Issue #105  5/12/2006
Sotheby's Spring Sale Nets $6.3 Million and a Solid 89.5% Sold

This Spring's New York photography auctions were the most boring and deadly affairs that I have ever attended. The various auctioneers and houses seemed to be trying the same combination that gravely slowed down the pace of these auctions. Starting out with too low a beginning estimate (used to entice, not help bidders), dragging out bidding to coax every bidder to make a move on every lot, even for ones for a few hundred dollars (I wanted to go up and throttle the auctioneers who would often wait literally minutes while phone and internet bidders would make up their minds), these auctions averaged about 40 lots per hour--less than half the pace of a normal auction. And, it wasn't just Sotheby's which was the offender this time. All three houses crept along, often right through the lunch hour, as many dealers and bidders left the auction rooms early in disgust. As San Francisco dealer Michael Shapiro remarked to me as he left Christie's, "It's worse than watching paint dry." Indeed, especially since most of the activity came from commission bids (bid up like someone was actually there bidding, I guess for the phones' benefit) and phones. And this auction approach seemed more aimed at phone bidders who would only be on for a few lots and would not tire like those of us in the room.

But if you were the auction house or a seller, the strategy apparently worked--at least in the short term. All three houses did very well with what looked like a lot of "cats and dogs"--material that largely did not get one excited. Of course, when there was a good auction lot, the sparks and the bidding flew.

At Sotheby's, which had some of the only 19th-century photographs of this spring's auction season, 7-Eleven's corporate collection again helped boost the quality and totals. That consignor alone resulted in over $1.9 million worth of the $6,297,500 sold at this auction. Sotheby's had a sold percentage of just under 90%. The auction also served to show that when quality 19th-century material is available, it will sell well.

As these auctions focus more and more on the upper level, I need to cut off most of the action at $35,000 (including the buyer's premium) in order not to make these auction reports longer than "War and Peace". My apologies about this. I know that most of my readers are more interested in other parts of the photo market, and I promise to try to cover other items of interest. Consider that the auction reports merely indicate the strength or weakness of the major photography auctions (not the overall marketplace).

Sotheby's likes to kick off its auctions with Ansel Adams, and he did not fail them here. In fact, lot 5, a mural-sized print of Adams' "The Grand Tetons and Snake River, Grand Tetons National Park, WY" generated intense competition. Estimated at only $70,000-100,000, the lot soared to $251,200, which briefly set a new record for the artist, which was later eclipsed in this auction. The print sold to an American collector in the room, who promptly left after his successful bid, which took the number two spot in this auction's Top Ten list. Actually, in my opinion, it should still hold the record, because the other lot is a sequence of five photographs, not one.

Ansel Adams also did well for Sotheby's on lot 9, another mural-sized print of the "Aspens, Northern New Mexico". The lot sold to a phone bidder for $90,000, just above the low estimate (including premium).

But it was lot 10, Adams' five-photograph "Surf Sequence, San Mateo County Coast, CA" that really churned up the water. Estimated at a not-inconsequential $150,000-250,000, the lot drove phone bidders, who acted more like a crazed piranha school after a rib roast than sophisticated collectors and dealers, to bid up the lot to a whopping $352,000 with premium. The winner on the phone was Carmel, CA dealer Maggie Weston, who had originally sold the print to the 7-Eleven collection in 1984. I wonder if she wished now that she had merely kept it. It was the top selling lot of the Sotheby's auction and set a new world auction record for the artist. While more than respectable, the amount was a far cry from many of the prices in February's Met/Gilman sale here.

A print of Edward Weston's iconic "Pepper #30" (lot 14), also from the 7-Eleven collection and the Weston Gallery, was estimated at $50,000-80,000 without premium. It sold to a collector on the phone for $144,000 over the underbid of German dealer Ute Hartjen of Camera Works. That amount put the lot into fifth place in the auction's Top Ten.

Another 7-Eleven piece, Alfred Stieglitz's "The Steerage" photogravure, signed, titled, dated and inscribed and in an original white metal An American Place frame (lot 23), did very well. Estimated at $30,000-50,000, it garnered a winning bid of $84,000 from New York photography dealer Robert Mann.

