Issue #147  8/4/2008
Phillips Single-Owner Sales Hit Some Bumps

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector

After the successful Sotheby's spring sales, Phillips de Pury, on the other hand, suffered one setback after another. Its highly touted sale of Diane Arbus photographs of Hubert's Museum--a Times Square freak show and flea circus--scheduled for the evening of April 8 was pulled at the last minute. The work was consigned by Philadelphia book dealer Robert Langmuir, who had bought it from Bayo Ogunsanya, a Brooklyn collector of African-Americana, who had himself originally purchased the material from a sale of unclaimed items from a Bronx storage facility in 2002. Langmuir first purchased a few photographs and other material from Ogunsanya in 2003, found Arbus's hand-written address and phone number in a notebook, did some research and realized the historic value of the material. He went back and convinced Ogunsanya to sell him the rest of the photographs and archive for $3,500.

Ogunsanya is now suing Langmuir, claiming he was duped into selling the photographs for a fraction of their value. The suit relies heavily on a supposed verbal promise by Langmuir to give Ogunsanya additional compensation if the photographs turned out to be worth more than the $3,500 he paid. (The whole story of the find, of Langmuir's battle with depression and drinking--and his salvation, one might say--as well as the machinations of the dark side of the art world, in Langmuir's dealings with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Arbus estate, among others, is brilliantly told in Gregory Gibson's recent book, Hubert's Freaks: The Rare-Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus (Harcourt Publishers, 2008, $24.00).

Online, Ogunsanya has many detractors, allegedly for his record of shady dealings. No doubt he has seller's remorse for not doing the research that Langmuir did. And we all know the old saw: "A verbal agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on." Certainly some states have laws enforcing verbal agreements where there is proof, like corroborating witnesses. Otherwise, as in this case, it's just a matter of he said-he said. Langmuir's lawyers have called the suit "frivolous." I'm not sure there is much merit to the argument that there should be compensation in a private transaction between an ignorant seller and an informed buyer.

While the New York Times reported the sale was pulled because of the lawsuit, this appears to be incorrect. Phillips is not named in the suit nor was there any court order to stop the sale. Phillips claimed the entire collection was in the process of being sold to a single buyer (an outcome that may yet come to pass, but has not of this writing), but a more likely explanation was that there was little to no interest in the pictures at the over-inflated estimates Phillips was asking ($20,000–$30,000 to $80,000–$120,000). There are a handful of interesting pictures that show the beginnings of Arbus's mature style, but most of the works are snapshots, or incunabula at best, and many have condition problems.

Lastly, word is that Phillips guaranteed this sale, though no firm figure has been mentioned. That would be yet another blow to Phillips's bottom line, if it proved to be true.

Phillips also took a flyer on the collection of Corbeau and Renard assembled by Gerd Sander. The sale was brokered by Prischka Pasquer, who reportedly secured a $10 million guarantee for Sander. Why Phillips, which had been carving out a niche for itself with contemporary work, thought they could sell the early and modernist European work here, when it is a stretch often even at Sotheby's and Christie's, is a mystery.

Only five of the first 23 lots sold before the Werner Mantz portfolio 10 Photographien brought its high estimate of $37,000. August Sander's Painter Heinrich Hoerle, 1928 ($150,000–$250,000) was the most important lot on offer. Although it hammered below its low estimate at $130,000--$157,000 with premium--it was the top lot of the sale. It sold to a phone bidder, who turned out to be collector Michael Mattis, stuck in traffic before he could finally get to the sale. But two other Sanders passed, one at less than one-third of its low estimate. And the Wols portfolio, Photograms ($100,000–$150,000), passed at $78,000.

Hans Bellmer's Komposition ($40,000–$60,000) brought $46,600 from the phone, but a hand-colored image from Les Jeux de la poupée passed. The abstract Paris II by Jaroslav Rössler doubled its high estimate at $29,800, and Rössler's Abstract Komposition ($10,000–$15,000) sold for a healthy $44,200 to Parker Stevenson.

A phone bidder bested Robert Koch for Josef Sudek's pigment print, Glass and Egg ($30,000–$50,000), at $79,000, then held out over Howard Greenberg, Ute Hartjen, and Koch for Sudek's White rosebud ($10,000–$15,000) at $35,800.

Two Drtikols, Torso and Composition, both sold below low estimate, at $67,000 and $41,800 respectively. Philadelphia collector Fred Denenberg snagged Drtikol's Nude Study, Prague at $32,200. Robert Koch finally snared a prize as he almost doubled the high estimate for Jaromír Funke's Light Abstraction at $67,000. And lastly, a phone bidder almost doubled the high estimate for Lisette Model's First Reflection, NYC at $35,800. The sale totaled $1,529,850 with a buy-in rate over 50%. The rest of the collection was sold in London at Phillips's new auction facilities a month later.

(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/.