After getting a complete soaking trying to find a taxi from Sotheby's, I arrived at the Christie's evening session, which was the best attended of all the auction events, although its day sale was as weakly attended as the rest of the auctions this Fall. Christie's, as I noted in the last newsletter, had a very successful outing, netting a total of $7,590,860 on 354 lots offered that had a sell-through rate of 78.8% (279 lots sold).
Because of the sheer volume of lots that were high priced, I will generally cut off my reporting of lots at $35,000 including premiums. But I will also try to mention some important exceptions when I can. Frankly, it is worth noting that there are still many, many images of quality that are well under this figure, even if some don't always appear at auction. The market, as dealer Mack Lee recently reminded me, is much broader than a dozen buyers buying at this level at auction. Most dealers and galleries are serving an ever larger group of collectors and curators interested in more than a few iconic trophies. And it just doesn't seem like the New York auctions (nor the last few London ones) care about the quality of their lower priced lots, probably because they are only taking them from consignors of bigger pieces, who are dumping mediocre ones at this level. Too bad, because there are some great images, but you will have to search them out by going to galleries (look in their backroom flat file drawers) and private dealers. Make sure you also check out websites, such as our I Photo Central site. These are where the true bargains lie.
As usual, I digress, but this auction like the others this season was notoriously slow and boring to watch from the audience, although being an audience member did afford some of us an unusual opportunity later the next day. Call it a reward for having to watch auctioneers who acted like they were in slow motion and a bank of young Christie's staff members/actors pretending to actually be live bidders while executing simple commission bids (or was it just the reserves that they were bidding?).
One positive note though, I found that the Christie's catalogue had more thought given to it in terms of how the images were positioned against each other than most. I sense Philippe Garner's artistic hand here, although Stuart Alexander also has the smarts and ability to pull this off. However, please don't do that expensive but next to useless die-cut cover again. My catalogue was torn up the first day because of it--not to mention waterlogged in the rain. Ok, you sold the image for a record price, but it sure wasn't because of the die cut.
All prices below include the buyer's premiums.
Christie's lot 1 was an Irving Penn (Still Life with Watermelon, NY), which promptly went to a commission bid for well over the high estimate at $48,000.
Andrew Smith picked up another Ansel Adams' Moonrise, Hernandez (he also bought one at Sotheby's) for well under the low estimate at $31,200. Hey, Andy, didn't you recently tell me that buying and selling Moonrises was a waste of time because they've become such a commodity? I guess, like any commodity, there comes a time for a buying opportunity. This 1970c print sure did seem like a bargain; likewise the Adams' The Tetons and the Snake River, apparently printed in the 1970s, which sold for $42,000.
I am frankly very tired of seeing all the Hiroshi Sugimoto theater and ocean photos at virtually every auction. They are nice, but they all look blandly the same. But they continue to roll, and lot 6, his Cabot Street, Cinema, MA, sold to a commission bid for just over the high estimate at $42,000. Also lots 50 and 51, two of his tonal studies in water sold for $36,000 and $33,600 respectively.
Another Neil Selkirk-printed Diane Arbus' of Topless Dancer in Her Dressing Room sold to yet another commission bid for the high estimate of $36,000. I think I remember seeing one on the wall at the AIPAD Show for about $25,000 that didn't sell there.
I actually liked the Helmut Newton, Two Pairs of Legs in Black Stockings, Paris, and even had a commission bid myself for the item, although I told the bidder that they didn't have a chance at their bid, which was at the estimate's midrange. The print was limited to 6/10 and had a great deal of presence, the legs were pretty sexy, and the image was somehow strange and surreal. Of course, it sold well over the high estimate for $38,400 to collector Leon Constantiner. Constantiner had just a few lots earlier scooped up a bargain Newton (Roselyne, Chateau d'Arcangues, Salon) for nearly half the low estimate at a mere $14,400. It was a large print in a relatively small edition of 10, and yet the price was similar to the smaller print and larger edition of this image.
A 1939 Irving Penn that I thought was actually worth the money despite going over its high estimate would not appeal to most of his normal fashion-oriented collectors. Lot 14, Optician's Shop Window, NY, was more like an image that a young Manuel Alvarez Bravo would have taken with its strange and magical presence. It was a vintage print of which only five others of this image exist--three in Penn's studio. The Eyes went to a phone bidder for $102,000. The same phone picked off some other high-flying lots later, including several Mapplethorpe flowers, Penn's Gingko, a Cindy Sherman Film Still and a carte postal version of Arbus' Twins.