I am sorry that I didn't bid on lot 24, a Paul Strand of French grapes, for my own collection of images relating to wine. It was quite beautiful and the price, which matched the high estimate, was only $60,000, which may sound like a lot but isn't these days for such a quality Strand. It went to a phone bidder. It too came from the 7-Eleven collection and the Weston Gallery.

Another 7-eleven lot (31), Irving Penn's "Hell's Angel, Doug" went to a phone bidder for four times low estimate at $38,400. Penn continues to be hot in all the auctions.

A fine daguerreotype (one where you can actually see the image clearly) by Andre-Victor-Alcide-Jules Itier of "Petit Temple de Ile de Philae" (lot 49) was picked up by Carol Ehlers of the LaSalle Bank collection for $31,200, just above mid-estimate. The phones underbid her. The price was a good buy for such a strong image. Many of Itier's plates just aren't very good and still sell for high prices because they are so early and rare. Again, another image from 7-Eleven and Maggie Weston.

A mixed (from a condition and tonality standpoint) group of Linnaeus Tripe images of Burma (lot 55), again from 7-Eleven and Weston, seemed to me to be a good dealer group, so I bid them up. Unfortunately so did the phone. It sold to that phone bidder for $96,000 over my underbid.

I thought I might have an opportunity on lot 58, the wonderful set of John Thompson carbon prints of "Foochow and the River Min", which originally came from L.A. dealer Stephen White through to Maggie Weston and then finally on to the 7-Eleven collection. After all, I had a six-figure bid in my pocket for a client. Estimated at a very low $50,000-70,000, the group soared quickly--so quickly that I never had the chance to bid. The phone took the group for $180,000 over the underbid by San Francisco photo dealer Robert Koch. That price put the lot into third place at the auction.

Lot 62 was a quirky group of 18 tintypes of a pantomime in a variety of costumes, including women's clothing, and characters. It was estimated at $5,000-7,000. New York dealer Timothy Baum quipped, "Who says Mapplethorpe was an original?" Two photo dealers and a bank of phone bidders went after the lot. First, it was Connecticut dealer William Schaeffer that took the bidding lead. But in the end it was New York dealer Hans Kraus, Jr. who took the lot at a numbing $19,200, probably for his collection of tintypes (seriously).

The panorama of San Francisco by Eadweard Muybridge (lot 65) sold to San Francisco dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel, who had to first fend off collector Michael Mattis and then dealer Robert Koch for this object. At $45,600 he had to pay well over the teasing estimate of only $15,000-25,000, although the price was still a bargain.

A group of three important photographs of Brancusi and his work by Edward Steichen and by the artist himself (lot 72) got above the midrange of the estimates when San Francisco dealer Michael Shapiro, bidding for a client on the phone, battled New York dealer Timothy Baum. In the end, Baum got the lot for just over $50,000, which seems to be a very fine bargain when such quality Brancusi-related images might normally sell at auction for about $20,000-30,000 each when sold separately.

Seattle Curtis dealer Lois Flury, who bid on the phone, went on a tear through the Edward Curtis material here. First she took lot 79, a partial Portfolio 1, for $114,000 over a paltry estimate of $15,000-25,000, which was good enough for a piece of tenth place at this sale. Then she took lot 81, a partial Portfolio 3, for $132,000 over the same $15,000-25,000 estimate, which placed the lot into sixth place. On lot 82, a partial Portfolio 4, she bid $120,000 over the same silly estimate of $15,000-25,000, which was good enough for a tie for seventh place in the auction's Top Ten lots. Flury also took the following Curtis lots: 85 for $52,800 (est. $8,000-12,000); 86 for $21,600 (est. $6,000-9,000); 90 for $16,800 (est. $10,000-15,000); 91 for $13,200 (est. $8,000-12,000); 92 for $16,800 (est. $6,000-9,000); 93 for $9,600 (est. $6,000-9,000); and 94 for $19,200 (est. $8,000-12,000). Flury's cumulative damage here was over a half million dollars, or 8.2% of Sotheby's total take for the day.

Another phone (L0020) broke Flury's stride a few times, notably on lots 80 (est. $10,000-15,000), which sold for $43,200, 84 (est. $10,000-15,000), which sold for $90,000, and 87 (est. $10,000-15,000), which sold for $26,400.

