Issue #162  7/10/2009
Sotheby's London Sale: Mediocre Results For Mediocre Material

Frankly, I was a bit embarrassed for Sotheby's here. The company had apparently fired its head of department prior to the sale. It was hard to know how much he had to do with the resulting mess. The vintage material was largely mediocre and terribly overpriced for the quality. The back cover image turned out to be a copy print. Sotheby's called it a 19th-century copy print of a Charles Negre image, but I don't think it was that early at all. In fact, it looked very 20th-century to me.

The results weren't much better: a total of 476,500 pounds sterling (or about $733,800 at the interbank exchange rate during the sale) and a sold rate of about 36%. And that was the good news! Up and until the contemporary part of the sale, the vintage material was selling at a rate of less than 25%. But let's be clear about the reason for this failure: this had NOTHING to do with economy, and everything to do with the selection of poor material and overblown estimates. Worse, consignors, whom I expect were mainly French dealers (or that peculiarly French affectation, the private collector who sells like a dealer), were holding tough after the sale. A number of bidders, including myself, tried to buy items after the sale, but quite reasonable bids were rejected by consignors, who apparently hadn't heard about our economic slowdown.

Normally I would just cover the lots that with buyer's premium (of a whopping 25%) would be around 12,000 pounds sterling, or about $18,500 at the time of the sale (the pound, which was $1.54 at the Interbank rate--something we mortals never actually receive--has recently rallied back to about $1.64). That wouldn't, however, even get us coverage of the top ten items in this sale--all but one of those being contemporary work.

Remember that the prices below include the buyer's premium. For the first time I believe that there were only two Americans (not counting ex-pats) in the room, myself and San Francisco dealer, Jeffrey Fraenkel, who was there to bid on one Robert Adams lot and the Bechers' maquette (he didn't get either), and because it was on his way to Basel. I remember times in the recent past when there would be 40-50 Americans bidding actively here. I really think that the traditional auction houses here and in New York have shot themselves in the foot with some of their approaches that have almost chased clients out of their physical auction rooms.

London is unfortunately becoming more irrelevant to the traditional photography market. I suspect that adding the cost of droit de suite, a dearth of decent material (and the related leadership void at the auction houses here), the cancellation of the Photo London show, the concentration on fashion and contemporary images by some of the auctions here, and the Internet have all conspired to damage the once dominant London photo auction market. It is truly a shame.

In fact, the Sotheby's photography auctions will now move alternatively between both London for the May auction and Paris for November's auction. Simone Klein is the senior specialist in the photography department out of Cologne. Klein works with Caroline Bessiere and consultant Gregory Leroy in Paris. Jocelyn Phillips is deputy director of photography out of the London office. I must admit that it is a pleasure to work with this staff which is trying awfully hard to make Sotheby's Europe more customer-driven than it was under the last London head of department.

Newcomers (or old-timers that have moved into photography in a bigger way) Bloomsbury, Dominic Winter, Bonham's and Phillips de Pury will take up some of the London slack, along with Christie's, who--rubbing salt in the wounds--ran its photo book auction at exactly the same time as the Sotheby's photo sale and moved its photography sale to July! That will work. Not! By the way, I refuse to call it a photobook auction, as did Christie's. There is no such word in the English language.

In any case, the Sotheby's auction started off with a group of daguerreotypes that appeared to be quite overpriced. The first one though actually sold for 6,250 pounds (or about $10,000) including the premium. For a simple half-plate group portrait of children that was from about 1855 (not the 1840-45 date that Sotheby's put on it), I thought this was about triple what this piece was actually worth. There was only one phone bidder against a very high reserve at the low estimate.

The other three daguerreian lots were bought in (unsold) without any bids that I could detect. Considering their insane reserves and estimates, this was not particularly surprising.

Perhaps the most interesting 19th-century lots were the paper negatives by Rev. George Wilson Bridges. The better individual negatives sold in good order. Lot 5, Temple of Jupiter sold to Lindsey Stewart of Quaritch Books for 5,250 pounds. Lot 6, a very good negative of Erechtheum, Western Portico, went to a commission bidder for 5,000 pounds, who also got the next lot (an "unknown temple undergoing construction") for only 3,500 pounds. Lot 8, Southwest View of the Erechtheum, an important view which possibly includes fellow photographers, Kit Talbot and Rev. Calvert Jones, sold to U.K. dealer Robert Hershkowitz for 6,250 pounds. This was one of my personal favorites of the group. Finally, Lindsey Stewart was back for lot 9, a view of the Great Pyramid, which she picked up for just below the low estimate at 3,500 pounds.

