Issue #152  11/10/2008
Swann Photo Auction Sells Nearly $1.56 Million, With 73% Of Lots Sold

By Alex Novak

Since I had given my readers an overview and analysis of the Fall auctions (see: http://www.iphotocentral.com/news/article_view.php/159/150/893 ) with the exception of Swann, which was held the week after that report, I thought I would give you the details of that latter sale. Swann's results weren't a lot different than most of this house's previous sales. The auction brought in a total of $1,558,921, and Swann sold 283 lots or 72.6% of the lots in the sale (although Swann's own P.R. department incorrectly put total sales at only $1,486,440 and put the percentage of sales at only 67.4%!).

How Swann got to that figure though was a bit different than in past auctions where one or two high priced lots boosted them over the top. This time out the material was more evenly priced, but the consistent mid-level material did well enough to garner nearly identical financial results, which meant that Swann probably made out better on the bottom line due to higher seller premiums. Consignors of very high-priced items at auction rarely get charged seller premiums and, even if they do, those charges are usually well under the percentage cost for more modest lots. The level of work here was also notably more consistent and of higher quality than in many past sales (and certainly better than at least two of its competitors), which again puts to rest the notion that only the highest priced items sell and lower priced item don't. When material is interesting and well priced, it tends to sell at every level.

The one thing that seemed pretty clear though was that instead of many multiple bidders, many items were receiving only bids from one or two people, who often bid against just the reserves (the price that the seller sets as their lowest acceptable price). There were certainly plenty of exceptions, but this was a general change that was quite noticeable here (as it was at several of the earlier auctions this Fall).

I will largely keep my lot reports limited to those that went for $14,400 or above (including buyer's premiums; here they are 20%), which meant that with ties these were the lots in Swann's Top Ten.

Lot 20, Timothy O'Sullivan's "Ancient Ruins in the Canyon de Chelle, NM", was one of the exceptions to my rule of multiple bidders. Several phones and private photo dealer Charles Isaacs competed fiercely, but one collector on the phone prevailed at $24,000 against an estimate of $15,000-25,000. That made it a tie for fifth place in this sale.

Lot 24, Felix Beato's group of 75 rare Japanese landscapes, sold to a collector for $24,000, again a tie for fifth place. This was a very nice group and might have gotten much more at auction in previous seasons. Instead it looked like it just made its reserve.

A collector on the phone beat out a commission bidder on lot 31, Marc Ferrez's album containing 68 original photographs of Brazil, although the stubborn phone bidder needed to go to $48,000 (against an estimate of $25,000-35,000) to win this lot. That made the lot the highest priced item in the sale.

Except for a commission bidder (and one internet bidder), most of the Edward Curtis images that sold went to one phone bidder, who was a dealer and who picked up lots 35-40 and 42. Lot 37 was a great Orotone of "Chief of the Desert, Navajo", which had several phones working as it climbed well past its high estimate, ultimately selling to the dealer on the phone at a still very reasonable $16,800, which put the lot into eighth place overall.

Lot 57, an Edward Weston/Margrethe Mather platinum-palladium print of "The Marion Morgan Dancers", from about 1921, sold to a dealer who left a commission bid versus one bidder in the room. It hammered for well under its estimate range of ($40,000-60,000), although--with premium--it brought a total of $43,200, which put it into second place here at Swann. Oddly this was a print that went unsold almost exactly three years ago at Sotheby's New York, when it was bought in at $34,000. In other words, the reserve price was the same here at Swann in a tougher market, but this time the photograph made just a bit over that reserve. Frankly, it is a beautiful image and print, even though Edward Weston's pictorialist work is out of favor at the moment. Fourteen years ago the photograph sold at Christie's for $41,400.