By the way, I think that Penn's vintage pieces may actually still be underpriced, although his large edition fashion photographs are pushing their limits. With editions as high as 40-75 (or even multiple editions in different sizes and/or media), it is difficult for me to see why prints like these should go well into six figures, especially since they come up virtually every auction. You should look for a vintage print or small edition size on Penn, unless you really like the image and don't mind overpaying and not getting your money back on your purchase.
The next lot, El Lissitzky's photogram, was a little rare gem that went to a German speaking phone for just under its reserve of $28,800. While I wouldn't exactly deem it a "steal", it went at an attractive price. I found out at Art Basel Miami that it was Rudolf Kicken who bought the image and then promptly sold it at the opening of the fair.
Boston photo dealer Robert Klein walked away with lot 16, Helmut Newton's bizarre x-ray of a high-heeled shoe by Karl Lagerfeld, for $42,000, which was well over double the low estimate. A phone bidder got the next x-ray by Newton (a skull with Van Cleef and Arpels Necklace) for about half that for $22,800, but the heel image was the stronger image.
Lot 18 may have gotten my vote for dumbest picture of the auction (but there were so many other candidates!). Rodney Graham's very large picture of a tree that was purposely hung upside down was estimated at $80,000-100,000 and actually got a phone bidder to bid the bottom estimate at $96,000 including the buyer's premium. Here's what Mr. Graham had to say about this image: "I chose the tree as an emblematic image because it is often used in diagrams in scientific books and because it was used in Saussurre's book on linguistics to show the arbitrary relation between the so-called signifier and the signified. I was also using a kind of readymade strategy based on the disputable assumption that a photograph is not art but an upside down photo is." Disputable? Ya think! Honestly, I wouldn't dare make up this nonsense. I guess all those photos that were mistakenly printed upside down in past auction catalogues should have sold for big premiums, because that clearly made them into "real art". This same private collector would also buy the highest priced lot in this series of photography auctions. More later in this article.
A related aside: if you feel like me that some of the contemporary photographers parading as artists are suffering from being insufferable and greedy SOBs (not to mention their galleries), you should give yourself an after-the-holidays present of photographer Duane Michals' newest book: "Foto Follies: How Photography Lost Its Virginity on the Way to the Bank", which is due out January 28th. I, for one, can't wait. Here is a mini-review from his publisher: "Of this satirical look at contemporary photography, Duane Michals has said, 'The more serious you are, the sillier you have to be. I have a great capacity for foolishness. It's essential.' Whether parodying Wolfgang Tillmans or Andres Serrano, Sherrie Levine (A Duane Michals Photograph of a Sherrie Levine Photograph of a Walker Evans Photograph) or Cindy Sherman (Who is Sydney Sherman?), Michals uses his ferocious wit and keen eye to create images at once humorous and penetrating. As The New York Times described Gursky's Gherkin, the work 'explores as never before the sense of picklehood, or what it means to be a pickle.' The Times also testified that 'this high-humored send-up of arty photography should be required viewing for all art-world heavies, particularly critics, curators and collectors.' Michals takes aim at pretensions that are often perceived as deliberately obscuring contemporary art, and in doing so he exemplifies his mastery of both the visual world and the written word, while providing the elemental pleasure of a good laugh." It should be a fun book--and under 20 bucks too!
Alright, back to this boring auction. Yet another Avedon print of "Dovima with Elephants" (this size in an edition of 50, although there are also other editions of this image) sold for the low estimate at $72,000 to a woman in the room. See my notes above on Irving Penn prints.
Lot 21, Rudolf Koppitz's iconic Movement Study (otherwise known as the unpronounceable "Bewegungsstudie), sold for its low estimate of $108,000 to a European collector on the phone. I used to like this image when it was selling for under $10,000 (and I am not talking about the photogravure version), but think it is a terribly overpriced pictorialist salon image when it sells in six-figures. In any case, this image tied for eighth highest price in this auction, along with four other lots.
