Issue #21  10/18/2000
My Own Take On The NY Auctions: Much Ado About Nothing…and About Everything; a Bit of An Editorial Ramble

OK, New York wasn’t all that stunning in terms of results, but the material wasn’t all that stunning either, but the estimates certainly were.

Aggressive to the extreme was what most dealers and collectors at the auctions were calling many of the estimates, particularly at Christie’s.

And many of us looking at those estimates and the very high results from the spring auctions simply felt there wasn’t any point to working up a sweat. As NY dealer Alan Klotz told me during Christie’s difficulties, which admittedly were complicated by events in the Middle East and in the stock market, "If I had known that the actual prices would be this low, I would have come prepared to bid." He wasn’t alone in that observation. The auctions, particularly Christie’s on this outing, were their own worst enemies.

When dealer Will Schaeffer took a daguerreotype of an Indian pow-wow for a mere $15,000 against an estimate of $35,000-$50,000 and an expectation of an even higher price, we all sat stunned, unable to believe that Christie’s would let the item (easily worth well over the high estimate) actually go for that low a price. But indeed it sold instead of being bought in. Schaeffer had been bidding for a client (obviously an overjoyed client), but that didn’t stop at least two people from offering an immediate multiple of what he had just paid for the dag. There were other bargains this time around, although you wouldn’t have known it from the estimates. I would suspect a lot of late deals to bolster the numbers, but it is hard to come up with big bucks on a day’s notice.

I also heard from more than a few photo dealers that they were a bit fed up with the auction houses and their high premiums. While there isn’t any official boycott, there is a lot of general disgust and annoyance. Photography dealers were the lifeblood of the auctions right up until the early ‘90s, but now they feel abused and taken for granted. As a result, more and more dealers are only buying occasionally or for clients. While there are a lot of factors involved in this sea change, higher premiums, higher reserves and estimates, and generally less exciting material have been the prime movers in this revolution. Perhaps all of these things were inevitable, but that fact doesn’t make it any easier for dealers to deal with it. Today, collectors are the primary buyers at the auction houses, and the houses are proud of this change–that they have taken over the retail role from the photography galleries and dealers. I have heard the house experts actually spout this rhetorical nonsense.

I don’t think this change is good for any one concerned over the long run, including the auction houses and especially the collectors. But then greed never looks beyond today.

While the reasons I believe this all to be true are very involved, briefly I feel that all parties share a bit of the blame. Today, many collectors do not want to spend time to educate themselves and only want to bag the latest "big name"; many galleries have poorly trained staff that make potential buyers feel like they’re infringing on the gallery’s time or worse, and seem unwilling to spend time with someone who doesn’t have a lot of bucks; and the NYC auction houses short-circuit true education, place a huge emphasis on "big name" shopping and discourage true connoisseurship, do not police problems with images properly, and are painting themselves into a corner, all to be the biggest/baddest one on the block.

Yes, this is generalizing the situation and there are many exceptions to all of these, but it is the general trend that we should ALL be concerned about.

Collectors need to consider that it takes an investment in time as well as money. Being an "instant buyer" rarely results in a collection (or even an investment) that provides long-term satisfaction; it is the knowledge gained, the friends made and the rich new visual vocabulary attained that provides that satisfaction. In addition, all of us in the "trade" have seen items sell at auction for multiples over what the same item was priced in a gallery literally down the street. Collectors need to do their homework, or at least work with someone who will.

Dealers and galleries have to recognize that they need to train their staffs better to communicate more appropriately with customers and to be able to actually educate the customer. And I don’t mean educate as in "you should buy this photographer, because he is more expensive and I make a better commission." Training to find out client needs is a basic that is ignored by many in the trade. Perhaps AIPAD can help fill this gap with a training program for dealers and their staffs. At the very least, galleries can send staff to general sales training programs.

And auction houses need to wake up to the fact that lower price points actually will bring in new blood. New collectors usually don’t start buying at the rarefied levels of the recent years. I realize that Sotheby’s with their web site and Christie’s with its East catalogue have attempted to do a little of this. But that doesn’t mean selling off portfolio prints of photographers after they’ve died, or other uninteresting lower level stuff that really doesn’t have a market. Why not take a page from the Europeans and begin to get items that are interesting AND inexpensive? Yes, it is harder to do, but isn’t that why the houses pay their experts the big bucks? (Only kidding, guys and gals.)

Galleries and dealers should also do the same thing. If you all wonder where the new collectors are going to come from, then start developing them by actually selling something they can afford at the beginning. Yes, I know it doesn’t look like it makes "business" sense. It IS easier to sell the high priced items, and you make more money for the same amount (or less) work, but if you do this, you will lose out on developing new clients, and the photography market will lose out on a great new group of collectors. How about investing a little time, effort and money on developing your customer base? I think it will pay off for everyone in the long run.

And how about more educational programs? I thought Sotheby’s Southworth & Hawes round table and catalogue were great, but why only wait for the rare birds? Why not a program every auction? Let me credit the experts for their outreach programs. I saw Rick Wester not too long ago at a lecture he gave in Philadelphia on the photo market, and I know Denise Bethel, Amanda Doenitz and Daile Kaplan have done similar programs. Good work all, but we need more. And we need a rollback on buyer’s premiums (which we might all get any way in the form of credits because of the recent anti-trust settlements), better monitoring of poor quality and even damaged prints, and less repetition of the same images, auction after auction. I will credit Denise Bethel with the best job on the latter. She did it at Swann and now she does it at Sotheby’s. Perhaps cutting back on the numbers will also help a bit (and I credit Swann with at least the attempt to do so, although the material auctioned this time didn’t seem to reflect a winnowing to quality). And galleries should consider doing more lectures and gallery "talks."

And while I am at it (IT being this rant that will probably infuriate most of the photo world), all my on-line friends ought to consider giving up the computer and eBay or Sotheby’s on-line for at least a few weekends. Get up and out. You will give your developing carpal tunnel syndrome and eye strain a rest. Go out to one of those endangered photography shows. Meet some people and actually hold a real photograph in your hands (rather than look at a virtual image). Ask the dealers some questions and actually learn. It’s good for the brain. Go to a museum or a real (as opposed to virtual) gallery or photo dealer to see real (as opposed to virtual) images (check out our on-line calendar at http://www.iphotocentral.com/calendar.shtml), which is the best way to learn. There is nothing like seeing the "presence" of a great image and print. If you are in New York City, you also might want to check out the review by my Asst. Director Carol McCusker below for two great shows at the Met.

If the gallery people act like used car salespeople, walk out for god’s sake! There are plenty of galleries and most are genuinely interested in helping clients and working cooperatively with them. By the way, don’t expect a lot of gallery attention at a busy opening or while they are putting up a show. Be somewhat realistic about your demands on staff time during very busy periods.

As private dealers which do a lot of business over the web, we still enjoy having visitors to our home to show the actual work and to offer our advice and help. Just give us a day or two to clean up the mess.

There should be a dialogue on all of these issues (not about the mess in my house/office, but the rest of these issues). AIPAD (Association of International Photography Art Dealers) is probably the most appropriate vehicle for such an on-going discussion. Will it take on the challenge? How about it, Bob and Kathleen?

Instead of trying to protect turf and a dealer or auction’s particular "piece of the pie," how about talking about a win-win–a way to expand the pie for everyone and help collectors to boot? Can we all work together and try to recapture some of the reasons we love photography in the first place? It just might result in a broader market for all.