Issue #16  5/22/2000
Fentons and Moholy-Nagy's At Sotheby's

The action at Sotheby's focused on Roger Fenton and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, although a Man Ray "Noire et Blanche" (Just how many of these things are around any way?  I've seen four separate ones come up for sale over the last two years.), a Talbot photogenic Leaf, and another Beato Lucknow album created their own flurry of bidding activity.

So in descending order here are the top lots including their new and much higher premiums.

The very top lot, Moholy-Nagy's iconic "Berlin im Winter vom Funkturn Aus" (Lot 152), sold for about ten times low estimate at 190,500 pounds sterling, or about $300,000.  The duel between two bidders was by phone, after New York dealer Edwynn Houk played stalking horse for them.  Condition, as with most of the Moholy-Nagy images, was certainly not perfect (foxing on the borders and a "white" stain on the upper right of the image), but then where could you find another one for sale?  The lot sold to L052, which was a very active number for the sale.  The sheik?

Lot 150, a Moholy-Nagy nude study, went again to the phone with Houk underbidding.  Price?  A mere 163,000 pounds (a little over $255,000) against an estimate of 50,000-70,000 pounds.

Man Ray's Noire et Blanche (Lot 144), 1926 brought a bid of 146,500 pounds or over $230,000 from Edwynn Houk.  Ironically his former partner Barry Friedman sold a matched negative and positive of this image for a mere $607,500 at Christie's New York in October of 1998 during a stock market "adjustment."  It has been reported that Friedman was unhappy at the time with the "low" result.

The nineteenth century was not to be denied a top spot:  William Henry Fox Talbot's photogenic photogram of a plant c.1839 sold for a stunning 130,000 pounds or about $205,000 versus the estimate of 20,000-30,000 pounds.  It was sold to L052 on the phone, against strong bidding by Hans Kraus, Jr.  It was a hauntingly beautiful image that Sotheby's originally was allowing to be viewed under harsh spotlights until its fragility was pointed out.  Then the Sotheby's staff quickly and professionally made adjustments.  The image was then viewed, as it should be, in a darkened room.  This has happened a few times here.  I hope Sotheby's pays a little more attention to such situations in the future.

Moholy-Nagy was back in the ranked lots with Lot 156, Rolling the Gangplank, Scandinavia going for 71,700 pounds (over $113,000) versus the estimate of 15,000-20,000 pounds.  It sold to L052, with collector Michael Wilson, Edwynn Houk and others competing for the image.

L052 took the next biggest lot, an album, which contained a fine and rare portrait of Garabaldista, probably by Gustave Le Gray (Lot 117), for 67,200 pounds (about $107,000).  It had been estimated at a low 15,000-20,000 pounds.  Dealer Jill Quasha was persistent in her losing battle against the phone bidder, probably Al Thani.

The top Fenton lot was Lot 49, No.217 Harbour of Balaklava, which went to the phone for a rather astounding 63,750 pounds sterling against the admittedly low estimate of only 3,000-5,000 pounds.  That's over $100,000.  The print was a marvelous purple color in excellent condition with only a hit of foxing in the top right.  It was, for me, the print of the Sotheby's sale. The phone had competition from Hans Kraus bidding for a major collector and another phone bidder.

The Felice Beato album of 75 photographs of Lucknow was bound to go higher than its low estimate of 15,000-20,000 pounds.  And it did: 60,300 pounds or approaching the magic $100,000 mark.  Bid up by producer Michael Wilson, it still fell to a phone bidder.  Perhaps Wilson was content with his album from last year and many other Beato Lucknow images.

Moholy-Nagy was back with his Repartur am Pont, Transbordeur (Marseille) (Lot 154) bringing in 53,400 pounds sterling from a U.S. bidder on the phone.  And then his Baumbeschneiden im Frnhjahr (try saying that one three times fast) or Tree Cutting in Spring (Lot 153) sold for an identical amount to another phone bidder.  By the way, Philippe Garner's pronunciation is impeccable.  I don't know how he does it.  Of course, most of my European friends would tell me that I wouldn't know the difference if he did mispronounce one.

The rest of Sotheby's non-top ten lots are just with the hammer price and don't include the premium.  I've given up trying to figure out the new complicated systems--just what the auction houses would like us to do.  So I just basically figure that the dollar amount after premium is about double the hammer price in pounds.

Moholy-Nagy and Indiana dealer Lee Marks both scored one with lot 168 Special Effects (the cover lot) at 44,000 pounds.  There were a number of interested underbidders on this one including dealers Robert Koch and Janet Lehr.

Then Fenton hit again with Lot 45 going for 42,000 pounds to Hans Kraus, who was bidding for a major collector.  This was the famous (or infamous) Valley of Death.

Michael Sachs then took Lot 53, a rich Head of Harbour at Balaklava, for 32,000 pounds--way over estimate again but still a wonderful print.  I dropped out at about 22,000 pounds.  These were strictly collector prices.

Finally, Edwynn Houk bought another Moholy-Nagy (Lot155) for 32,000 pounds against a fairly large group of players.

All in all, Sotheby's had a mixed day, selling only 61% of their lots but for 1,849,670 pounds sterling, or nearly $3 million--not bad, considering.  Lot 122, the Durandelle Opera group, was the biggest lot by estimate to fail to find a bidder at 28,000 pounds.