Issue #147  8/4/2008
Christie's Sale of Ansel Adams Collection Brings in $4,678,000, But Who Will It Go to?

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector

Christie's sale of Photographs by Ansel Adams from a California Collection, which contained numerous mural-sized prints in varying conditions, realized $4,678,000 with only 11% bought-in (though there might have been fewer buy-ins with slightly less aggressive estimates). While the catalogue reproduced correspondence between Adams and the corporation that bought his photographs, Christie's whited out any reference to the corporation. Talk about walking around with a scarlet A! The works were from the collection of Fremont Indemnity, which collapsed amid California's workers' compensation mess and was put under the operational control of the California Department of Insurance in 2003. Fremont is now in liquidation, and according to sources, Fremont transferred the pictures from a subsidiary that was in receivership to a dummy corporation and under court order the receipts of the sale were to be put into escrow until a final legal determination could be made on ownership.

Molly DeFrank, deputy press secretary for the California Office of Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, told us, "The Department of Insurance is actively pursuing the recovery of the proceeds from the sale of the art. There is currently a legal proceeding in place in the California Superior Court to determine where the proceeds will go. Because this is an ongoing legal matter, I cannot provide further detail at this time." This statement certainly doesn't contradict the scenario above.

As mentioned, the prints were in varying conditions, some because they were not quite up to Adams's best standards of printing, some because they had been displayed for many years without UV glass. Yet a few of the prints were spectacular. Nonetheless, it seems that some buyers did not undertake due diligence as the bidding did not always reflect the quality of the work. I wonder how many of the phone or internet buyers actually saw the prints or even the condition reports.

It seemed like half the audience for this sale was new, but slightly older. Bidding was active with about one-third of the pictures selling in the room and the rest on the phones, by order, or to the internet. The major bidders in the room were James Alinder and Howard Greenberg, but Santa Fe dealer Andy Smith was elsewhere in the building and on the phone.

A mural print of Adams's Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite, 1944 ($250,000–$350,000) topped the sale at $481,000. It went to the phone over James Alinder, though frankly, it seemed slightly grayer than Adams's best prints and had a few bubbles in the mounting. (All of the top ten were mural prints.) Alinder got the second highest lot of the sale though, Bridal Veil Fall, Yosemite Valley, 1927 ($150,000–$250,000) at $277,000. He also bested the phone and dealer Richard Morehouse for number three, Aspens, Northern New Mexico, 1958 ($150,000–$250,000) at $241,000.

Tenaya Creek, Dogwood, Rain, Yosemite Valley, 1948 ($50,000–$70,000) went to a phone bidder for $205,000, as did Lake Precipice, Frozen Lake and Cliffs, Kaweah Gap, Sierra Nevada, 1932 ($90,000–$120,000) at $193,000. Alinder was the underbidder on Portfolio VII ($80,000–$120,000), which went to the phones for $157,000.

Tenaya Lake, Yosemite National Park, California, 1946 ($60,000–$80,000) brought $145,000 from yet another phone bidder, while Half Dome, Merced River, Winter, Yosemite Valley, California, 1938 ($70,000–$90,000) sold to the back of the room for $115,000. Howard Greenberg took Vernal Fall, Yosemite Valley, 1948 ($70,000–$90,000) for the same price.

Clouds and Hills, Northern California, 1940s ($50,000–$70,000) went for $109,000 to the same phone bidder who took Tenaya Creek, Dogwood, Rain. That bidder also got the portfolio, Pamelian Prints of the High Sierras, ($80,000–$120,000) for $97,000 and Thunderstorm, Yosemite Valley ($50,000–$70,000) for $79,000.

Perhaps the most confounding result was lot 1066, a signed collotype print of Moonrise, aggressively estimated at $20,000–$30,000. It sold to the phone for $39,400. This is essentially a very fine, limited-edition poster. It was published by G. Ray Hawkins in the early 1970s. Made by Black Box Collotype of Chicago, without text, the image was printed on a heavy Rives BFK paper in an edition of 50 or 55. Adams signed them at the opening. They sold out in two weeks. Still, the bidder--and underbidder--either didn't realize the difference or suffered from irrational exuberance.

As mentioned, Andy Smith was active on the phone, walking away with seven lots totaling $72,500. Alinder, on the other hand, spent $696,375 on his nine lots. A further unidentified bidder on the phone also bought 19 lots totaling $300,775.

Other successful bidders in the sale--at varying levels--included: California dealer Carol Williams, bidding on the phone, who took a 16 x20 in. Moonrise ($25,000–$35,000) at $49,000; collectors David Runtz and Christopher Luce, and dealers Andy Cowan, Robert Mann and Stephen Reinhold.

Totaling an extraordinary $17,608,525 for the five photography oriented sales, the highest total in auction history for the category, Christie's just edged out Sotheby's for the season's overall crown, although at a much lower price per lot.

According to Christie's press office, Philippe Garner, international head of photographs and Joshua Holdeman, international director of photographs, said, "The Christie's photographs department is delighted by the spectacular results achieved this week. We are pleased by the overwhelming response from collectors worldwide and their sustained appreciation for the diversity of the works presented. With these sales the breadth and scope of the market has been brought to new levels, and new auction records were set for numerous photographers, including notably Irving Penn, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and William Eggleston." (I always picture them as a doo-wop duo. How else do they say exactly the same thing at the same time?)

(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/.