Issue #115  11/22/2006
Sotheby's Fall Auction Brings In $6.5 Million, Sets Record For Adams' Moonrise, Hernandez

The Fall photography auctions were fairly dull events with material that many observers felt were mere 'cats and dogs'--at least compared to some of the exciting images of the earlier Winter and Spring auctions. None-the-less, the New York auction houses did extremely well with this mixed bag of photography lots, as the sold lot percentage hit just over 77% on average of those offered here, and the total take including buyer's premium was just over $19-3/4 million for the four auction houses. That amount was impressive given that there were no separate single-owner sales this time around.

Besides the rather mixed group of images, virtually devoid of 19th-century work (with the exception of a single daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe at Sotheby's, some Julia M. Camerons at Christie's, and Swann's more extensive material), there was a clear and precipitous drop in actual attendees at these auctions, especially during the daytime sales. I don't think I have ever seen such small crowds at Sotheby's and Christie's--well under 80 people in the day sales. The only exception seemed to be at Swann, where attendance was perhaps the strongest that I have seen. Meanwhile the phone banks continue to grow ever larger in size.

Despite the lack of physical bodies though, the auctions--as already noted--did extremely well, but it was largely the phone or commission bids that carried the day. As I reported about the Spring sales in New York, more and more, these auctions are shaping themselves into a drama built only for phone bidders. Half of the auctions no longer note that bidders are bidding against a commission bid or a reserve, as auction house personnel are called on to act as surrogate actors in place of the commission bidder. While attendees can sometimes see this, phone bidders only hear that they are bidding against someone in the room. In my opinion this is a purposely misleading strategy, largely used at Christie's and Phillips. Likewise virtually all the auctioneers are drawing out the process, bidding up commission bids as if there were two bidders in the room and slowing down the bidding to accommodate slow-acting phones and internet bidders.

All this drama is designed for one purpose: to entice phone bidders to plunge into the fray--and it has definitely worked for now. Bidding is currently a slow, laborious process that has become excruciating for those who actually attend the auction. More and more of the former attendees are staying home to bid by phone or internet, because of this boring, drawn-out process. It is definitely creating a circular effect. There were less attendees than I have ever seen at the morning sales at Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips, although the evening sales were decently attended. There are bound to be long-term consequences to this trend that may not be anticipated by the auctions houses.

Little by little, these auctions are becoming virtual events that are conveyed in tiny bits of oral drama to bidders on given lots. The only real question though is: why have a physical auction at all then? Especially when few of the bidders are really previewing the material, but depending on the very erratic condition reports from the auction houses. True, these condition reports have gotten a bit better after I complained about them in earlier newsletters (at least at certain houses, and in particular Sotheby's), but they still can not be depended on because the houses do not guarantee them. And I still see glaring problems with many images that are not noted in such condition reports. It is still "buyer beware" at these auction houses. Buying from a good photography dealer/gallery should be a better experience for most collectors. You not only avoid the mistakes commonly made at auctions, but you can also develop the knowledge and experience necessary, if you have a patient and knowledgeable dealer who will help educate you. You will buy often at a lower price, have terms to pay and often a guarantee of the work. A dealer can also even help you make good decisions at the auctions as you branch out.

But enough of my soapbox oration and back to the auctions and Sotheby's, which was up first in the order. The house offered the smallest number of lots of any other auction this fall at 247, but it also did the best on percentage sold (81.4%) and highest net per lot sold ($32,265). The nearly $6.5 million total take was not shabby either, only eclipsed by Christie's $7.59 million, which made it with 354 lots offered and an average of $27,207 per lot sold. And, as Denise Bethel pointed out to me, got the overall auction done so that those of us who attended could actually get out to lunch. Although it later ran so late that with the lack of cabs at that transition hour, it was nearly impossible to get back over to Christie's on time for their evening sale, despite that house delaying its opening by nearly 30 minutes. Timing between the houses now seems to have escalated as a problem. More on that in subsequent reports.