A third phone managed to elbow out the other two Curtis phones on lot 83, Curtis Portfolio 5, for $40,800. But it was clearly Flury's day, but what happened to accurate estimating? Most of the Curtis dealers that I talked to were surprised by the low estimates, but it did sucker them in once more. Even the most sophisticated sometimes buy into the market hype.

After the lunch break, we returned again to dependable Ansel Adams. Lot 102, Adams' Portfolio One (estimated at $40,000-60,000), saw dealer Michael Shapiro, on the phone with a client, ironically challenge another phone bidder, who took away the prize. The final price topped the high estimate at $84,000.

The next lot, Adams' Sierra Club Outing portfolio of 23 prints, was estimated at $40,000-60,000, but it sold to another phone bidder for $102,000. Then lot 104, perhaps one of the earliest printings of Adams' "Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite Valley", climbed well over its high estimate ($30,000-50,000) at $84,000. A different phone bidder got this one.

The phone that got the earlier lot of the Sierra Club Outing portfolio (and lot 100) also won Adams' Portfolio 3 over the underbid in the room by dealer Michael Shapiro. The total of $102,000 again easily eclipsed the estimate range of $50,000-70,000.

Adams' "Moon and Half Dome" (lot 108) sold to a man at the back of the room for about the high estimate at $40,800. Another circa 1960s print of Adams' "Winter Storm, Yosemite Valley" (lot 109) sold to a collector sitting next to New York dealer Tom Gitterman for midrange at $40,800. Then Austin, TX dealer Glen Oswald picked up the next Adams' lot "Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, CA" for midrange at $38,400. A phone bidder picked up a small "Grand Teton Range and the Snake River, Thunderstorm, WY" (lot 111) also for $38,400. Another phone bidder L0070 bought their second "Moonrise, Hernandez" of the day on lot 113 (the earlier one was a 1960s print, lot 4, for $26,400), but they paid $38,400 on this one. They had also picked up five other Adams' prints during the auction.

Lot 123 the late-printed (by Manuel Bravo) Tina Modotti "Roses" sold to a man in the back of the room who looked like an art consultant for four times the low estimate at $38,400. Since he had bought the totally different "Moon and Half Dome (lot 108) earlier, he appeared to be buying for clients.

Lee Marks paid a record price for Paul Strand's "Photographs of Mexico" 1940 Portfolio of nearly four times the low estimate at $45,600. It was reportedly a fine copy, but the price certainly was steep.

A very fine and large print of Lewis Hines' "Spinner" (lot 127), which was probably printed later in the 1940s by one of Hines' associates in the Photo League, sold to dealer Richard Moorehouse on the phone for above the high estimate at $45,600.

Late-printed Walker Evans' prints, at least of "Tenant Farmer Wife" (Allie Mae Burroughs), have made a big move. One printed by Jim Dow in 1971 and signed by Evans sold to German dealer Ute Hartjen of Camera Works. New York dealer Edwynn Houk underbid. The estimate was $5,000-8,000, but it sold for $45,600! Of course a slightly earlier one (probably 1950-60s) just sold during the Met/Gilman auction for $132,000. Dealer Joe Bellows, who sat behind me, was berating himself for having sold a portfolio print of the image to another dealer for a song just a few months before.

Another Walker Evans' image (lot 133, "Posed Portraits, NY")--this time in a vintage print--sold to a phone bidder for nearly double the low estimate at $55,200.

Lot 146, Andre Kertesz's "Self-Portrait, Paris", sold to a phone bidder for about double the midrange estimate at $57,600.

Man Ray's early "Portrait of Lily Butler" (lot 156), a very small, rather straight-forward portrait with a grid pattern, sold to a bidder in the room for well over the high estimate at $45,600.

In yet another absurdity of the market, Alfred Eisenstaedt's late-printed "Children at Puppet Theater" (lot 159) sold to a man on the aisle for a whopping $55,200 (estimate $25,000-35,000). Neither rare, nor printed by Eisenstaedt, nor even valued originally when Eisenstaedt first took the image, the market none-the-less has made this picture many times more valuable than many truly important historical landmark images. It's a cute image, but come on: $55,200?

W. Eugene Smith's printed-later "Walk to Paradise Garden" (lot 164) sold in the room for double the midrange of the estimate at $48,000.

