Issue #155  1/2/2009
Christie's Constantiner Collection Auction Nearly Grosses $7-3/4 Million, Most Sold in a Single-Owner Sale There

By Alex Novak

Well when I am wrong, I'm really wrong. The December 16th and 17th Christie's New York sale of Leon and Michaela Constantiner's collection, which consisted mostly of late 20th-century magazine fashion and nudes, did extremely well in a difficult economy, although I think it is probably doubtful that the couple made any money on this sale, largely because most of the collection was bought just over the last three to seven years and at peak prices. Of course, it is possible that Christie's guaranteed a higher price than the couple's purchase prices. And the fact that Christie's apparently did offer a guaranteed of some kind (the catalogue noted that the auction house has a "direct financial interest in all lots offered in this sale") might mean that its profits on the sale might be fairly minimal, despite results.

The collection did bring in a total of $7,721,875, the highest total for a single-owner dedicated photographs sale at Christie's. The auction buy-in (lots that did not sell) rate here was just under 22%, one of the best results of this tough fall season (excluding the Eggleston sale at Christie's). In the December 5th newsletter, I had predicted tough sledding for the material, some of which had been run-up in price over the last few years. I did note though that I thought most of the estimates to be fairly reasonable vis-à-vis the current market situation and past results.

The sale may just show the resiliency of the photography auction market when estimates and reserves are recalibrated to economic reality.

Over half the total proceeds (nearly $4 million) came from the work of just one photographer: Helmut Newton. The auction also set a new world auction record for the photographer of $662,500 for his work Sie Kommen, (Naked and Dressed), Paris, 1981 (estimated at $400,000-600,000).

As I pointed out, the sale was helped by both generally reasonable estimates and very low reserves--most well below what Constantiner had paid for many of the images in the recent past. Most of the sales were--not unexpectly--by phone and by left commission bids (when the bidder leaves bidding instructions with the auction house). I noted that a number of European bidders were taking advantage of the bounce-back of the euro this month, according to Christie's notes on its Top Ten items. Prices above and below include Christie's very steep buyer's premium ranging from 20-25%.

The Top Ten from top to bottom were:

As mentioned above, the top lot of the sale, and a record-breaker for Helmut Newton at auction, was lot 59, Newton's Sie Kommen, (Naked and Dressed), Paris, 1981, which sold to a European bidder for $662,500, just a little above the mid-estimate.

Lot 16, Newton's Big Nude III: Henrietta, 1980, sold to a collector for $482,500, which was at the low estimate.

Lot 99, Helmut Newton Portfolio, 1999, with 102 images comprising eight unique Polaroid prints and 79 silver prints, brought $374,500 from a collector.

Andy Warhol's One Grey Marilyn, from Reversal Series, 1986, silkscreen, ink and synthetic polymer on canvas (lot 67), (estimate: $400,000 - 600,000), sold to a European bidder for considerably under the estimate range at $290,500.

Lot 86 brought us back to Helmut Newton and his Big Nude XV: Raquel Hands on Forehead, Nice, 1993, which sold to a collector for $206,500.

Irving Penn was another big name in this sale. Lot 79, his Black and White Vogue Cover, 1950, in a platinum-palladium print sold for well under the low estimate at $194,500 to a collector. The last time it sold a little over two years ago it went for $262,400.

Another Newton Big Nude, lot 94, Big Nude I: Lisa, Paris, 1980, sold well under the low estimate for $194,500 to a European bidder.

Richard Avedon's Stephanie Seymour, Model, New York City, 1992 (lot 56) sold in the mid-estimate range for $182,500 to a European bidder, but Constantiner had paid $262,400 for it at the Elfering Sale at Christie's in October 2005. That was typical on a lot of these big fashion items in this sale and other fashion images at other recent auctions. This material in particular seems to have come down about 25-50% from its recent inflated highs.

Richard Avedon's portfolio, Avedon Paris, 1978, 11 gelatin silver prints (lot 17, which was estimated at $120,000--180,000) sold to New York City dealer Peter MacGill for $170,500. Constantiner had paid $240,000 for the set at Christie's April 2007 sale.

Lot 44, Irving Penn's ubiquitous Woman with Roses on her Arm (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), 1950, platinum-palladium print, sold below the low estimate to a U.S. collector for $170,500.

To give you an idea about the deep discounting on some of these second-half of the 20th-century fashion-type images, Irving Penn's Girl Drinking (lot 8) sold for $92,000, but Constantiner had bought it at Sotheby's in April 2007 for virtually double that amount.

The Constantiner Collection also featured what Christie's had called "the largest collection of photographs of Marilyn Monroe to appear on the market," which sold for a total of $802,250. Monroe photographs in the sale were made by a diverse group of artists, including Andy Warhol, André de Dienes, Tom Kelley, Elliott Erwitt, Eve Arnold, Garry Winogrand, Milton Greene and Bert Stern.

Highlights included portraits by André de Dienes dating from 1945-1949, showing the teenage Norma Jeane Baker in the first blossoming of her beauty on Tobay Beach, Long Island, which realized $28,750; Tom Kelley's famous 1949 color nude of Monroe on a red background, which was featured in the premier issue of Playboy as the magazine's first 'Sweetheart of the Month' and was the image on the most famous calendar of all times, sold for $18,750; and Richard Avedon's 1957 portrait capturing a sad, touching, off-guard Monroe achieved $56,250. The top lot from this section was Bert Stern's The Last Sitting, which brought in $146,500--which Christie's called a "world auction record" and comprised the key images from the 1962 shoot for 'American Vogue', which captured Monroe shortly before her tragic death.

Philippe Garner, Christie's international head of photographs, commented: "The superb results achieved for this collection demonstrate the potential of works bought with true passion and considerable connoisseurship to perform magnificently even in the present uncertain economic climate. The results also confirm the central position that Helmut Newton has rightly been accorded as a master photographer of the 20th century, and, of course, Marilyn Monroe's magical appeal has proven to be truly timeless."