The next lot, Lisette Model's Coney Island Bather, was a good size print (and subject), but a little rough around the edges. It still sold for way over double the low estimate at $57,600 to one of those ubiquitous art consultants on a phone. Yet another lady of size, Diane Arbus' Circus Fat Lady with Her Dog, Troubles, sold to an order bid for the low estimate of only $36,000, which was amazingly inexpensive for an important Arbus-printed image--even though it wasn't the best print and it was unsigned. That is lower in price than a Neil Selkirk print. Likewise the next two lots that featured such Arbus prints (unsigned, but noted as her prints by the estate) sold for much less than might be expected, coming close to Selkirk print prices. Lot 24, Transvestite Showing Cleavage, sold to a phone bidder for under the low estimate at $42,000 and lot 25, Taxi Driver's Wife Showing Picture, NYC, sold to Santa Monica dealer Rose Shoshana for just the low estimate at $36,000. Lot 28, a pinkish print on carte postal stock of the Identical Twins, sold to the phone, who was also buying up many other top lots in this sale, for under the low estimate at only $45,600. It was signed, but as I noted, the print was not the best and in this format there are more than a few around.
Then we got to a Neil Selkirk print of Arbus' iconic Child with Toy Hand Grenade, which was estimated at $80,000-100,000, but promptly soared from there (or as Steve Perloff reported "exploded" from there). San Francisco Arbus dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel battled New York dealer Howard Greenberg for the prize, and Greenberg came away the "winner" at $150,000. The price was high enough to put the lot into fourth place in Christie's top ten. It must have been one of those "early" prints that Fraenkel mentioned in his article, because it was uneditioned. At the AIPAD show in 2004, dealer Michael Shapiro had one on his wall listed for $50,000 and it didn't sell. No more emails, please, about how expensive dealers are compared to auctions. It simply isn't true any more.
Lot 30, Vera Lutter's diptych of Rockefeller Center, sold to an order bid for $54,000 over New York dealer Edwynn Houk's underbid.
Lot 32, Henri Cartier-Bresson's Valencia, was reported to be a vintage print and at $60,000-80,000 would have been a bargain, if that were so. I felt the print's stamp and feel made it early 1960s and the condition was also pretty miserable according to my notes. Not surprisingly it went unsold at $48,000 (plus premium).
The two Erwin Blumenfeld's were quite spectacular prints and images with great presence. I was actually shocked that the first one only brought $19,200 from a man in the room. That was just at the minimum bid level. The second, which was admittedly the stronger of the pair, sold to a woman with a phone in her ear for $57,600--well over 50% more than the high estimate.
Lot 35, William Eggleston's car and brick wall image in a reportedly rare vintage print made outside of the portfolio, sold to a man in the room for nearly double the low estimate at $90,000. I have always liked this image, especially with the flattened, but not quite flat, tires. But then his portfolio print of Outskirts of Morton, MS, Halloween sold for considerably more than double the low estimate at $78,000 to the room. The latter seemed a bit high to me.
The huge Peter Beard of Lolindo Lion Charge (a "unique" collage) sold to at the front of the room for just below the low estimate at $108,000, just enough to get it into a five-way tie for eighth place. His Nor Dread Nor Hope Attend was bought in at $25,000.
Lot 41, Irving Penn's Black and White Vogue Cover in an edition of 34, was estimated at an aggressive $200,000-300,000, which was a very large spread indeed. Between a phone bidder and the ultimately successful order bidder, the lot hammered down just above its low estimate. With premium the $262,400 price put the lot into second place in this sale. In my opinion, it is a great image, but a ridiculous price to pay for an editioned print with this many others out there. In any case, the price, which was paid by a European collector, was good enough for the second highest priced lot in this auction.
Penn's Guedra's in the Wind sold to dealer Lee Marks for $54,000. Sadly, I sold an earlier one in the edition of these images less than two years ago for a third of that price.
Both Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe have become two of the culture's hot commodities once again, so it was no surprise that lot 44, Mapplethorpe's unique print of Warhol on a cross-like pattern, would get a lot of attention. Estimated at a not-inconsequential $200,000-300,000, the print soared as an order bidder took on the phones until it reached a $1/2 million hammer price. Then a man in the front row battled the ultimately successful phone bidder up even a little more. The final insane price was $643,200, which was a world auction record for Mapplethorpe (and a photo of Warhol). It was also the highest priced lot of this sale and of this Fall's photography auctions. Christie's only reported that it went to a private collector, but I can tell you that it was the same bidder who pulled down the Rodney Graham upside down tree image.
