Issue #161  5/16/2009
Spring Auctions in The Doldrums

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector

Most dealers came to AIPAD's Photography Show New York with low--or no--expectations. And most were pleasantly surprised that their expectations were often exceeded. And of course many dealers were upset that the auction houses moved up their schedule to follow directly on the heels of the Photography Show, fearing that it would dilute their business. But if anything, it seems it was the auctions that suffered more this time out.

Sotheby's led off the auction season on March 30 with a sale that could best be described as desultory. In fact, that describes all four of the auctions this spring. It's clear that not many people were willing to consign to these auctions, especially prime material. Sotheby's sale consisted of many printed-later chestnuts--the kind of material that they have refused to take in recent years--and they fleshed out the sale with some 21 lots that they had an ownership interest in--from Margaret W. Weston and the Museum of Modern Art. It was definitely not an ecologically-minded crowd as only nine of the recycled lots sold.

The auction began with only 40 people present in the room, which made Sotheby's large saleroom seem like the prairie; and there were only eight people manning the phones. Maybe another dozen people drifted in as the sale went on, but the room was deathly quiet.

A vintage print of Brett Weston's "Ford Trimotor", 1935, flew off for $22,500, not particularly remarkable, except that the print was marked "$15.00" on the reverse. Ansel Adams's "Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras" ($60,000–$90,000) sold on the phone to the Alinder Gallery for $62,500, tied for seventh place on the sale. Alinder also bought Adams's Portfolio Three for the same price. "The Grand Tetons and the Snake River" ($50,000-$75,000) passed, but a "Moonrise" hit its low estimate at $37,500.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo's portfolio, Fifteen Photographs, also fetched that same price, but a group of five nude studies of Sonya Noskowiak by Edward Weston ($50,000-$70,000) found no takers.

Boston dealer and former AIPAD president Robert Klein captured Frantisek Drtikol's modernist Nude, 1932, for $53,125. Alfred Eisenstaedt's "Children at a Puppet Theater, Paris", the LIFE edition of 250 ($25,000-$35,000), has sold for $30,000 up to $48,000 in the last few years. Here it went for $23,750, $19,000 hammer. But Yousuf Karsh's portfolio, Fifteen Portraits, garnered $40,625, just over the midpoint of its estimate.

Sotheby's got a lot of good press, especially in New York, for the half-plate daguerreotype "A Country Home Along 'A Continuation of Broadway,'" October 1848 or earlier by an unknown photographer. It's an early and important work, though not an esthetic masterpiece. Collectors Billy and Jennifer Frist had little competition and their order bid won at the low estimate, $62,500.

British dealer Eric Franck got a bargain when he bought Robert Frank's London, 1951 ($25,000-$35,000)--a man walking through a fog-shrouded park--for only $10,000 hammer, $12,500 with premium. At least a few consignors were willing to sell at almost any price. Peter MacGill reached the third highest price of the sale, $98,500, the low estimate, for Frank's "London (Hearse)". But a European phone bidder bested MacGill for Frank's "New Orleans (Trolley)" at $122,500, the midpoint of the estimate, and good for second place.

Galerie Thierry Marlat, Paris, bidding by phone, went to $62,500 for Irving Penn's "Picasso (B), Cannes", under low estimate and the fourth tie for seventh place. Then New York art consultant Kevin Moore took first place by a wide margin, bidding $242,500, the low estimate, for László Moholy-Nagy's stunning portrait of his first wife, Lucia Moholy.

Richard Avedon's portrait of Marella Agnelli eked out $46,875, but a platinum-palladium print of Irving Penn's "Woman in a Moroccan Palace" ($200,000-$300,000) passed at $190,000, meaning the low estimate was the reserve. Along with a retrenching Penn market in a cautious economy, I think this image has appeared a bit too often at auction. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Likewise Penn's "New York Still Life" ($50,000-$70,000) passed at $42,500.

Anything with 15 photographs did reasonably well. Garry Winogrand's Fifteen Photographs brought $59,375. Robert Mapplethorpe's "Calla Lily", the cover image of "The Perfect Moment" catalogue, took fifth place at $92,500, a bit below its high estimate. And Galerie Thierry Marlat came back for Mapplethorpe's "The Coral Sea" ($100,000-$150,000) at $98,500, fourth place. Lastly, Peter MacGill hit the produce aisle as he took William Eggleston's Untitled (Peaches! Near Greenville, Mississippi) for $80,500 and sixth place.

