Sotheby's three spring sales of Photographs in New York on April 7 and 8 totaled $17,302,050 on estimates of $9-14 million. Though Sotheby's press office claimed "with each sale far exceeding its individual high estimate," in fact, as the estimates do not include the premium, the total was very close to the high estimate--still impressive nonetheless.
The season was highlighted by two single-owner sales: "The Quillan Collection of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Photographs", which brought $8,901,350 ($4.5–7 million), and "Edward Weston's Gifts to His Sister and Other Photographs", which achieved $1,530,375 ($900,000–1.4 million). A various-owners sale of photographs also performed strongly, realizing $6,870,325 ($3.6–5.6 million). Records were set across the three sales for a total of 25 artists at auction.
Sotheby's led off with an evening sale of "The Quillan Collection", the 69-print group of rare and unique images, assembled by Jill Quasha, a private photography dealer/consultant who specializes in building both public and private collections, on behalf of what ostensibly was the Quillan Company, an investment group. One lot, a photogram of a leaf originally attributed to Talbot here, was the subject of speculation that it could actually be an even earlier work, and was withdrawn for "further study" (more on that in a later issue).
Quasha amassed the collection essentially over two years, from 1988–90, acquiring work from 16 different dealers and a few auctions, and the collection was published as a catalogue in 1991. Yet like the elusive great white shark in Jaws, one got only a few glimpses of parts of it over the years as individual pictures were loaned to various exhibitions. But the collection as a whole had never been seen together until the exciting climax--that is, until the auction preview.
The room was packed and expectant as the sale began. The hard part for yours truly is where to draw the line on which lots to report on. I'll be slightly judicious. Peter MacGill lit up the field for Walker Evans's Candle Shop, New York City ($50,000–$70,000) at $133,000. The cover lot, Imogen Cunningham's Banana Plant, went to a phone bidder under the low estimate at $73,000.
A phone bidder, L0049, who would prove to be very active, grabbed Jaromír Funke's Kompozice (Composition) ($60,000–$90,000) at $193,000. Dealer Robert Koch was the underbidder. Next L0049 bested Howard Greenberg for Paul Outerbridge, Jr.'s Eggs and Bowl ($70,000–$100,000), paying $151,000 for this breakfast.
A lush platinum print by Paul Strand of his wife Rebecca ($600,000–$900,000), one of only two known prints, was reportedly a disappointment to Quasha as it sold below estimate for "only" $645,800, to Peter MacGill, this time consulting with a client on a cell phone. Still it was a record for the artist at auction and the second highest price of the sale. Howard Greenberg picked up Atget's French prostitute, Versailles, Maison Close, Petite Place ($80,000–$120,000) for $115,000, over the bid of Eliot Spitzer. (Oooh, just kidding!)
L0049 made peace with Curtis's Chief Joseph ($50,000–$80,000) for $169,000, an auction record. Jeffrey Fraenkel entered the bidding for August Sander's Werkstudenten, 1926 ($150,000–$250,000) at $290,000 but he finally yielded to a phone bidder at $493,000, the third highest price of the evening and an auction record. Collector Jack Hastings made a play for Henry Peach Robinson's She Never Told Her Love, but he too was outbid on the phones at $169,000, an auction record for Robinson.
Christian Schad's unique photogram, Renseignements ($200,000–$300,000), sold for $181,000. Art consultant Parker Stevenson took Hans Bellmer's La Poupée for $325,000, another auction record and fifth on the top ten. L0049 climbed the stairs for Tina Modotti's Stadio a Cittá del Messico (Stadium, Mexico City) ($150,000–$200,000) at $145,000.
Lot 19 was Edward Weston's Nude, 1925, of Miriam Lerner ($600,000–$900,000). The abstract form is similar to some of his cloud studies and this early print--one of three extant--represents a turning point in his career. After a protracted battle, Peter MacGill finally claimed the prize at $1,609,000 to a round of applause. It was the top lot of the sale and of course a new auction record for Weston.
