Issue #21  10/18/2000
Fall NYC Auctions Not For The Faint-of-Heart

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector

The fall photography auctions were not for the faint-of-heart with results veering precipitously from near-disaster to recovery, and back, and forth again. The season was met not with the euphoria of the past two years, when record prices seemed to be obtained with each new sale, but rather with some optimism mixed with a hint of trepidation against the background of a declining Dow and a NASDAQ that had plunged some 30% from its peak in March.

Christie’s East, up first in the day on October 11, began with a whimper and ended with a loud sigh of relief. It was difficult to gauge the effect of the economy on the state of the market in the morning session – even if one could perhaps gauge the tedium with which the market now reacts to the same old run of the same old material by the lesser-known practitioners. The increasing buzz of conversation in the room as the sale went on was a clear indication of the lack of interest. In the back of the room, the buzz at times almost drowned out the drone of the auctioneer. The buy-in rate in the morning was a painful 46%, and there were few highlights: an Outerbridge went within estimates at $19,975; Eliot Porter’s portfolio, Western Landscapes, brought $12,925 on an estimate of $5,000—$7,000 (both to phone bidders); and Garry Winogrand’s portfolio, Women Are Beautiful, took home $18,800, at the high estimate.

The afternoon was considerably better as selections from the Jeffrey and Sheila Metzner Collection hit the block. The highlight was a stunning Man Ray nude, which Edwynn Houk pried away for $94,000 on an estimate of $40,000—$60,000. Robert Koch followed by bidding more than double the high estimate for a Drtikol nude at $26,000 ($8,000—$10,000). Other than that, the afternoon was steady with a number of strong prices but nothing spectacular. The overall sale fell short of $1,000,000 at $928,015, and the overall buy-in rate was a discouraging but not disastrous 41%.

As the audience moved over to Swann for the evening, Daile Kaplan’s strategy of having a smaller, more select sale in October and staging a larger sale in February at the end of the AIPAD show – which enjoyed great success last year – seemed wise. Nonetheless, it succeeded only in preventing an even larger amount of bloodletting. The 39% buy-in rate, counting sales made after the end of the auction, hardly captures the lethargy of the evening. And the sale total of $531,530 was far short of the low estimate for the auction.

It was all rather inexplicable, though, since the sale included a good mix of material, including some of the quirky items Swann usually does well on. Outlaws have been making a big score at Swann recently, but here the images of the Quantrill raiders – not in the best of shape, but rare – went directly to jail and did not pass Go. A couple of gorgeous, turn-of-the-century, hand-painted portraits from Nepal, both with reasonably low estimates, also failed to find a new home. Perhaps the sale did not have the critical mass necessary to attract the attention of the varied audiences for these different groups.

At the top of the heap, Margaret Bourke-White’s warm-toned George Washington Bridge went to Michael Shapiro, who outbid Mack Lee at $29,900, just below the low estimate. A 1943 album of ten prints by Czech photographers brought the same price, but over high estimate, as English dealer Ken Jacobson wrested it away from Paul Hertzmann. Jacobson was bidding for an institutional client. The rest of the top ten sold within estimate or below the low estimate. It was a hallmark of the lack of action: the phones were quiet for long stretches of time, there were relatively few absentee bids, and no one in the room to challenge the ones there were. Late in the sale as two people vied intently for a minor lot, Kaplan intoned wistfully, "It’s a real auction."

At the end of the day, the mood was gray.

The next day, a larger audience at Sotheby’s, drawn by better material, seemed much more energetic. At the end of the afternoon, the $3 million plus total and the more reasonable 31% buy-in rate landed Sotheby’s probably right where they had expected. How they got there, on the other hand, must have come as something of a surprise.

A run of 19 Curtis images opened the auction and performed spectacularly. At the top of the heap, two portraits estimated at $6,000—$9,000 sold to a phone bidder for a whopping $26,050. A group of six large photographs nearly tripled the high estimate at $20,300. Numerous others went over, some well over, the high estimates. Most sold to phone bidders, two to Sante Fe dealer Andrew Smith. Auctioneer Denise Bethel sighed on coming to lot 19, "Regrettably, the last of the Curtis lots."