Two Tina Modotti lots of platinum prints went for $14,400 each to a commission bidder, who turned out to be dealer Spencer Throckmorton. Lot 60, Modotti's "Maria Marin de Orozco", went for the low estimate, which appeared to be the actual reserve! Likewise, Lot 63, the late-printed Tina Modotti/Ava Vargas group of four photographs from the "Tina Modotti" portfolio, sold for its low estimate, which again appeared to be the reserve. Both were part of a six-way tie for tenth place in this auction.

One of Swann's disappoints was lot 65, Edward Weston's "Nude (Miriam Lerner: Hands and Torso)", which bought in at $24,000, against an estimate of $30,000-45,000. There were lots of condition problems with this print though, even if the reserve price was very tempting as these kinds of vintage Weston images go.

A collector at the back of the room outbid the phone bank on lot 79, Walker Evans's "Sidewalk in Vicksburg, MI", as the later-printed photo soared well over its high estimate to $18,000, which pushed the lot into eighth place here.

Lot 88, Dorothea Lange's "Ex-Slave with a Long Memory, AL", 1937, reportedly printed in the 1950s, went for $19,200 to a commission bid from a collector. The price was just over the low estimate and pushed the lot into a tie for sixth place.

Ten lots later, Roman Vishniac's "The Vanished World" portfolio set a new auction record for the portfolio of $38,400. It went to a commission bidder who was a collector, and it was the third highest price in the auction.

The phone and commission bids that were left with Swann scooped up Walker Evans's Havana images. Lot 109, Walker Evans's Produce Trucks in a Market in Havana, went to a commission bidder for $12,000 (right at the low estimate). Lot 110, a late-printed "Coal Stevedore, Havana (Dockworker, Havana)", sold to a collector on the phone for $14,400, which was twice the mid-range of the estimate and put the lot into a tie for tenth place. And lot 111, another late-printed "Dock Workers, Havana", sold to a commission bidder for $9,600.

A dealer bought lot 117, Horst P. Horst's "Mainbocher Corset, Paris" in a larger print for $15,600, which put the item into a tie for ninth place.

Lot 137, Margaret Bourke-White's posthumous print of "DC-4 Flying over New York City" flew right over its high estimate and sold to a collector for $15,600, which put it in a tie for ninth place. This was the highest price this print has gone for at auction.

Ansel Adams's Moonrise (lot 153) was withdrawn from the sale. Lot 154, Ansel Adams's "Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, CA", sold to a dealer by commission bid for $31,200--just over its low estimate but enough to put the lot into fourth place overall in the sale.

Lot 219, Ruth Orkin's cute series of six photographs of children in "The Cardplayers, the Family of Man", sold to a dealer by commission bid for the low estimate at $24,000, which appeared to also be the reserve. The price put the lot into a tie for fifth place.

Minor White did very well here. Dealer Howard Greenberg, who recently had a major show of White's work at his New York City gallery, went after the best two lots, White's Jupiter portfolio (lot 255), which he picked up for a mid-range estimate bid of $19,200, and lot 256, White's "Snow on Garage Door, Rochester, N Y", which was a great vintage print, for $14,400, or double the low estimate. He did have to battle off the phones to get these two though. The first lot's price put it in a tie for sixth place and the second lot's price put it in a tie for tenth place in the sale.

Lot 308, Ansel Adams's "Sonoma County Hills", circa 1955, was sold by commission bid to a collector for the high estimate at $14,400, which put the lot into a tie for tenth place.

Lot 321, Horst P. Horst's, "Round the Clock I, NY", sold to a collector in the room for $13,200.

Lot 353, Francesca Woodman's Untitled (Skull), sold to a collector on the phone for the reserve at $14,400, which also put the lot into a tie for tenth highest lot.

William Eggleston's Untitled (Confederate flag), (lot 359) sold to a dealer by commission bid for $13,200, just over the low estimate.

Daile Kaplan, photographs specialist and Vice-President of Swann Galleries, interestingly enough indicated that Swann's sale "saw a record number of first-time buyers." She also said, "I'm pleased with the overall performance of Swann's Photographs auction, as well as competitive prices for classical works by both 19th & 20th-century master photographers."