Bill Brandt's Van Gogh's Room in the Asylum of St. Paul-de-Mausole (St. Rémy) ($50,000–$70,000), 1950, was one of the most personal choices in the collection and represents Quasha's ability to find significant pictures by artists other than their best known hits. Here her intuition paid off as L0049 paid an arm and a leg--if not an ear: $265,000. Yes, it was another auction record and number nine on the top ten.
Robert Koch made a play for Lewis Carroll's Alexandra Kitchin ($80,000–$120,000), but it went to the phones for $133,000. An early print of Robert Frank's Mississippi River ($50,000–$70,000) attracted a lot of attention. Clemens Vedder of Berlin's Camera Work Gallery went to $100,000, Jack Hastings upped that to $110,000, but ultimately Jeffrey Fraenkel held off a phone bidder at $205,000.
L0049 roped Garry Winogrand's iconic Wyoming, the picture of a steer on the road as seen through a car windshield, for $37,000, not a top price in the sale, but still more than three times the high estimate. Howard Greenberg feared no evil--or other bidders--as he captured Roger Fenton's Valley of the Shadow of Death for $157,000, probably for a client, as he was consulting on his cell phone.
Next came an epic battle reminiscent of the final round of the first Rocky movie. Richard Avedon's Marilyn Monroe, from an edition of four in this size, was the prize. Each blow seemed to land in slow motion, as auctioneer Denise Bethel--for some reason--proceeded in increments of $10,000. As she paused for a moment amidst the escalating price she remarked, "I'm doing my deep breathing." So was everyone else. Unlike Apollo Creed, however, the upstart won here, as Robert Klein out-pointed Jeffrey Fraenkel at $457,000, number four in the sale and the sixth of seven record prices among the top ten.
By the way, we're not yet halfway through this sale.
A phone bidder danced off with Edward Steichen's Charlie Chaplin for $91,000, just under low estimate. Peter MacGill, again on the phone, almost tripled the high estimate for Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Still #53, 1980, at $313,000, number six for the sale. Dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel, who represents the Arbus estate, walked down the aisle with Diane Arbus's A Flower Girl at a Wedding at $79,000, but this was one print that had little action and the price was just under low estimate.
L0049 matched the high estimate and set the last of the auction records among the top ten, paying $301,000 for Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's Photogram, 1920s (seventh place). A phone bidder drifted off with Gustave Le Gray's Cloud Study, Sète, for $109,000, under low estimate. Then L0049 got a bargain as a vintage print of André Kertész's Mondrian's Pipe and Glasses went for only $121,000, two-thirds of the low estimate.
Dorothea Lange's San Francisco Waterfront, 1933 ($50,000–$70,000), was another case like the Brandt where Quasha found a rare, early print that is not among Lange's best-known images but well represents her photographic ethos. The bidders agreed as it sold for $289,000 (eighth place) to the phone.
A vintage silver print of an Irving Penn New York Still Life, 1947, seemed a bit underestimated at $10,000-$15,000. It went to the phone for $61,000. Robert Koch bought Josef Sudek's pigment print Konvalinka (Lily of the Valley) over estimate at $58,600. Robert Klein got his second lot, Timothy O'Sullivan's Ancient Ruins in the Cañon de Chelle ($15,000–$25,000), for $91,000, an auction record for O'Sullivan. The same phone bidder who took the Lange, climbed to $265,000 (tied for ninth place), within estimate, for Carleton E. Watkins's Tasayac, Half Dome from Glacier Point, Yosemite.
L0049 topped the estimates for two more prints: Charles Marville's Paris: La Bièvre entre les rues Pascal et Cochin at $103,000 and Iller's half-plate daguerreotype, Vue du Palais de San Donato at $58,600. Both were auction records. L0049 ended up purchasing 15 lots for a total of $1,757,400--second in dollar value only to Peter MacGill. And the last major lot, Frantisek Drtikol's Composition, a pigment print nude, went to Robert Koch at $61,000.
The sale set records for 18 artists at auction, including--in addition to those noted above--Adam Clark Vroman, Louis de Clerq, Francis Bruguiére, Francis Frith and William Henry Jackson.
The evening was a success--a huge success, but not, as I almost wrote, an unqualified success. There were a few qualifications. Undoubtedly, the return over 18 to 20 years was quite good for numerous prints: very probably the Weston, certainly the Sherman, and no doubt many others.