In their April sale, Sotheby’s scored big-time with the Stephen Anaya Collection of Gold Rush daguerreotypes, so they probably had high hopes for the three half-plate Gold Rush dags that sale drew out here. But none found a buyer. This time neither the mysterious phone bidder, nor the mysterious gold dealers, nor the mysterious collector that Dale Stulz was bidding for last time was in the game.

That disappointment was followed by Jeffrey Fraenkel’s winning bid of $35,250, right at the low estimate, for a wonderful Watkins print that he had sold in 1989. A while later Hans Kraus doubled the high estimate in taking William Henry Fox Talbot’s Detail of Orleans Cathedral for $37,550. Kraus followed that up by buying a group of 73 portraits of Frederick H. Evans and his wife for $92,750, this at the low estimate.

Howard Greenberg then captured one of the featured lots, Karl Struss’s exquisite Fifth Ave. — Twilight for $170,750, 50% above the high estimate and a record for the artist at auction. There was hardly a murmur, though, and the sale went on without notice. After Gertrude Käsebier’s The Red Man passed at $75,000 and Alfred Stieglitz’s Portrait of Dorothy Norman at $65,000, a group of Ansel Adams prints came on strong with intense bidding among James Alinder for the Edward Carter Gallery, Andrew Smith, and several other dealers. But it took a private collector to set a record for an individual print by Adams, paying $53,650 for a fine 16x20" Moonrise, although the record was largely the result of the higher premiums at Sotheby’s.

The afternoon got off to a rousing start as a phone bidder took a lush, vintage Weston platinum or palladium nude for $66,000 ($20,000—$30,000), outbidding Edwynn Houk. But then two other vintage Westons, a cloud study and a landscape, passed. Lee Marks, usually bidding for former Dreyfus Fund head Howard Stein, outlasted Eugene Prakapas, in acquiring Paul Strand’s Hacienda Doorway, New Mexico for $121,250 ($50,000—$70,000). In the last few seasons, Prakapas has made a habit of being the underbidder on several important works. His taste has been impeccable, but his pockets just a tad shallow.

Michael Shapiro then wrested the best of the Steichens, Iris Aurea: Light Runs Up the Stems like Lightning, the cover lot, which was also seen in the Steichen retrospective at the Whitney Museum, from Howard Greenberg for $60,550. But Shapiro lost out on Man Ray’s portrait of Lee Miller to a phone bidder for $27,200 ($10,000—$15,000).

Greenberg then yielded to Jeffrey Fraenkel on Man Ray’s important Rayograph with cigarettes and light bulb at $198,250, the second highest price of the sale. Tim Jeffries of Hamiltons Gallery, London, then set another record for an artist at auction when he plunked down $76,650 for Robert Mapplethorpe’s lush Calla Lily.

Contemporary work continued to fare well, as two Andres Seranno pictures, Ecce Homo and Untitled (Ejaculate in Trajectory), and Sandy Skoglund’s Revenge of the Goldfish, all sold for over their high estimates to phone and order bidders. Likewise, two Francesca Woodmans reached $30,600 and $23,750, respectively, on high estimates of $15,000.

But the top lot, coming near the end of the sale, was a stunner. Bob Seidemann’s three portfolios with 302 prints, The Airplane as Art, soared into the stratosphere to $236,750 over an estimate of $70,000—$100,000. Two phone bidders engaged in a prolonged battle to $150,000, when a new phone bidder jumped in and continued the dogfight. In the auction room, nothing can be more surreal than an extended battle between phone bidders. It’s like watching an accident in slow motion: it’s not pleasant, but you can’t turn away. There’s a grim fascination about how it will end, but it’s tedious, almost excruciating to wait through. Just about everyone in the audience was wearing a "who are those guys?" expression at the identity of the anonymous phone bidders, and for that matter, they were asking the same question about the artist, whom few seemed to have been aware of. As Sotheby’s Bethel said afterward, "This work deserves to be known by a wider audience, and the fierce bidding will bring Seidemann the attention he deserves." We imagine it will.

