Issue #139  1/3/2008
Sotheby's Nancy Richardson Sale Takes in $1-3/4 Million, With Only 12.5% Buy-Ins

By Alex Novak

My apologies for such a long wait for the rest of the fall New York auction schedule. Preparation and exhibition at AIPAD Photography Miami and Photo LA have taken up most of my attention and time (and still do), not to mention the holidays.

Going back to the Oct 31st newsletter, Sotheby's had record-breaking results with its multi-owner photography sale. We reported then on the front-loaded evening sale portion of this auction. Now we will report on Nancy Richardson's single-owner sale and the daytime portion of the multi-owner sale at Sotheby's. Remember that this is the first time that Sotheby's and Christie's had put in their new nose-bleed-high buyer's fees--a very steep 25% premium on the first $25,000, 20% premium from there until $500,000, and only from then on the more modest 12%. The prices below reflect those new fees. I will generally only include lots that hit $40,000 or over at these two sales, although the average cost per lot was a lot lower on these two portions of Sotheby's fall action than its Monday evening sale. And, just to remind everyone, that, yes, most of the photography market is well below this mark and you can buy excellent images at much more reasonable prices, especially from the many photography dealers servicing the art photography community.

While Sotheby's Charles Moffett wrote glowingly about Nancy Richardson's eye and courage concerning the images in the collection, what he and Sotheby's didn't mention was the tabloid stories swirling around the blonde Manhattan socialite and Frank Richardson, who had just fought a very public, messy and contentious divorce. Both the New York Post and New York Daily News, as well as the British tabloid press, had a field day with the allegations of infidelity (her Wall Street financier ex-husband Frank was alleged to have had an affair with Kimba Wood, a U.S. District Court judge and ex-Playboy bunny in training, whom he married after the divorce was final), of Nancy's $350,000 a year clothing allowance and an equal amount for six mental health professionals, and of her husband's secret and spicy diaries and his "rage disorders". At one point Richardson even allegedly hinted that her husband might have had an affair with Jackie O. The divorce settlement was estimated in some corners as upward of $80 million. Now aren't you happy you bid in this auction to support poor old Nancy in her time of trouble and old age?

The images themselves were certainly as interesting as the source of them. The results were a bit erratic with some lots doing spectacularly and others doing as expected or considerably worse. Overall the sale brought in $1,759,351, including that outrageously higher buyer's fee. The sell-through rate was strong at 87.5% of the lots. Many were scooped up by photo dealers, either for stock or clients. New York City photo gallery owners Howard Greenberg and Bruce Silverstein were both very active here. The material in this sale was mostly vintage American (with a couple of European images thrown in for good measure) experimental work from the 1930s-60s that is currently being reevaluated and seeing higher prices. What was interesting was how much space Sotheby's devoted to rather low priced images, often giving two pages to individual items that sold for well under $10,000. I am sure the additional space did result in higher attention and sometimes in higher amounts being bid, but it was a departure from some of Sotheby's past catalogues.

While the evening sale had a more substantial crowd, the next morning's sessions started off with well over 50 bidders in attendance, but this dwindled down to below 30 in the afternoon. The Richardson sale was first up.

A commission bid by a collector fought off the room and the phone to take home lot 46, Aaron Siskind's Ironwork, New York City. This work was somewhat reminiscent of a Karl Blossfeldt plant image. The $73,000 final price (estimate $20,000-30,000) doubled the high estimate and set a world auction record for the artist. The price was good enough for fourth place overall in this sale. Oddly enough this was not my favorite Siskind by a long shot, although I could see why it might be sought after by some. Early Siskind prints are finally getting some of the due respect that they deserve.

The same commission bidder picked off the next lot, a similar Siskind, but for only $29,800, or about midway in the estimate range. This bidder then took an excellent Harry Callahan (lot 49, Chicago, Wall with Paint Drips) for $44,200 over the bidding of New York contemporary art dealer Jude Ahern.

San Francisco dealer Michael Shapiro battled off bids from the front of the room to take lot 53, an Aaron Siskind "Kentucky 15 (Paint on Blistered Paint), for double the midpoint of the estimate at $61,000. It appeared to be a strong print and the price put it in sixth place in this sale.