Sotheby's sale totaled $2,384,690 with a 36.6% buy-in rate. That was a higher buy-in rate than Christie's or Phillips, but the highest total of the season on the strength of their top ten. That's $14,195 per lot offered and $20,209 per lot sold. However, along with the 68 lots that passed, 60 lots sold under the low estimate, 55 within the estimates, and only three above the high estimate. On the whole, the estimates were quite reasonable at all the auction houses and seemed to take into account the prevailing economic climate. And the reserves were likewise often very reasonable, though with exceptions, of course.

Denise Bethel, head of Sotheby's photographs department, said, "Although the market remains very selective, we saw active bidding for lots at all price levels--from photos estimated at $5,000 to those estimated at $200,000–$300,000. We were especially pleased with the prices achieved for the László Moholy-Nagy portrait of Lucia, and for the rare early daguerreotype of New York City."

Christie's smaller saleroom seemed rather livelier as some 50 people were in the seats for the 2 p.m. session of only 115 lots. Plus auctioneer Philippe Garner kept things moving very quickly. The first 20 lots of prints by Helmut Newton constituted the third and final part of the Constantiner Collection. Fifteen of the 20 lots sold for a sum of $195,250, bringing the total for the three parts of the collection to $8,828,375, against a reported $10 million guarantee.

Irving Penn's "Harlequin Dress" ($150,000-$200,000) started off the various owners' part of the sale, but it passed at $90,000. The top price had been $384,000 in April 2007. Robert Mapplethorpe's "Calla Lily", 1988 ($100,000-$150,000) sold to a European collector on the phone for $122,500, the top lot of the sale.

Then came a run of prints from a private Manhattan collection. But even such chestnuts as Ormond Gigli's "Girls in the Window" and Avedon's "Dovima with Elephants" (8x10", edition of 100 version) both passed. Herb Ritts's modestly nude pyramid of the five supermodels beat its high estimate at $43,500. And a different Mapplethorpe "Calla Lily" sold to the phone for $52,500.

Back to various owner properties, neither Ansel Adams's Portfolio Two nor Portfolio Four (both at $70,000–$90,000) had any bidders at $48,000. A Mapplethorpe portrait of Andy Warhol reached its low estimate and sold to order for $50,000. But his four prints of Ajitto ($120,000–$180,000) passed at $100,000.

A large print of Avedon's "Dovima with Elephants", 1955, printed no later than 1979 ($70,000-$100,000) trumpeted a bid of $116,500 from an American order bidder, good for second place in the sale. Robert Polidori's "Death of Marat" ($25,000-$35,000)--I always hear Judy Collins singing when I see this picture--went to order for $47,500.

Ansel Adams's "Old Faithful Geyser" was rather faithless as it passed. Garner introduced it as "the Ansel Adams geezer." I'm not sure if that was a Briticism, a French interpolation, a Freudian slip for this old warhorse, or a fillip to wake everyone up. It did spur bidding on the next Adams lot, "Frozen Lake and Cliffs", which skated to $40,000. But it couldn't save "Clearing Winter Storm" ($40,000–$60,000), which blew by without a bid.

Helmut Newton's portfolio, Fifteen Photographs ($80,000-$120,000) passed as did Penn's "Three Single Oriental Poppies" ($70,000-$90,000) and Shirin Neshat's "Faezeh+Amir Kahn", 2008 ($50,000-$70,000). The sale closed with the third highest price of the day, Danny Lyon's "Conversations with the Dead, 1967-68", 1983, with 76 gelatin silver prints ($50,000–$70,000). An institution bidding on the phone captured it for $56,250.

The total for the sale was $1,554,250 with a 28.7% buy-in rate. So 33 lots passed, 42 sold under the low estimate, 9 over the high estimate, and 31 within the estimates. That's $13,515 per lot offered and $18,954 per lot sold.

Philippe Garner, international head of photographs, said, "We are pleased with a solid sold percentage, confirming the demand for correctly estimated works of good quality. Our top price underscores the continuing and high collector interest in exceptional works by Robert Mapplethorpe."

Phillips de Pury & Company's sale on April 1 was held in a long, narrow room on the third floor rather than in the normal first floor saleroom. It began with 25 people in the seats (growing eventually to about 40) and at least 15 at the desk handling the phones, which was a good thing as almost all of the top lots went to phone bidders.