One can see the business economics taking over at Sotheby's. The top ten lots actually represented more than a third of the total take here--and all of it went to private collectors, or dealers bidding for private collectors. Dealers buying for inventory have dropped out of the auctions, more and more, because of the often steep higher-than-retail prices realised. But the auctions know that they make more money off of higher priced lots. The AVERAGE lot in this Fall's auctions (across all four houses) was just a shade under $20,000, including buyer's premium!

Because the lot average was so high here at Sotheby's, I will usually only report on those lots that sold for over $35,000 including the buyer's premium. Having just said that I will start with a lot just under that amount to give some perspective to the record that was to come later in the sale. Lot 11 was Ansel Adams' ubiquitous Moonrise, Hernandez. Estimated at $30,000-50,000, it sold for $32,400 to Santa Fe photo dealer Andrew Smith, who had a minor field day buying reasonably priced Adams work at this auction. Adams' photographs in general sold well here, as Sotheby's led with this perennially strong performer.

Phones and the room battled it out over lot 14, Adams' "Maroon Bells, Near Aspen, CO". In the end, one of the phones paid a whopping $64,800 for this portfolio VI print, which was estimated at only $20,000-30,000, which is about where it should have ended up. Why did it go so high? Well, lots of over-eager "art consultants" and phone bidders, who all seemed to exhibit their inexperience in overbidding this nice, but not rare portfolio print.

"Art consultant" seems to be one of the fastest growing employment opportunities around these days. Maybe I am being a bit too cynical, but I have seen a lot of dubious advice given lately by some of these newly minted consultants, who live on commissions. I don't want to tar all of them with the same brush though. There are a number who are highly experienced and do a first-rate job and warrant their commissions. Just be careful who you hire to do your auction bidding, advice and evaluation. Experience is a crucial component in this field. And, if you only pay the consultant if you win the lot, then you get advice that may be slightly skewed. And, yes, for the sake of full disclosure, like virtually every other dealer, I do provide this service as well. I charge 5% of the hammer price against a minimum of $125 in the U.S. and $250 internationally. The latter is there in case I advise you NOT to buy a photograph after viewing it.

The complete set of Adams' Parmelian prints of the High Sierras (lot 16), which was estimated at a tempting $30,000-50,000, sold for $88,800 to New York dealer Howard Greenberg over an absentee bidder and several phones. It was a record price for the work.

It was the next lot (17) that was expected to create a stir: a near vintage print of Adams' Moonrise, Hernandez (14-3/8 x 19-1/8"), the first to come up at auction since 1998. During that interim Adams' vintage prints have been making a move, as I had predicted in my April 2001 newsletter. Estimated at a modest $150,000-200,000 (for the print), this exceptional and early (1948, just after Adams intensified the negative, but still printed without the high contrast of later prints) Moonrise was sure to eclipse the record for a Moonrise and perhaps even the newly set Adams' record for his five-photo sequence of surf on the San Mateo county coastline ($352,000 at Sotheby's last April). Most of us thought that latter price might be just a touch high, considering the last 1948 print of Moonrise in 1998 (also at Sotheby's) brought a mere $49,450. The photograph in the current auction was, however, a spectacular print and emotions were running high. The phone bank was extremely active and so was the room. In the end it came down to two phones, slowing edging each other ever upward. First a $300,000 hammer price was breeched, then $400,000 and then even $500,000. The room was pretty quiet until the winning bidder took the prize at $530,000 hammer and a total price of $609,600, which was to be the highest priced lot at Sotheby's but only the second highest price of the New York Fall photography auction season. London dealer Hamiltons Galleries was the winning bidder, but they were bidding for a well-heeled private client.

There was no let-down on the next lot (18), Adams' Portfolio Two, which was estimated at $40,000-60,000. It went to a private collector's commission bid over a phone bidder for $120,000, which was good enough for eighth place on Sotheby's top ten. Nor the next lot (19), estimated at $20,000-30,000, which sold to a phone bidder for $40,800 over dealer Andrew Smith's underbid in the room.

Lot 28, probably a circa 1960 print of Adams' "Sunrise, Mt. McKinley", sold to the phone for just over the low estimate at $38,400.

A signed copy of the Steichen supplement (lot 30) sold in the room for the low estimate at $36,000.