Collector Gary Davis, sitting at NYC dealer Howard Greenberg's side, bid up lot 55, Aaron Siskind's Harlan, KY 4 (Letter Composition), to well above the high estimate at $49,000. It was a strong Siskind image and print that sold at a relatively reasonable price--one of my favorites in the sale. The price propelled the lot into a tie for tenth place.

A very nice Harry Callahan print of Eleanor, Lake Michigan (lot 59) was purchased by a phone bidder who had to fend off first Lee Marks and then Peter MacGill, who jumped the bid but still couldn't shake this phone bidder, who got the piece at $39,400. That was more than twice the high estimate.

Usually when a lot sells for $181,000 and is the highest selling lot in the sale, it is thought to have done well. But this successful six-figure bid on lot 63, Herbert Bayer's "Metamorphosis", could be deemed a disaster for Richardson, given what she had paid for it eight years before from a Christie's New York auction. The piece was sold to Richardson at the fall 1999 sale for $239,000 and was only eclipsed at the time by Bayer's "Lonely Metropolitan at $266,500. Swiss mega-dealer Kaspar Fleischmann of Galerie Zur Stockeregg was the consignor at that time. The work is an original (and therefore unique) photomontage from 1936. A commission bid by a private collector took the lot at what is a steal in today's marketplace. The image is highly important and iconic and should have easily gone into the higher part of Sotheby's estimate range ($250,000-350,000). It appeared to have merely gone for the very low reserve, a true bargain in the best sense.

A huge, mural-sized Adam Fuss photogram of water drops (lot 68) nearly doubled its low estimate and sold to a private collector's commission bid for a whopping $58,600, which put it into seventh place in this auction.

I remember when I could have bought Livia by Frederick Sommer for well under $9,000. Lot 70 was a very nice print of this image, although printed probably later in the 1970s. It was estimated at a fairly steep $40,000-60,000, but that wasn't a barrier at all, as the print sold to a private collector in the room for $85,000, which set a new world's record for the artist at auction and put the lot into third place overall in the sale. Great image and print, but it sure seemed a bit high to me. The same collector picked up lot 73, a superb print of Harry Callahan's Port Huron, MI, for $41,800, which was again well over estimate.

Lot 71, Pierre Dubreuil's "Le Premier Round", went for below the low estimate with a phone bidder trumping, I believe, Howard Greenberg on the lot at $169,000, which put it into second place. While that was more than Richardson had paid in April 1998 at Christie's ($112,500), it was well under the $216,000 that Sotheby's sold it for just two years prior (and with a lower buyer's fee). I have always felt that Tom Jacobson and Rick Wester had done a superb job of convincing the market that these images by Dubreuil were not pictorialist but modernist. As a pictorialist, Dubreuil's images wouldn't sell for a tenth of what they do. Actually that is a shame, as there are some excellent pictorialist images going begging. It may be an opportunity for a savvy collector.

North Carolina collector Julian Baker took on the room and in the end fended off a late challenge by fellow collector Stephen Stein to take lot 74, a late print of Frederick Sommer's Arizona Landscape, for $56,200, which put the lot into eighth place overall.

Frederick Sommer's Smoke on Glass abstraction (lot 77) got a lot of action. Estimated at only $15,000-25,000, this very strong print soared upward to double the mid-range of that estimate and sold to New York City dealer Deborah Bell for $49,000, which put it in a three-way tie for tenth place in the sale.

The Josef Sudek pigment prints mostly sold about mid-range in the estimates with one phone bidder taking all three in the sale--lot 81 for $11,250, lot 82 for $39,400 and lot 85 for $49,000. The latter price put that lot into the same three-way tie for tenth place.

Lot 92 had three very annoying and prominent chemical spots in the center and at the bottom of the photograph, which was otherwise an excellent print of a staircase by Eugene Atget. Estimated right on the money at $25,000-35,000, the print inexplicably took off with a phone bidder and San Francisco dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel pushing it up well past the high estimate. The phone finally "won" the lot at $67,000, which put it into fifth place overall. It isn't the first time that Atget's have taken off. This summer's Millon auction in Paris saw Atget prints selling for over 50 times the estimate in one case. Must be something in the water.

And, finally, lots 101 and 102, two oversized Robert Frank montages, sold for $39,400 each, with Frank dealer Peter MacGill buying the first and then underbidding the second to the phone.

Then, after a brief pause, it was back to the regular multi-owner sale portion of the auction, which I will report on in the next newsletter shortly.