The sale ended in plenty of time to grab a bite to eat and head on over to Christie’s Rockefeller Center for their Photographic Masterworks 2 sale. The sale had some flaws: many of the pictures were far from masterworks – though there were a few pretty good images in the lower ranges – and two in particular, Paul Strand’s portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe and his wife, Rebecca, both with hefty estimates ($250,000—$300,000 and $300,000—$400,000, respectively), were not great. The O’Keeffe had been shopped around for a while, and Rebecca’s expression is particularly dour. Numerous dealers and collectors heading into the sale frequently dismissed both of these pictures.

The first big lot to come up, 21 prints from the circle of Thomas Eakins, passed at $85,000 on an estimate of $90,000—$120,000. It was clear that the aggressive estimates, a hallmark of Christie’s, might be hard to reach and that the reserves were definitely too high. Then two Winslow Homer circular images – of which several, far more interesting examples had performed well last spring – passed at $11,000 and $7,500 on estimates of $20,000—$30,000.

Things were beginning to get gloomy. Then Michael Shapiro took Karl Struss’s great Brooklyn Bridge – Nocturne for $149,000, just over the high estimate. And a phone bidder strolled home with Steichen’s Flatiron Building – Evening, New York, for $116,000 (within estimate). But then Strand’s Morningside Park passed at $240,000 ($300,000—$400,000), as did Pierre Dubreuil’s Notre Dame de Paris at $42,0000 ($50,000—$70,000). Another Steichen and two Stieglitz’s passed. The mood was dark again.

Then came Strand’s O’Keeffe. Down it went at $190,000. Then Rebecca. Down it went at $200,000. There was nary a bidder in sight.

Jeffrey Fraenkel revived things a bit by taking Paul Outerbridge, Jr.’s Self-Portrait for $226,000, below the low estimate. Peter MacGill bid $314,000 for Outerbridge’s iconic Ide Collar, within estimate, but real money nonetheless. There was a run of passes and successful below-estimate bids, including a pass at $48,000 on a Man Ray Self-Portrait ($70,000—$90,000). British dealer Michael Hoppen outbid Lee Marks for the wonderfully bizarre Grit Kallin-Fischer image, Freddo, at $41,125, well above high estimate.

Edwynn Houk took a fine Rayograph at the low end, $110,500, and then bested Lee Marks for André Kertész’s vintage Atelier Mondrian, Paris, at $314,000, near the high end. A Modotti and the Weston Chambered Nautilus passed. Paul Hertzmann astutely took home Weston’s Pepper #31 for $110,500. Jack Tilton, a Soho contemporary art dealer, went near the high end to snag a vintage print of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Seville, Spain, for $94,000, a world auction record for the artist. Things seemed to be picking up.

But four straight passes intervened before Walker Evans’s Shoeshine Sign in a Southern Town brought $64,625, and Alma Lavenson’s Self-Portrait reached $58,750, the latter again to Michael Shapiro, and both over the high estimates.

Then a Lange came up. Auctioneer Rick Wester deadpanned, "The Lange, Ditched, Stalled, and Stranded. I know how that feels." Indeed, despite some good prices, the buy-in rate for the first half of the sale was over 50%. But the Lange was not stranded, as it sold, though below the low estimate.

The second half of the sale, begun with the Evans, was much stronger, and the portents of disaster were abated. Sondra Gilman sent Weegee’s Woman Cab Driver and Macy’s Clown to new heights, $22,000 on an estimate of $5,000—$7,000. Shapiro bought a Bill Brandt nude (pre-distortion) for $47,000, above the high estimate. D.W. Mellor, the dealer and now successful photographer, went over the high end to take Frederick Sommer’s Valise d’Adam for $19,975. Then, to great applause, Harry Callahan’s 1943 Detroit drove to $47,000 on an estimate of only $5,000—$7,000. That’s a clear new world’s record for this artist. The energy was back in the room.

Jeffrey Fraenkel then established a world auction record for Diane Arbus, when he bid $270,000 for her Identical Twins. Though Arbus’s Boy with a Straw Hat, Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio, Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #75, and Joel-Peter Witkin’s fabulous unique work, The Eggs of My Amnesia, all passed, strong prices for Andres Seranno, Mapplethorpe’s Calla Lily Studies, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Abelardo Morell, Adam Fuss (a world auction record $17,625), Vik Muniz, and Christopher Bucklow proved there is much life left in the contemporary photography market.