The next big lot (37) was one of the few 19th-century pieces in these sales. Because of my own love of early 19th-century material and daguerreotypes, I wish I could be a little more enthusiastic about the Edgar Allan Poe dag by William Abbott Pratt. I wish I could, but I can't. It was a beat up copy daguerreotype and an average pose at best. Yes, such dags of Poe are relatively scarce (only two have come up for auction in the last century) and important, but this one did not really turn me on. There were others who at the right price level would have been happy with it though. The quarter plate was estimated at a reasonable (for its condition) $30,000-50,000, but it sold to a woman who collects Poe material in the room over a phone bidder for $150,000. That was high enough for the seventh highest priced lot of the sale.

A late-printed (well after he died) Weegee portfolio (lot 55), estimated at $50,000-70,000, only generated enough interest to be sold at $50,400, including the premium. It was fun though to see many of the lesser-known images in the group.

Another late-printed portfolio of Herbert Bayer's photomontages (lot 80) did much better, selling for more than double its high estimate at $76,800 to a phone bidder. Indiana dealer Lee Marks was the underbidder. Likewise, Werner Mantz's late portfolio of ten prints (lot 81) sold to a commission bidder over a phone for more than double the low estimate at $42,000. That is $4,200 per print.

W. Eugene Smith's iconic "Walk to Paradise" (lot 88) sold to photo dealer Richard Moore for $36,000.

One of Henri Cartier-Bresson's prints of "Seville" came under fire from a lot of bidders. It was said to be from the late 1940s-1950s, but it seemed to be clearly dated 10/50 in ink on the print, and this paper is clearly early 1950s rather than 1940s. Although there was a tear on the right side and some adhesive on the back, this was a very decent print. The estimate of $10,000-15,000 was a joke in today's market. San Francisco dealer Paul Hertzmann took the early lead, but it was savvy collector Michael Mattis over a phone bidder, who ultimately took the prize home for $45,600, a very good bargain indeed, considering that most Cartier-Bresson prints from this early period are now in six figures.

A phone bid up a Camera Works No.49/50 (lot 111) to well past its high estimate at $36,000, underbid by two women in the room.

Garry Winogrand's work continued on a hot streak during this auction season. His "Women Are Beautiful" portfolio (lot 116) sold for nearly the high estimate here at $98,400 to Santa Monica dealer Rose Shoshana over a phone bidder. That was good enough for ninth place in the top ten, but that was not the real Winogrand shocker here. Lot 123, "N.Y.C." (Woman Laughing with Ice Cream Cone) a vintage print of an image from the cover of that same portfolio, estimated at $20,000-30,000, more than doubled its high estimate at $74,400 (a new auction record for a single print for Winogrand). It went to the phone, but was underbid by New York dealer Peter MacGill. Then an "early" print of "Los Angeles, Calif." (lot 125) by Winogrand got bid up by Winogrand dealers Jeffrey Fraenkel and Peter MacGill. Fraenkel took the lot at nearly three times high estimate at $50,400. The next lot, Winogrand's "World's Fair, N.Y.C.", sold to Katheryne McCarver Root (over the underbid of Ute Hartjen of Camera Work gallery) for nearly three times estimate again at $38,400. This was "possibly" an early print.

Lot 128, Winogrand's "Central Park Zoo, N.Y.C.", sold to Peter MacGill for nearly three and half times the high estimate at $50,400. Then Jeffrey Fraenkel took the next lot "Untitled (from the Animals)" at $33,600. On lot 131, Winogrand's "Circle Line, N.Y.C.", Peter MacGill out dueled Jeffrey Fraenkel and paid more than three times high estimate at $55,200. But it was Fraenkel on the next two, taking lot 132, "Park Avenue" for $24,000 and lot 133 for $36,000--both well over the high estimate.

So how exactly does one tell a vintage print from an early print from a possibly early print from "exact date unknown" from a near vintage print from a later print, when all of them are from the 1960s-1970s and separated by about 10-15 years and no current objective scientific testing can tell them apart? Collector Michael Mattis joked that one of the prints was "likely an early print" (as the catalogue read), "because it was so beat up." Hmmm. On the other hand, these appeared to have been made earlier than those in the portfolio in 1981, but how much difference is that really when perhaps the time difference is only about 10 years or so.

