Swann Galleries' auction of "The Vernacular Eye: Photographic Albums, Snapshots & Objects" on April 17--as well as Fine Photographs--totaled $784,636, under estimate, but with a buy-in rate of only 23%, a bit lower than usual for Swann.
The top lot was a group of 63 cyanotypes documenting the construction of a trestle bridge in southern France, 1899-1902, which sold to an institution for more than double the high estimate at $22,500. Jimmy De Sana's book maquette for Submission, with 31 erotic prints, 1979, set an auction record for the artist at $22,500.
A group of 19 photographs depicting the Wright Brothers and their No. 2 glider, 1901–28, flew to $20,000, but still under low estimate. William Eggleston's Untitled (Blues Musician Mississippi Fred McDowell in a Casket), dye-transfer print, 1971, printed 1996, brought $18,750, an auction record for the image.
Yousuf Karsh's classic, Winston Churchill, silver print, 1941, printed later, was sold at $15,000. An album with 250 photographs of window displays for Kleinhans men's clothing store, Buffalo, NY, 1919-26 ($5,000-$7,000), was taken by a collector for $15,000.
A group of 11 photographs featuring African Americans living in the post-Reconstruction-era South, 1886 ($4,000–$6,000) sold to an institution at a premium of $13,750. Two other photographs achieved that price: Karl Struss' Karl Struss: A Portfolio, 1909/29, with 15 platinum prints, 1909– 29, printed 1979, and an archive of photographs, albums, letters, and ephemera related to a life-long nudist couple, 1920s-90s, which went well over estimate.
Lastly, two prints set auction records for the image: Aaron Siskind, Lithuanian Store, 1957, at $12,500; and Roman Vishniac's Sara (Flowers of her Youth), 1939, printed 1980s, at $11,875. Both had been estimated at $4,000–$6,000.
Daile Kaplan, Vice President and Director of Photographs & Photobooks, said, "The success of this auction demonstrates the breadth of the photo market and growing interest in the relationship between fine art photos and the vernacular medium."
There were many fascinating lots in this sale from early tintypes to crime to photojournalism to pop photographica and more. And Swann, which has often handled these kinds of items, was smart to concentrate a sale around vernacular photography, which has drawn increasing interest over the past decade. But actually there were more lots of "Fine Photographs" than vernacular images in this sale--160 versus 137--and the total for those 137 lots was $290,308, far less than the $494,328 that the "Fine Photographs" earned. So while this was an excellent start, clearly vernacular photographs are not enough by themselves to support an entire sale at a major auction house—yet.
The season total of about $23 million was substantially above the $18 million from last fall, although it was far below the $32 million achieved in spring 2013. Those spring sales seem to be the outlier as both the spring and fall auctions otherwise have hovered between $18 million and $20 million since 2010. The uptick here may reflect a slowly but steadily improving economy. We'll see if that trend continues this fall.
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