Paul Strand's "Mr. Bennett, VT" (lot 166), a small, but very nice print, sold to Jeffrey Fraenkel for $48,000 over Boston dealer Robert Klein's underbid.

A woman in the room bid up the Frederick Sommer print of Max Ernst (lot 167) to nearly the high estimate at $57,600. Fraenkel then took the Sommer's image of "Livia" (lot 168) for $48,000.

La Jolla, CA dealer Joseph Bellows scooped up Emmet Gowin's portfolio of 11 images (lot 173) for over six times the low estimate at $52,800, but the unique group of vintage prints from the mid-1960s was still a "buy".

In case any one is interested, it seems like Harry Callahan "Cape Cod" seascapes are moving up in price. The one here (lot 176, a printed later copy) sold to a phone bidder for nearly double the low estimate at $11,400. They are a lot cheaper than Sugimoto's at $60,000 and they are rarer, although smaller in size.

Robert Frank's iconic "Political Rally, Chicago" (lot 178), or better known as Tuba Player and Flag, was estimated at only $30,000-50,000. The printed-later image was bid up by Frank's NY dealer Peter MacGill, against the phones and Santa Monica dealer Rose Shoshana, to well over the high estimate at $84,000.

A Diane Arbus/Neil Selkirk print of "Albino Sword Swallower at a Carnival" (lot 181) was a battle between Arbus dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel and the phone, and the private collector on the phone won at just over the high estimate at $38,400. An unsigned print by Diane Arbus of "Man and Wife in the Living One Room of a Nudist Camp, NJ" sold to the same collector, again on the phone, for the low estimate of $120,000, which placed the lot in a three-way tie for seventh place in the sale.

Garry Winogrand's "Women Are Beautiful" portfolio (lot 186) went to a phone bidder for what seemed to be a very good bargain at only $78,000, which was just above low estimate. At Phillips' October auction the group sold for $120,000 to dealer Lee Marks, which set a record for this portfolio. I did not view either group.

A Cindy Sherman Film Still (#18, lot 189) drew attention from the room and from the phones. It managed to eke over the high estimate at $66,000 and sell to a phone bidder.

Irving Penn did well with his ugly "Man with Pink Face, New Guinea" (lot 190) selling to a phone for more than double low estimate at $38,400. His "Vionnet Dress with Fan" sold to another phone for $33,600, almost the high estimate; and then a third phone bought "Bouchers, Paris" for $31,200, about double the high estimate.

The Helmut Newton market may be a bit slimmer than most people realize. Lot 196, Newton's Panoramic Nude with Gun, Villa d'Este, Como", only drew two bidders: the commission bid and a single phone. I believe it was the commission bidder who got the lot at the low estimate of $120,000, which put it in a three-way for sixth place in this sale.

Robert Mapplethorpe's X-Portfolio (lot 199) sold to a phone bidder for the low estimate at $36,000 and about $10,000 less than at Christie's October sale.

William Eggleston's Elvis's Piano (lot 204) sold to the phone for midrange at $31,200.

Peter Lindbergh, who on his top images has been performing well at auction, did well here with lot 206, a large print of "Tatjana Patitz, French Vogue, Café de Flore, Paris", which sold to a phone bidder for more than double the low estimate at $78,000.

Peter Beard's prints continued to do well. It makes me I wonder how much bodily fluids he has left. Lot 209, Beard's iconic Maureen Gallagher and Late-Night Feeder", sold for $60,000 more than a similar print of it did during Christie's Elfering auction in October. Dealers Michael Hoppen and Rose Shoshana both attempted to take this giraffe and nude home, but it was the phone that had the dubious distinction at $156,000, which put the lot into fourth place in the Top Ten here and the second highest price paid for a Beard at auction. Unlike the earlier Christie's print, I was not enthused by the quality of this print though, and I am curious to how many Beard will make, blood or no blood.

The last big (both in size and price) lot to sell here was Hiroshi Sugimoto's 58-3/4 x 47 in. "Guggenheim Museum, NY" (lot 211). A couple in the room grabbed it at just under the high estimate at $114,000, which edged the lot into tenth place. It's a lot of dough for just a shadow. Sugimoto's drive-in images also did very well, selling for between $19,200 and $38,400.

Sotheby's had a very successful auction, and the rest of the week of auctions also performed well. Those reports will come a bit later.