But there were four prints bought at auction that we can track. Cunningham's Bananas sold at Sotheby's in April 1989 for $23,100. It hammered at $60,000 now. We'll give the benefit of the doubt here and say that there was no seller's premium for this sale. Thus the compound return was 5.25%--perhaps adequate for a retiree seeking a safe investment, but not indicative of the go-go economy of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
A large-format gravure of Stieglitz's The Steerage sold at Swann in October 1989 for $7,260. Here it hammered for $26,000, a slightly better 7.1% return. The Moholy-Nagy Photogram was the first print in the collection. In the interview in the back of the catalogue it's listed as being acquired in 1989, but it is listed correctly on the catalogue page as being acquired at Sotheby's in November 1988--for $49,500. It hammered here for $250,000, a more palatable 8.7% return, but still far below many mutual funds in this era. And lastly, Steichen's Charlie Chaplin was bought at Sotheby's in October 1989 for $52,800 and hammered here for $75,000, a meager 1.96% return.
The New York Times reported that it cost about $2 million to acquire the collection. If that figure is true--and it is reasonable--the compound return for the entire collection was just under 7.2%. Even if you added in the low estimate for the few lots that passed (another $80,000), it would change that rate by less than one-tenth of a point. And even if the Leaf sold for $1 million (value implied by Sotheby's price on request notation), the return would still be less than 8%. True, the $2 million figure could be somewhat high, but this is much less than the photography market as a whole grew during this period, and it shows that buying closer to the top of the market does not necessarily carry with it the best long-term monetary rewards.
There is one other issue that was on many people's minds, but that Sotheby's--and Quasha--tried to downplay, if not avoid altogether: that is, what exactly was this Quillan Company? When the collection was put together and the original book/catalogue was published, there was no internet. But by the time of the auction interested parties could easily google "Quillan Company" and find that there seemed to be no such entity. Questions arose as to what this "company" actually was. Did it manufacture something, provide a service, or might it just be a consortium of collectors (this latter choice not an unusual enterprise these days)? When I spoke to Quasha on the phone and asked her straightforwardly about the nature of Quillan, she was uncharacteristically defensive, saying that it was a consortium of collectors, that she was just the agent and had no ownership interest, but also that my question was "ridiculous."
Unfortunately, this lack of transparency led to speculation, rumor, and hard feelings. Several people asked me to investigate what the Quillan Company was. Others deciphered the name Quillan as a portmanteau of the names Quasha, Jill, and her brother Alan: QU(asha)(j)ILL(al)AN. More than a few decided that Alan must be the sole or primary owner, or that Quillan was really jointly owned by Jill and her brother.
Certainly Alan Quasha is a problematic figure to many. He is the controversial financier who bailed out George W. Bush's failing oil company in 1986, folding it into his own company, Harken Energy. His reputed ties to U.S. and foreign intelligence communities, his labyrinthine business dealings, and his reported support of both Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney in the recent election primary campaigns have been grist for the political press. There is much more, but you can do your own research on Alan Quasha and Harken Energy. And it did not help that the Quillan Company was registered in the British Virgin Islands.
There were those who found some of the high prices suspect and questioned if some of the phone bidders were legitimate collectors, or bidders with more political intentions. And surprisingly, several people were harshly bitter because Quillan was presented as having the façade of a real company.
While I understand how people can get angry at the perception that they were misled, in Jill Quasha's defense I will say that no dealer I talked to reported that she had ever asked for a discount or special consideration in putting together the collection, including Edwynn Houk, who sold her 14 prints, more than any other dealer.
(Copyright ©2008 by The Photograph Collector.)
My thanks to Steve Perloff and The Photograph Collector Newsletter for giving me permission to use this information. The Photograph Collector, which is a wonderful newsletter that I can heartily recommend, is published monthly and is available by subscription for $149.95. You can phone 1-215-891-0214 and charge your subscription or send a check or money order to: The Photograph Collector, 140 East Richardson Ave, Langhorne, PA 19047. Or to order The Photograph Collector Newsletter online, go to: http://www.photoreview.org/wordpressindex/shop/.