With a 35% buy-in rate and a $3,017,650 total on a day when the Dow dropped 382 points and the NASDAQ 94 points, with turmoil in the Middle East and the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, Christie’s – and a lot of dealers and collectors – were probably relieved.

The next day at Christie’s regular photographs sale, auctioneer Rick Wester noted that the Dow was up 150. It didn’t matter. The $2,454,485 gross and 46% buy-in rate tells only part of the story. The morning was again a disaster, and the afternoon – and the sale – saved by contemporary work. The highlight of the morning was not a high price, but a telling comment. When Margaret Bourke-White’s The United States Airship Akron in its duraluminum frame ($4,000—$6,000) was offered at no reserve (it’s sold well in the past until one – or two – started showing up in every auction), there were no takers at $2,000. Wester lowered the starting bid to $1,000. Texas dealer Burt Finger began, and Michael Shapiro, sitting behind him followed. After a few bids, Shapiro leaned forward and said to Finger loudly enough so all could hear, "You can have the picture and I’ll take the frame." He finally prevailed at $1,900 ($2,233 with commission). Admittedly the image was not in the best condition.

Beyond that, there were many disappointments and few highlights. Even Stieglitz’s Steerage passed, although admittedly the estimate was a reach. A phone bidder grabbed the Weegee portfolio printed by Sidney Kaplan in 1981 for $47,000, under the low estimate. Pierre Dubreuil’s Self-Portrait did well at $49,350. Shapiro’s buying spree continued when he added Outerbridge’s Calla Lilies in a Vase to his bouquet for $76,375. And Karl Struss’s Cables brought the high price of the sale, $116,000, going to a man described as an associate of Tim Jeffries of Hamiltons, but whom Christie’s described as a private collector, who outbid Kenneth Wynn.

Over lunch at Dean & DeLuca’s, a number of dealers and collectors watched the NBC News ticker that runs around the Rockefeller Center building and read the descriptions of the death toll on the Cole and the fighting between the Israelis and Palestinians. Many expressed pessimism as to whether the afternoon could again rebound. But it did.

Ansel Adams got things going. Portfolio III peaked at $64,625. Shapiro took a Moonrise at $44,650. The Adams market is strong. A run of Anne Brigmans did well. But Modotti fell short again as her Hands of the Puppeteer ($150,000—$200,000) passed at $90,000.

Robert Koch bought Robert Frank’s Motorama for $41,125 ($15,000—$20,000). This same print had sold at Christie’s in April 1999 for $20,700. Jeffrey Fraenkel snared Arbus’s Retired Man and His Wife at Home in a Nudist Camp for the same price (but below the low estimate).

Then one of those inexplicable prices shocked everyone back to attention as a selection of eight Larry Clark prints from Teenage Lust ($9,000—$12,000) became the object of intense bidding between French dealer Nora Cohen and a phone bidder. The phone bidder took home the prize for an astounding $56,400. At least one consignor was deliriously happy. The last of the big lots was three Mapplethorpe gravures of flowers, which blossomed to $44,650. The auction ended with a bang, as the contemporary market muscled its way to a smashing conclusion as 23 of the final 30 lots sold.

At the end, Rick Wester, international director of photographs at Christie’s, said, "Considering recent world events and their effect on the financial markets, we were pleased with the response to the three days of photographs sales at Christie’s. We saw a number of notable records established, including those for Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Adam Fuss. The market remains consistent for works of outstanding quality, mid-range works by established artists, and the fresh, exciting visions of contemporary art photographers."

We concur. But we point out that perhaps only 25% of works offered at auction meet these criteria. The market is getting ever more selective. With the stock market slipping, rising tensions in an important part of the world, and a presidential election looming – and with it the sobering thought that one of the two main candidates will have to face these crises – the days of euphoria are on hold and caution has taken over.

(Copyright 2000 The Photograph Collector.)

By the way, Stephen just won the Sol Mednick Award from the Mid-Atlantic Region of the Society for Photographic Education. He also was spotlighted in the latest issue of Photography in New York. Congrats, Stephen.

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/.