Edward Weston's "Nude (Charis, Santa Monica)" printed by Brett Weston was estimated at $20,000-30,000. Before the Sotheby's New York Metropolitan/Gilman sale, this range might have easily held. But there a print of "Nude on the Sand", probably by Brett, sold for $168,000. The image here was a bit more sedate and perhaps the market is not quite ready to pay six figures for every Brett-printed Edward Weston print, especially since the real thing goes for virtually the same price. In this case, Lisa Jacobs bidding for a client took the lot away from a phone bidder for a more realistic total price of $52,800.

More of the real thing was lot 140, Weston's "Study of a Nude", a platinum print from 1922. Several key players knowledgeable about Weston told me that they just didn't think it was an image that appealed to them. I still personally thought it was classic. It sold at what looked like its reserve to a private collector on the phone for $262,400, which gave this print second place honors in the top ten of this auction.

Another Edward Weston nude, lot 142, "Bertha, Glendale", sold to a phone bidder for $33,600, but it was the story attached to this lot that was much more interesting than the image itself, which was very badly damaged. It looked like it had been crinkled together and then flattened and mounted on a new archival mount. And it was. Reportedly the print was run over--literally--after dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel's luggage broke and the photo fell out of a taxi at the long-time-ago AIPAD show in Houston, TX. It is a fairly rare image--and with this true provenance it now has a starry history as well.

The next lot, Paul Outerbridge's "Ethiopian Form", was bid up into the middle of its range at $60,000. Rose Shoshana bought it for a client over a phone bidder's efforts.

Lot 147 was a lovely Atget of a carousel (Fete du Trone), one of the nicer Atget's that I have seen come up at auction in quite a while. Estimated at only $15,000-25,000, it was a temptation. The commission bidder, phone and room all succumbed to desire, but it was Katheryn McCarver Root who outbid the group. This pretty print sold for $36,000--still an outstanding bargain in my opinion.

Up next the cover lot, Dora Maar's "Study for Petrole Hahn", which was estimated at $20,000-30,000, sold to California collector Jack Hastings at the back of the room for $93,600 over Howard Greenberg's underbid. That mark was good enough to just edge the lot into a tie for tenth place in this auction.

It is always fascinating to see how a big price (some might say, an outrageous price) draws out other examples of supposedly rare images. Lot 150, Jaromir Funke's "After the Carnival", was an image that was in a group of three Funke's (and one of the better of the three images) in the Met/Gilman sale earlier this year. That group sold for an astounding $156,000--a lot of money for pictorialist work. I had said at the time that I had seen other copies of these images, and, sure enough, up one popped. Jack Hastings kicked off the bidding, but it was dealer Lee Marks and the phones that really got the item up into the extremely-high-priced level. In this case, the phone edged Marks to take home this dubious prize (at this price at least) at a whopping $84,000. I am sure that there will be at least one other chance in the future to overpay for one.

Lot 154, Pierre Dubreuil's "L'Opera", was estimated at $80,000-120,000, but it had a hard time getting to even its reserve. Jack Hastings bid up a private collector's commission bid, but lost it to them at just below the low estimate at $93,600, including the buyer's premium. That price put the lot in a tie for tenth place in the top ten. Likewise Dubreuil's "The Woman Driver" (lot 155) sold to a phone bidder well below its low estimate at $76,800. And lot 156, his "Green Cup" was bought in at a mere $30,000. There appears to be a little luster off the current market for Dubreuil, whose work always struck me as a bit more salon pictorialist than modernist. But Rick Wester and Tom Jacobson had done a superb job of building Dubreuil's market and image as a modernist and established extremely high prices that may now be difficult to increase.

Man Ray's late-printed "La Priere" (lot 158) sold to a phone bidder for more than double its low estimate at $40,800. You might have thought that they confused it with a vintage print at that price.

Maurice Tabard's photomontage (Standing Nude with Superimposed Face) (lot 161) was a wonderful Tabard that was estimated at $30,000-50,000. New York dealer Howard Greenberg's winning bid of $57,600 set a new world auction record for the artist.