Here Eisenstaedt's "Children at a Puppet Theater" was estimated at $30,000-$40,000 and passed at $20,000. Richard Avedon's "Dovima with Elephants, Evening dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver", Paris sold for $27,500 to the phone. Lee Friedlander's "Jazz and Blues" portfolio passed at $38,000, one increment below the low estimate.

Larry Clark's "Tulsa Portfolio" ($40,000-$60,000) shot to $43,750. But Timothy Greenfield-Sanders huge, in-your-face double portrait of porn star Jenna Jameson (Clothed/Nude) ($30,000-$40,000) didn't even get a bid at $17,000. Now that's a recession.

Cindy Sherman's Untitled #122 brought $116,500, almost at the high estimate and the second highest price of the sale. Two Hiroshi Sugimoto theaters did well: "Metropolitan Orpheum, Los Angeles" at $30,000 and "Vermont Drive-In, South Bay" at $27,500. Andres Serrano's "Klansman (Imperial Wizard)" realized $31,250.

The cover lot, David Dreben's "Movie Star" ($5,000-$7,000) was a box office smash at $16,250, an auction record for the artist. It was a sign of the times here (and at the other houses) that a picture estimated at $5,000-$7,000 would get a whole page in the catalogue, let alone the cover. There was a record, too, for Gavin Bond's teenage fantasy, "Backstage: Volume Two", with 12 prints, which just topped its high estimate at $23,750.

David LaChapelle's "Jesus is my homeboy: Last Supper" rapped its way to $27,500. And Andrew Moore's "Fishing Village, White Sea" set an auction record at $19,375. Thomas Ruff's "Substrat 5 II" claimed third place at $74,500.

The afternoon session began with the third installment of offerings from Robert Mapplethorpe: Photographs from the Collection of Lisa Lyon with 10 (of 13) lots selling for an aggregate total of $85,000. The only other significant lot of the afternoon was the portfolio "Avedon/Paris", which hit its low estimate and claimed the top spot on the sale at $122,500.

"We are proud to have successfully offered cutting edge photographs by artists whom we introduced into our sale for the first time alongside strong classic works," said Vanessa Kramer, photographs specialist and head of sale. "We will continue to introduce fresh talent into our auctions in order to create a diverse sale with widespread appeal for our international clientele."

The sale sold 77% by value and 67% by lot. Of the 279 lots offered, 187 sold. The total was $1,890,875, second to Sotheby's and ahead of Christie's. The $6,777 per lot offered and $10,112 per lot sold was behind both those houses, representing a lower average lot price for the sale, but in some ways it was a livelier and more successful sale as along with the 91 lots passed, more than twice as many sold within the estimates (108) than below (50) and 30 lots sold above the high estimate.

As I've said, I wish Bloomsbury well, but they started at a particularly bad time. Their second photographs auction on April 2 was the final of the season. The sale began with as many staff members--13--as people sitting in the audience, although a couple more bidders wandered in as the sale progressed. Bloomsbury's buy-in rate was one lot short of half: 44 of 88 photo lots passed as did 23 of 47 lots in the photographic editions part of the sale, or 67 of 135 overall. In photographs 22 lots sold under the low estimate, two over, and 20 within the estimates. In editions it was five under, two over, and 17 within. Together that's 27 under, four over, and 37 within. It is likely there were a few sales after the auction.

The top lot was a first American edition of "The Americans", with attendant ephemera, which brought $17,080 from a phone bidder. Among the few lots sold in the room, collector David Runtz got a bargain on one lot, Stan Kaplan on two, and Michael Feldschuh on three. And book dealer Harper Levine bought two of the editioned lots. The sale totaled $318,908, $2,362 per lot offered, $4,705 per lot sold.

This auction season was a rude reminder of how much things have changed in a year. The total sales of $6,148,273 was the lowest total since Fall of 1997, more than $10 million less than the Fall 2008 total of $16,164,838 (which included Swann Galleries; or $14,678,398 without Swann), and a mere one-sixth of the Spring 2008 total of $38,179,975 (which included neither Swann nor Bloomsbury, and when Sotheby's and Christie's each did over $17 million).

Clearly it will take a substantial improvement in the economy before collectors are willing to consign their best material and before buyers feel comfortable spending significant amounts of money. But this is a new reality and it is time that the auction houses take the one step that is within their control: reduce their premiums.

(Copyright ©2009 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/.