Issue #120  3/6/2007
Swann's February Photography Auction Hits Just Below $1 Million; 85% Sold

Without an AIPAD show to anchor the February auctions (now that AIPAD has moved to its new mid-April slot at the Armory), some were wondering how they might do. In addition, the weather in New York during the auctions in February was simply crappy. Snow, sleet, rain, freezing cold, wind and sloppy streets made the going incredibly difficult. But it did not seem to deter bidders, most of whom were on the phone or had left commission bids in any case. One wag even noted that there were more active phones than bidders in the room at these auctions. The Internet even played its part in an ever more active role, although Internet bidders were never the winners on major lots.

At Swann the results for its Valentine's Day, February 14th morning auction of 100 Fine Photographs (actually 109 when you counted all the extra lettered lots and excess of 100 then subtract "no lot" indications) almost pushed the totals (including its now higher 20% buyer's premium) above the million dollar mark at $928,901 with a reported 85% sell-through rate. Quite a respectable effort considering the less expensive material and poor weather conditions. There were, however, few real bargains, despite the weather and somewhat mixed bag of material. Because there were not as many higher-priced items at Swann, I will only cover the top ten.

The first lot of consequence (lot 14) was a broken group of Camera Work issues. Estimated at $60,000-90,000, the lot hammered down to a collector on the phone for $50,000, plus $10,000 commission. The only competition was another phone and the reserve. The lot tied for first place in this auction.

The rest of the prices will include the 20% buyer's premium (I should really start calling these "auction commissions" because they are the one's that pocket this money).

Dealer Spencer Throckmorton picked up lot 20, Tina Modotti's 'Demonstrations by Campesinos, Mexico', c.1928 for $21,600, which was good enough for seventh place in the top ten. He called this one in from the comfort of his New York gallery and outbid a commission bidder. It seemed a decent bargain at this price.

Lot 26, the Drtikol nude pigment print, was bought in at $12,000 (estimate $20,000-30,000) despite some interest prior to the auction, although some felt that it wasn't "modernist" enough, and I saw some minor condition problems with the pigment and an even more minor tear. Still, it probably would have sold at a different time.

Berenice Abbott did more than ok here. After her 'New York at Night' sold to a collector on the phone for well over estimate at $10,800, Abbott's 'El 2nd and 3rd Avenue Lines' (lot 38) from 1936 became a tug of war between collector Michael Mattis and a phone bidder. Estimated at $7,000-10,000, Mattis had to pay $15,600 in order to wrest it away. That price put the lot into tenth place in this auction.

The next lot, Abbott's New York portfolio with 12 silver prints, New York, 1979, sold to a collector on the phone for just under the low estimate at $28,800, placing the lot into sixth place.

Lot 48A (one of those additions to the 100), André Kertész's 'Behind the Hotel de Ville', a circa 1930's print was estimated at a very tempting $15,000-25,000. Both I and Paris dealer Serge Plantureux felt it should sell for about $30,000-35,000, but never underestimate the lure of an auction. In the room collector Stephen Stein bid up a persistent phone bidder, who turned out to be a dealer. This dealer finally outbid Stein at $60,000, pushing the price for the lot into a tie for first place here at Swann. Swann, in an attempt to curry publicity, called the price a "world record" for a 1930s Kertész print, but this is just plain silly; otherwise one could start saying EVERY print is a record.

I believe that the same dealer then picked up the next lot, Margaret Bourke-White's 1930 print 'Standard Oil of Ohio', for $19,200--a far cry from the estimate of $6,000-9,000. The price pushed this lot into the top ten as well, at eighth place.

Lot 62A (another of those lettered lots), Henri Cartier-Bresson's "Valencia" in a print from circa 1950 (contrary to the catalogue's 1960s notation), was a true aberration in these auctions: all the action was in the room! Collectors Michael Mattis and Stephen Stein blew by the meager estimate of $7,000-10,000. Mattis ultimately stole the print at $33,600--an incredibly low price for such an early Cartier-Bresson of such a well-known image. Frankly if it were not for the two particular collectors bidding it up, at least two photo dealers in the room would have gone higher on the lot, which did make it to fifth place in the top ten of the sale. Oddly enough, Swann again claimed a world record for this individual image (certainly not for Cartier-Bresson). Stop doing that please, Swann. It is annoying and really is not meaningful.

What was a genuine world auction record was lot 81, Jack Smith's 'The Beautiful Book', with 19 tipped-in black-and-white photographs. French dealer Serge Platureux took a frustrating run at the lot, which was estimated at $15,000-25,000. But another dealer on the phone took it away at $40,800, which put the lot into third place in the top ten.

The always ubiquitous print of Alfred Eisenstaedt's 'Children at a Puppet Theatre' from 1963 but printed in 1995 in a very large edition of 250 sold to a collector on the phone for well over the high estimate at $38,400. That pushed the lot into fourth place here at Swann. No dealer in his or her right mind would pay this much for such a print in such a large edition, unless they had a client willing to pay more, even though it is a cute picture.

From here we trekked over to Rock Center and Christie's.

(Next Issue: Results at the Two Christie's Sales)