Irving Penn's work is still on a run. He will be 90 next year. His "Woman with Roses", although not a rare print at all (edition of 40 plus AP's in platinum), always does well, and this auction was no exception. A woman in the room took the lot, estimated at $100,000-150,000, for well over the high estimate at $204,000. She was underbid by Penn's dealer Peter MacGill. She also took lot 173, Penn's "Black and White Vogue Cover (Jean Patchett)" for just over the low estimate at $192,000. Sotheby's reported these both selling to a private collector. The prices realized were good enough to make these two lots fifth and sixth in Sotheby's top ten.

Hollywood collector Leon Constantiner (my apologies to him for some past reports where I dropped the r off his last name) took Penn's "Harlequin Dress" (lot 170) in an edition of 30 plus AP's for the low estimate at $240,000. It was the third highest priced lot of the day at Sotheby's.

The rather disturbing "Man with Pink Face, New Guinea" (lot 174) by Penn sold to a phone bidder for well over double the high estimate (estimate $12,000-18,000) at $52,800. And Penn's dye-transfer of "Frozen Food, New York" (lot 176) sold to German dealer Ute Hartjen of Camera Work for just below the low estimate at $43,200.

It took the ever-hot Robert Frank to bring the price levels back to my $35,000 cut-off. His "Indianapolis" (lot 203) sold to dealer Lee Marks for $60,000, which was well below the low estimate (including buyer's premium). Then came Frank's great image of "New Orleans (Trolley)" (lot 205). The odd thing though was that this print was--for me--totally unlikable with little of the warmth that one often sees with Frank's prints. And I was not alone in this opinion. Several knowledgeable dealers expressed the same feeling. The reproduction in the catalogue looks much better than the print itself, which also had minor corner bumps. But this didn't stop the phones from bidding away as if this was a spectacular vintage print. Estimated at a relatively expensive $80,000-120,000, the lot easily passed the high estimate and kept going. A private collector on the phone set a new world auction record for Frank at $204,000. That price was also good enough for fourth place in the auction's top ten. Oddly enough, lot 207, a very good print of a key Frank image from the Americans, passed at $48,000.

Diane Arbus continues to show up in quantity in the auctions. A Neil Selkirk-printed "Junior Interstate Ballroom Dance Champions, Yonker, NY" (lot 209) sold to a phone for above the low estimate at $44,400. But then the Selkirk portfolio print of Twins was bought in at $110,000 despite Jeffrey Fraenkel's encouraging bid. A collector in the room then bought lot 211, a Selkirk print of "Woman with Veil on Fifth Ave., NYC", for more than double the low estimate at $40,800.

The Lewis Baltz Nevada portfolio sold for just above high estimate to a phone bidder for $45,600.

A large color print by Ormond Gigli (his last name sounds just like what I feel when I see these prints selling) sold to a phone bidder for well over the high estimate at $48,000. Lot 227, an Adam Fuss photogram from his "My Ghost" series, sold for over the high estimate at $55,200 to a phone bidder over dealer Howard Greenberg's underbid.

Lot 228, a large Helmut Newton of "Panoramic Nude--The School Teacher, Lake Como" that was backed with Plexiglas, sold for more than double the low estimate at $50,400. It sold to a phone bidder. Just a note: Plexiglas can shatter and crack.

Robert Mapplethorpe's flowers had mixed results here. Lot 229, the set of ten photogravures, sold to a phone for mid-range at $38,400. The next lot, "Rose (with Smoke)", sold to another phone bidder for the low estimate at $36,000, but the next lot, "Irises", was bought in at $55,000, against a reaching estimate of $70,000-100,000.

The last lot of the day, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia's "London" (lot 248) sold to a nearly empty room, but that didn't make a difference to the phone bidders. It sold well above high estimate at $40,800.

Then the only problem was trying to catch that taxi downtown to Christie's evening sale in a drenching downpour right at the time that taxis are in the middle of a shift changeover. I sure wish the auction houses would do a little better on the timing of all of this. But then again, they don't seem to care if anyone shows up in the room or not these days.