The Neil Selkirk prints of Diane Arbus' work were selling better than the originals at this auction. Lot 45, A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, went well over the high estimate at $84,000. It sold to a phone bidder. I just think these prices for these later-printed portfolio prints are now frankly out of whack with reality.
Peter Beard's World Record Class Black Rhino sold for just under the high estimate for $78,000 to a phone bidder, who outlasted the order bid.
Mapplethorpe seemed to do a bit better at Christie's than Sotheby's. His flowers both sold. Lot 47, Calla Lily (edition 9/10), sold to an Asian collector on the phone for well over the high estimate at $108,000, putting the lot into a tie for eighth place here. A different phone bidder, and one of the big buyers at this sale, picked off lot 48, Vase with White Tulips, for the low estimate at $72,000. Lot 52, Chrysanthemum, also sold for the low estimate to the same phone bidder as the last for $48,000. They had bought the Penn's Optician's Shop Window and Arbus' Twins, and would buy Penn's Gingko and Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Still #61.
Another print by Diane Arbus herself (again, stamped but not signed) was actually bought in at nearly half its low estimate. Lot 49, a Family One Evening at a Nudist Camp, had been estimated at $150,000-200,000, but failed at $85,000 to draw any bidders. The same thing happened with lot 53, Arbus' Xmas Tree in a Living Room in Levittown, L.I., estimated at $140,000-180,000, which was also bought in at $130,000.
Yet another big print to go unsold was Edward Weston's Knees, estimated at a somewhat reaching (for a silver print) $200,000-300,000. The lot passed at $150,000 (plus premium, of course).
Likewise Mapplethorpe's Thomas passed at $55,000 (estimate $80,000-120,000), although his Mercury did get just past the mid estimate at $31,200.
William Eggleston's Election Eve portfolio of 100 chromogenic prints from 1977 (and slowly fading and color shifting into the sunset) was bought by dealer Rose Shoshana for its mid estimate at $120,000, which put the lot into sixth place here
Then lot 58, one of Eggleston's most sought after images, Memphis (Tricycle) sold to an American collector in the room for under the low estimate at $156,000. His bid was good enough for third place and it closed out the evening session for Christie's.
The next morning's session was nearly empty when I arrived. Like at Sotheby's, the number of attendees at this daytime sale was embarrassing. But the lack of attendees did not seem to hurt the auction's results much, if at all.
Kicking off with Harry Callahan's Wisconsin (lot 59), San Francisco dealer Michael Shapiro, bidding for a client, fended off many bidders to take the lot at triple the low estimate at $72,000. Peter MacGill underbid. The image reminded me of the Irvine industrial shots of Lewis Baltz, which I greatly admire. Shapiro then also picked off the next lot, Callahan's Chicago, for $50,400, which was more than double the low estimate.
Callahan's Maine (lot 62) sold to Boston dealer Robert Klein, bidding for a client, for $48,000, which was double the low estimate. He had to fend off both a phone bidder and, at the end, NY dealer Peter MacGill.
The next two lots of Robert Frank images were bought by Frank dealer Peter MacGill. He got the first one, lot 63, Belle Isle--Detroit, for the minimum bid of $28,800. The second cost him a bit more as the bids moved into the mid part of the estimate range at $50,400. He also picked up lot 75, another Frank (Hoboken, but not the famous one) for the mid range estimate at $36,000.
A later print of Walker Evans' Main Street, Saratoga Springs (lot 66) sold to the phone over a commission bid for double the low estimate at a more realistic $24,000. It is an image that a lot of people like.
I managed to take a relatively rare and beautiful Edward Weston Dune (lot 73) for just over its low estimate at $54,000. The next lot, another Dune, sold to a phone bidder for $50,400.
Irving Penn's Cigarette #37 (lot 89) nearly doubled the low estimate at $42,000. A phone bidder crushed out the competition. Penn's Hell's Angels (San Francisco) was purchased by collector Jack Hastings for the same price of $42,000.
