It was a strange and sad ending to a saga that began a number of years ago. Phil Rivkin's photo collection was the product of his selling disputed green diesel credits to big oil companies for tens of millions of dollars. Rivkin built it up quickly and often didn’t view the actual prints themselves—both before and after he made his purchases.
Even before he was extradited from Guatemala, a portion of Rivkin's collection (2,200 pieces) had been confiscated in Jersey City (see: http://www.iphotocentral.com/news/article-view.php/206/196/1265/0/2/10/archive). The Feds chose Christie's to sell off this largess. The first auction of this material was the catalogue sale called "Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs" on February 17-18 in New York. There are nine more future Internet sales of this collection announced. It also was an interesting mix of images from 19th-century masterworks to Photo Impressionists to Modernism.
This was an auction that seemed to harken back three decades or so. The players here were largely dealers and fairly sophisticated collectors, and included many who had sold these images to Rivkin. For the record, that included myself. I bought two of my own images back at this sale. In one case, I was prepared to go at least five times what I wound up buying the piece back for. The prices, while somewhat high on the Wednesday evening auction, were often quite reasonable during the Thursday day sale. Items with a low estimate of $5,000 had no reserve at all. Being in the room itself was a major advantage for once. And those in the room usually played major roles, unlike at most auctions in today's environment.
The 278-lot sale initially produced just under $9 million and buy-ins were only just a shade over 9%. This was a very successful sale given the kind of auction results seen over the past year. After-sale bids were also being actively taken. Head of the Department Darius Himes told me that half of the buy-ins were indeed sold afterwards, meaning that only 4-5% of the sale remained unsold.
There were some interesting catalogue notes including one indicating the Federal agency consigning the photographs requires Christie's to supply them with a complete list of successful bidders. This was noted at the front of the catalogue but in the smallest type in the catalogue. According to Christie's personnel, this is a normal procedure whenever the U.S. government puts anything up for auction, be it an Alfred Stieglitz photograph or a beat-up pickup truck. It was also one of several reasons that Sotheby's reportedly decided not to bid on this auction group, although they spent several months evaluating it.
The evening sale consisted of only 69 lots, and yet it took well over two hours for Philippe Garner to work his way through. That might be an all-time slow auction record. He did bring in over a whopping $6.4 million during the evening, averaging well over $100,000 per lot sold (eight lots were bought in). While there were some real treasures here, there were few bargains.
On our auction coverage, we've usually only covered items $35,000 and over (including the buyer's premium), which we will do on this one, unless there is something unusual about a lesser one. Otherwise this article will go on forever.
Order bidders grabbed the first two lots. Lot 2, a Gertrude Kasebier of Rodin, went just over the top part of the estimate range at $40,000.
A phone bidder picked off the next lot, Edward Steichen's Wind Fire, at $75,000, well under the estimate of $80,000-120,000 (without premium).
The next lot was one of the early big tests, lot 4, Edward Steichen's In Memoriam, 1901 (Female Nude), estimated at $400,000-600,000. It's an important image that has come up before at auction and privately. Several bidders in the room made a play for it, including New York dealer Hans Kraus, Jr., who owned a copy previously, and collector/dealer Michael Mattis. In the end it was New York gallerist Howard Greenberg against Christie's consultant Matthieu Humery on the phone with bidder 1763, whom I suspect was his boss at Christie's, Francois Pinault. Pinault is worth a reported $14 billion dollars. Guess who won the bidding war on this one? Yes, bidder 1763 at $665,000. It would not be the only time that bidder would make a dent here. This lot would wind up as the second highest of this auction. Given that the Musée d'Orsay had paid slightly over $400,000 in October 1999 for Steichen's 'In Memoriam' at the Jammes sale in London, which set a record for a Steichen image at the time, this lot did not seem particularly expensive here.
Hans Kraus would make a play on lot 9, Gertrude Kasebier's Portrait of Edward Steichen, 1901. He found himself bidding into the estimate range against fellow dealer Howard Greenberg, taking the prize at $35,000.
On the next lot Kraus found himself bidding against both Howard Greenberg and Michael Mattis, before a further onslaught from a persistent phone bidder took him up over the high estimate for Edward Steichen's The Pool—Evening: A Symphony to a Race and to a Soul, 1899 (lot 10). The final price of $341,000 to Kraus would make the lot the fourth highest here. Interestingly enough, Kraus had been the underbidder the last time this image came up during the Met/Gilman auction at Sotheby's in 2006, when it had sold to Babcock Galleries' John Driscoll, who took the previous plunge at $296,000 for this lot.
