we haven't seen the most over-the-top bidding yet! The Robert Franks were still to come.

San Francisco dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel told me, "I was able to get the great Walker Evans portrait of Floyd Burroughs, but had to leave the auction early to attend the Sugimoto opening in Washington, before the Franks were sold. I left a few bids with a colleague, but was not successful with any of those." Fraenkel noted the importance of being in the room for such bidding. But he may have been one of the lucky ones for not being there and getting caught up in the action this time.

New York dealer Peter MacGill, who represents Robert Frank, said, "Concerning Robert Frank's photographs, these works were sold in a public market. For us to overanalyze what happened is not very intelligent as auctions are a transparent market."

Transparent? Ok, I can forgive Peter for being a bit reluctant to comment about the results of bidding on an artist that he represents that could only be likened to the frenzy of piranha fish attacking a side of beef. And interpreting the results would be nigh on to impossible considering the erratic quality of the bidding. But I wonder if he would have said the same thing if the prices had "dropped" at auction.

Look, Robert Frank has been on a hot streak for the last ten years, or so. I personally count myself among those of his most ardent admirers and bid often and aggressively on his images. Until this auction I was often a winner or an underbidder for much of his work at auction. At the very least, I was close when I was interested. At this auction, I barely got out of the gate. Past results seemed to have no bearing on the bidding here. And the material was genuinely mixed. Many prints had major condition problems, and when I say "major" I mean "big time". Some of the images were downright ugly, and not in a Robert Frank kind of way. Yes, there were some early, important and rare pieces that were worthy of their bids, but what about the rest? Does the name of the photographer justify buying some of his worst work at over-inflated prices, as well as his best?

Valencia, Spain, Lot 94, a 1950s print, estimated at $10,000-15,000, sold to the phone for $33,600, which was about right. Another phone got the next lot, "Horse and Cart, France", which frankly had more restoration than picture in my estimation. It had the same estimate range and sold to another phone for $31,200. If the print hadn't gotten so much conservation, I would have said that was reasonable.

Lot 96, NYC (Woman's and Horse's Legs), which was a 1947 print that was estimated at $6,000-8,000, sold to collector Sylvio Perlstein for $38,400. It had a stain running down the right side, but was still a decent vintage print, if not stunning. But hardly worth $38,400 in my opinion.

Lot 97, Robert Frank's image and word joke of a horse's behind with the title of "Hello, Mr. Brodovitch" in rather poor (I said in my note in the catalogue "Horrible") condition and estimated for what I felt was the first overestimation of the auction at $5,000-7,000, sold to London dealer Michael Hoppen, who I think usually has excellent taste, for $18,000. He later told me that he was buying it for a client, whom he had warned off the print, but who insisted on buying it anyway.

The one Robert Frank that deserved an elevated price tag, although Sotheby's only estimated it at a mere $10,000-20,000, was lot 98, "NYC, 14th Street White Tower Hamburgers". Although I could quibble with the Sotheby's date on the print (one year BEFORE the image was actually made), I did feel that the image was indeed an early print in good condition, except for some thumbnails in the margins. New York dealer Edwynn Houk picked this one up for $132,000, eleven times the low estimate but worth every cent plus a bit.

Lot 99 is the kind of print that drives dealers crazy. Clients would be telling us about all the flaws in it, from the thumbnails at the edges to the horizontal striations, to the masking tape. But it was a good image, although the high part of the range ($25,000-35,000) might have normally been about right for this pre-1976 print of Frank's "34th Street, Westside NYC". It was the phones versus the art consultants. The phone won at $90,000.

Robert Frank's Covered Car again illustrated my point about estimates that were aimed low on purpose. The estimate on lot 100 was only $20,000-30,000. The phone got a decent bargain at $60,000, underbid by New York dealer Howard Greenberg. The image has sold several times at auction for more than that.

I liked lot 101, Frank's "New Mexico (U.S. 285, New Mexico), but then so did a lot of other people. With an image date of 1955, Sotheby's felt it had been printed before 1970, but I suspect it was closer to 1960. Yes, there were thumbnails on the print, but it still was a very good early print of a superb image. The estimate of $25,000-35,000 was again very low. The $156,000 successful bid by Tamara Corm for a client was certainly not (very low). But at least this was worth bidding on.

Then there was lot 102, Frank's "Barber Shop through Screen Door", which had a reasonable if slightly low estimate of $20,000-30,000. Reasonable, because the same image in a slightly earlier print had sold at Phillips' Seagram Sale less than three years before for just a hair over $31,000. West Coast dealer Maggie Weston went after this one though, underpinned by Peter MacGill's bidding. The final price tag was $120,000--that is a 400% increase in just three years. Reasonable?

MacGill also made his presence felt on the next lot, Frank's "Trolley, New Orleans" as he underbid Mary Solomon of Solomon Fine Art. Solomon was bidding for the same New York collector who had bought the Weston "Nude on Dunes" earlier in the auction. Estimated at $25,000-35,000, Solomon, pushed by MacGill's underbid, had to plunk down $114,000 for this circa 1977 print.

A similar story for Frank's iconic "Indianapolis" (lot 104) in a circa 1977 print, which was estimated at $10,000-15,000. Here West Coast dealer Rose Shoshana of RoseGallery and German dealer Ute Hartjen of Camera Works battled it out over this motorcycle couple. Rose got to take home the prize at $102,000. A vintage print of this image sold less than two years ago at Sotheby's for $33,600. Two years later a late print of the same image sells for three times more. Reasonable?

Lot 105, another vintage Frank, probably a lot closer to the 1948 date than Sotheby's credited the print, had its estimate of $15,000-25,000, blown away by phone bidders. The $54,000 winning bid was a little high for the image, which was neither the worst in this sale, nor the best.

Where were dealers Lee Marks and Ute Hartjen when Peter MacGill and I battled over a vintage version of lot 106, "Chicago", just a few months before at Christie's fall auction? Estimated at $10,000-$15,000, the lot here soared to $60,000 (Lee Marks, the winner), which was higher than what MacGill paid for a vintage copy at $57,600 in October.

MacGill again bid up lot 107, Frank's "Andrea", which was only estimated at $15,000-25,000. By the time the bidding was through, MacGill had to pay a whopping $96,000 for this later work by Frank over the underbid.

Finally, the two groups of William Garnett prints did well, selling to phone bidders for $36,000 and $48,000 respectively.

Lisa Hostetler, assistant curator of prints, drawings, and photographs for the Milwaukee Museum of Art told me, "I am especially pleased to have been successful in such a frenzied atmosphere. The excitement in the room was palpable as the bidding ran into the stratosphere. I was particularly surprised to see the modern Cartier-Bresson prints and the modern Frank prints near the end of the auction going for so much."

Weren't we all, Lisa. Weren't we all.

(Next Issue: Christie's February Sale)