One fun print that surprised me by buying in at $28,000 was lot 100, Wanda Wulz's rare Jass-Band, although the reserve at the low estimate probably didn't help.
Rose Shoshana picked up the Rodchenko portrait of Vladimir Mayakovsky (with cigarette in mouth) at the low estimate at $48,000.
One of the few winners on the Internet was the bidder on lot 115, Henri Cartier-Bresson's Queen Charlotte's Ball, who still had to nearly double the high estimate at $15,600 to wrest the lot away from a commission bid.
Despite the enticing estimates, everyone knew that some of the Alexy Brodovitch Ballet images would easily break through to much higher levels, especially Christie's people, who devoted a special pull-out six-page section on the group and weren't shy about hyping it during the previews. This was some of the most interesting and rare material at these auctions and fully deserved the attention. All five images were estimated at the same $8,000-12,000, but they were not all equal in quality. The first of the group, lot 117, was clearly the one that would attract the most attention, and it did. Boston dealer Robert Klein did try valiantly, but fell to an order bid at $45,600. Lots 118 and 119 were each bought in at $7,500 (clearly Christie's had some very high reserves at exactly low estimate in this sale). But lot 120 sold in the room for $26,400 and lot 121 sold to a phone for $21,600.
At the break, I had a pleasant lunch at Morrell's wine bar with fellow dealers Stephen Daiter, Deborah Bell and John Cleary. Daiter's new show and catalogue on rare photography books is a first-rate one that is not to be missed at his Chicago gallery. We will soon have a review of the catalogue, but don't wait for it to order a copy from Steve ( firstname.lastname@example.org ; phone 1-312-787-3350).
Unfortunately, we had to go back too soon to the slow-action boredom of this auction. I know that it sometimes seems dramatic from these reports, but for the most part it has recently become a big yawn, because of how the auction houses are aiming at slowing things down and dramatizing for phone bidders.
The afternoon session opened up with some of the few 19th-century pieces in this sale, a group of Julia Margaret Cameron images from the collection of Gary and Barbara Hansen, which were sold with no reserves. The prints were erratic to the extreme, but offered an interesting opportunity to buy for those actually in attendance. Frankly, I didn't realize myself that these were being sold with no reserves until the announcement at the actual auction. There were a few prints that were pretty decent, but most had serious condition problems of the type that normally would cause the images to go unsold, but with no reserves even these were scooped up, although at very low prices. The catalogue images and even the condition reports were of little help in determining what the print quality was here, and viewing the actual images was an absolute must. There was fading, spotting and discoloration, and prints were occasionally taken off original mounts and put on new archival mounts.
London dealer Michael Hoppen fended off New York dealer Hans Kraus, Jr. for the first image, Sappho, which had some minor problems (white spots, negative--but not print--damage, a bit of yellowing). I don't usually think of negative damage as a problem in 19th-century images, but in this case it was a bit distracting. Nonetheless this lot was clearly one of the strongest in the group, but still sold for under half its low estimate at $20,400. If perfect, it would have gone for triple that price or more in a typical auction. As it was, the price was a very good buy. It was probably the most important print of this group.
Most of the other images were just poor, blown-out prints and many of these were bought at bargain basement prices by Han Kraus (lots 135, 136 and 141 among other lower priced lots) and other bidders in the room. Kraus also picked up some rare, but pretty marginal prints at higher prices (lot 127 at $9,000; lot 128 at $21,600; 140 at $5,400).
Lot 130 was a strong print, but in small cabinet card size, which still sold to the room for a bargain $1,200. This is still an excellent buy that I was sorry to have missed myself.
New York dealer Keith de Lellis forced Hans Kraus up to nearly the high estimate on lot 133, the Rosebud Garden of Girls. If the print hadn't been remounted to an archival board and had so much restoration, it might have been a six-figure image. It looked quite nice in the catalogue and frame. As it was, Kraus had to go to $28,800.
UK dealer Robert Hershkowitz picked up lot 139, a lovely and scarce image of The Dedication (Hatty Campbell) for a measly $4,800, less than a third of the low estimate. I had sold this print to the Hansen's through dealer Tom Halsted and had actually paid much more for it myself. But Bob was standing next to me, so I didn't think it was good manners to bid it up against him. It is a very nice print and one of the few that looks better than in the catalogue. It is easily worth five times the price he paid for it.
