Issue #104  4/18/2006
Notes On Arbus Estate Prints

(The following notes concerning Diane Arbus Estate prints came to us recently from Jeffrey Fraenkel. Fraenkel is president of Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, a long-time member of AIPAD and the ADAA, and is regarded as one of the top Arbus experts in the field.)

By Jeffrey Fraenkel

In response to comments in recent E-Photo Newsletters, please allow me to correct several misperceptions that may exist about posthumous prints, otherwise known as Estate prints, of photographs by Diane Arbus.

Since Arbus's death in 1971, only one person--Neil Selkirk--has made prints from her negatives. All of Selkirk's prints have been made on the same humble enlarger Arbus herself used (illustrated on p. 272 of "Diane Arbus Revelations", the monograph accompanying the retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2003). The process by which Selkirk came to make these prints, and the arduous decisions that went into their making, are thoroughly detailed in his essay "In the Darkroom" (pp. 266-275 of "Revelations"). Selkirk's fine essay is an essential bit of reading for anyone interested in Arbus's work.

Unlike many other posthumous prints that float around the photography market, Neil Selkirk's prints are highly esteemed by museums and private collectors. As early as one year after the artist's death, more than one-third of MoMA's landmark 1972 Arbus retrospective was comprised of prints by Selkirk. Thirty years later, in the retrospective organized by SFMOMA, more than forty percent of the photographs were Selkirk prints. This exhibition has been seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among several other important institutions.

All legitimate Selkirk prints carry Estate stamps and the signature of Doon Arbus (as Executor of the Estate) on the verso. A few of the earliest Selkirk prints have an Estate label with no edition number verso, though by the mid-1970s all Estate prints carried an edition number such as "3/75," indicating a potential edition of 75. (The few early prints that had already been sold were taken into account in these editions.) It is important to note that the edition number does not indicate that 75 prints actually exist. In most cases, the number is far less; sometimes as few as five prints exist from the "edition of 75." Even though most Arbus Estate prints do not exist as complete editions of 75, at this point it seems unlikely that further Estate prints will be made.

The exceptions to the "editions of 75" are the ten images Arbus chose for her portfolio "A Box of Ten Photographs". As is well known, Arbus intended for this portfolio to exist as an edition of 50, but printed (and found buyers for) only a handful of portfolios during her lifetime. Neil Selkirk completed the printing of the portfolio, and these prints carry an edition number of 50 on the verso.

Despite the edition numbers of 75 or 50, the market has come to realize that numerous Arbus images are difficult to find. As a serious observer of the photography market since 1977, I can attest that Arbus collectors tend to hold on to their prints with greater tenacity than other works in their collections. Hundreds of Neil Selkirk's beautiful prints have found their way into museum collections where they are likely to remain. These facts, coupled with the lasting relevance of Arbus's work, are among the key factors that have contributed to the steadily increasing value of Neil Selkirk's prints at auction over the last two decades.