Lot 12, a very strong salt print of W. H. F. Talbot's "Loch Katrine", sold to Hershkowitz for a very reasonable 9,375 pounds.

Then there was a string of buy-ins only interrupted once from lot 12 through to lot 41, all rather mediocre, and/or boring and/or overpriced 19th-century images, including the "copy" print that was the back cover of this catalogue. Lot 36, which was identified incorrectly as a self-portrait of Louis-Remy Robert, was withdrawn.

The 20th-century didn't fare any better and the material was similar: overpriced and/or boring/problematic. One of the bigger failures for Sotheby's was the collection of 86 miniature albums from James A. Sinclair, who was better known for being a camera dealer than photographer. The ridiculous estimate of 40,000-60,000 pounds (and the equally silly reserve of 35,000 pounds) killed any chance of sale. Several buyers were interested, but not at these estimates. If they had started at 5,000 pounds, there might have been some buyers, and it might have gotten into low five figures.

An early portrait of Alfred Stieglitz by Heinrich Kuhn (lot 52) sold to a man in the room for a whopping 15,000 pounds--nearly double the low estimate, which indicates that there are bidders for decent things, even at relatively high prices. The image tied for sixth place overall in this sale.

Lot 75, which was initially said to be a vintage print of Alicante by Henri Cartier-Bresson in the catalogue, turned out to be a print from the late 1950s with serious condition problems (at least Sotheby's announced the date adjustment). It went unsold at 13,000 pounds.

It wasn't the only higher profile lot to buy in. Paolo Gasparini's Cuba maquette bought in at 24,000 pounds; Diane Arbus' (Selkirk print) Retired Man and His Wife at Home in a Nudist Camp One Morning, NJ bought in at 16,000 pounds; and Helmut Newton's Mannequins Quai D'Orsay, Paris bought in at 10,000 pounds.

But Daido Moriyama's Brigitte Bardot (lot 107) sold to commission bidder for well over the estimate range at 10,625 pounds, which put the lot into a tie for tenth place here.

Then two British collectors battled it out for lot 109, John Minihan's Samuel Beckett. One wound up paying 11,250 pounds (a tie for ninth place).

An Araki black and white print, "Yakusa" (a Japanese gangster having intercourse with a woman), sold for 12,500 pounds (or eighth place overall).

Peter Beard's work defied the odds and sold except for one print (lot 133). Don't ask me why anyone would be interested this work. These were certainly not his iconic pieces. Beard is erratic. At his best, he is spectacular, but so much of his work (like these lots) just looks slipshod. Most of the lots that sold went to phone bidders. His Cheetah Cub Orphans in Mweiga went for the low estimate including the premium at 18,750 pounds, which put it into fourth place in this sale. Lot 130, Giraffes in Mirage on the Taru Desert, Kenya, sold for 13,125 pounds, putting it into seventh place. The next lot, Spitting Cobra in Tsavo sold for a whopping 22,500, which put this one into second overall. A woman at the back of the room finally battled off the phones to take lot 132 for 17,500 pounds, which placed this lot into fifth place.

The big lot in this sale was #136, the Bechers' maquette of 13 loose sheets cut from contact sheets. The winning bid from a phone bidder put the magic number right in the middle of the estimate and over Fraenkel and another phone bidder. At 73,250 pounds, or at about $113,000, this was the top lot of this sale.

Two Thomas Ruff nude studies (lots 37 and 138) then bought in at 10,500 and 15,000 pounds respectively. But lot 139, Rineke Dijkstra's two beaten-up matadors sold to a commission bidder for the midpoint in the estimate range at 12,500 pounds (a tie for eighth place).

Wolfgang Tillmans' "Doing Well" (lot 144) did very well at 10,625 pounds, which was over the estimate range and good enough for a tie for tenth place in the sale.

Idris Kahn's disgusting rip-off of Krzysztof Pruszkowski's work from nearly 15 years before sold for 21,250 pounds (third place in the sale). Sometimes I have to call them as I see them. Several major curators who are familiar with both their work have expressed similar feelings. Another of Kahn's derivative works, lot 148, sold for 15,000 pounds (sixth place).

Mercifully, after a few additional lots, this sale was finally over.