Likewise, I picked up a steal on the last Cameron to come up, paying a bit more than a third of the low estimate for lot 143. It was a fine print in good condition and a rare image, one of the few in this sale. As I noted earlier, there were a few real gems in the group, but you had to choose very carefully.
The next lot was fairly jarring because it immediately brought us back into the color contemporary art area with Desiree Dolron's Xteriors VIII selling to a phone bidder for nearly double the high estimate at $38,400. Again, a print that you could have bought for a lot better price at a past AIPAD show from Michael Hoppen. Then Lot 147, Adam Fuss' color photogram sold for well over the high estimate to another phone at $45,600.
Danny Lyon's Conversations with the Dead portfolio of 76 prints (lot 153) sold for nearly two and a half times the low estimate at $114,000, which Christie's claimed was a world auction record for the artist. Auction houses should start to realize that such claims are mere puffery when it comes to a group of images. It certainly was a record price for the portfolio at auction and does signify that Lyon's latent importance is finally getting a bit more recognition. It was bought by an American collector on the phone. The lot did place seventh overall in this auction.
William Eggleston's Southern Suite portfolio (lot 154) was bid up to the midrange of the estimate by Rose Shoshana. Her winning bid of $108,000, which was underbid by art consultant Thea Westrich, was good enough to place the lot in a five-way tie for eight place in Christie's top ten.
Shoshana also picked up lot 161, Edward Weston's Nude on Sand, Oceano, for what at first glance might be considered a relative bargain at $84,000, considering the estimate range was $120,000-180,000 including the buyer's premium. But this print was pretty beat up with some light scratches and gouges. There just wasn't much enthusiasm for this print.
Shoshana then picked up Helmut Newton's Fifteen Photographs portfolio (lot 189) for well over the high estimate at $132,000, which put it in fifth place in the auction.
Eggleston's Morals of Vision portfolio (a group of eight chromogenic prints that looks like they were fading and color shifting) sold for four times its low estimate at $38,400.
Irving Penn's Gingko Leaves (lot 202) sold to that very active phone bidder mentioned earlier for three and a half times the low estimate at $84,000. The photograph came from the collection of fashion photographer Pamela Hanson. Lot 212, Penn's Woman in a Chicken Hat, also came from this collection. It sold to another phone for about the reserve at $96,000. Two Robert Franks from this collection sold well. Berlin dealer Ute Hartjen of Camera Work bought lot 222, Charity Ball--New York City, for the high estimate at $36,000 and collector Steve Stein bought the next lot, Wales, for more than double the high estimate at $38,400, although I thought the image had been well underestimated anyway. Photography art consultant Alice Rose George bought lot 232, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia's Mary and Babe for $45,600, well over the high estimate. And the last photo offered from this collection, Penn's Picasso (B), Cannes (edition of 47), sold to an American collector on the phone for the low estimate of $108,000.
A few bargains were left begging when several Brassais (lots 259, 260 and 261) were bought in at pretty interesting prices, especially in view of some the high prices made at the recent Paris sale.
California art consultant Carol Lieff bought John Baldessari's Announcement for more than double the low estimate at $50,400, but it was still a relative bargain compared to the prices he has been getting in the Contemporary Art sales. Apparently, one half of this collage is a detail of a Morris Engel image. The estate is now in what they term "amicable negotiations" with Baldessari through his gallery.
The phone bidder who was the big buyer at the sale was back to scoop up Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Still #61 (lot 287). Lieff was the underbidder here. It was a small print, but limited to ten prints. The bidder had to go over the high estimate to get it for $50,400. This bidder was going after some of the top objects in the sale, yet managed to stay just out of the top ten group.
Paul Outerbridge's Nude with Cat (lot 312) went to Nancy Lieberman, who was bidding for the Howard Greenberg Gallery, over Rose Shoshana's underbid. The $54,000 price tag was just over the low estimate.
Herb Ritts' group nude of Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana, Naomi, Hollywood (lot 334), sold to the phones for triple the low estimate at $54,000, which is a new world auction record for a Ritts' photograph.
After all was said and done, Christie's set a new world auction record for a various-owner photography sale and claimed to set eight new photographer auction records.