Michael Mattis, who apparently sold Phil Rivkin more than any other single source (reportedly about $9 million worth of photographs), took on dealers Paul Hertzmann, Hans Kraus and Humery's phone bidder for lot 11, Alvin Langdon Coburn's The Cloud. Mattis paid just a shade over the previous price of this great image at Sotheby's fall auction in 2011, when it brought $92,000 versus the $93,750 that Mattis had to plop down for it this time. Prices here at the evening sale, as I noted previously, weren't usually that far off from what Rivkin had paid for them. This was just one such example.
In a battle of phone bidders, one took lot 12, Fred Holland Day's image of a sailor, for more than double the high estimate at $42,500. OK, it's Holland Day, but the "atmospheric" print left me cold.
On lot 13, I wasn't particularly lucky. Neither was Hans Kraus. We both lost the exquisite Clarence H. White's Blind Man's Bluff to a phone bidder, who went well over the high estimate at $52,500. What a lovely image and print though. New York gallerist Tom Gitterman had warned me prior to the auction that he would go after this one, which had at one point been sold through him, but he never got the chance as the bidding heated up right out of the gate.
The next lot, Alfred Stieglitz's "Georgia O'Keefe" (with African Sculpture), had originally been bought by Michael Mattis at Christie's NY in October 2005. At the time Mattis had paid $240,000 for the lot. He sold it later to Rivkin. This time Art Consultant Diana Edkins and New York gallerist Edwynn Houk battled it out, with Edkins taking the prize for a client at $269,000. That price put the lot into a tie for fifth place overall in the auction.
Lot 15, Edward Steichen's The Steichen Book, came through Harper's Books. It got picked up by a man in the room for $68,750 with Christopher Luce underbidding.
Alfred Stieglitz's The Flat-Iron in a photogravure on Japanese vellum (lot 16) sold to a man in the room (bidder 539) over a phone bidder at $87,500, double the high estimate and well over the $66,000 that John Driscoll of Babcock Galleries had paid for it during the Met/Gilman sale at Sotheby's in 2006.
I took on Mattis on Lot 17, a very rich printing-out print by Eugene Atget of Notre Dame. An arrowroot print of the same image had sold in Paris for over $200,000. Here I only pushed to the $75,000 that Mattis had to pay for this one. It is still a relative bargain.
Lot 18 was the lot that everyone had been waiting for. Gustave Le Gray's Bateaux Quittant le Port du Havre had originally (and briefly) set a world auction record for a 19th-century photograph when Rivkin had bought it in France in 2011 for 917,000 euros, or just over $1.3 million. Before that sale, I had predicted a price above $1 million because I knew of several potential bidders who were interested in the piece. This time I was less certain it would make that amount and thought the result might only be in the $750,000 area, all in. I was wrong, as several determined phones bid the piece up from its $300,000-500,000 range. It didn't surprise me though to see that Matthieu Humery's phone—perhaps Francois Pinault—was again the winner at $965,000. And it would not surprise me to learn that the phone underbidder was perhaps Qatar.
Lot 20, an oversized photogravure of Alfred Stieglitz's famed "Hand of Man", soared over its estimate of $30,000-50,000 as various people in the room and on the phone battled it out. Finally Michael Mattis took the lot, paying $87,500, and just beating out dealer Howard Greenberg. Greenberg took this next lot though, Ben Shahn's Men with Hats, Listening, at nearly double the high estimate at $27,500.
Edwynn Houk had to battle Greenberg, the Internet and a commission bid to take home lot 22, Steichen's New York, from the Shelton, with a bid well over the high estimate at $137,000, putting the lot into a tie for ninth place overall. Greenberg came back on the next lot, Edward Steichen's The May Pole at $68,750.
Charles Sheeler's Chartres—Flying Buttresses at the Crossing, lot 24, sold to a bidder in the room (paddle 531) for just over the low estimate at $40,000.
Lot 26, Stieglitz's Songs of the Sky sold to phone bidder 1756 for 50% over the high estimate at $37,500. Michael Mattis and other phone bidders underpinned this one.
The Nelson-Atkins' Keith Davis took a shot at the snapshot-like image of lot 27, Stieglitz's portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe, but he went down in defeat after withstanding phone and commission bidders, only to see Art Consultant Kevin Moore take the lot at $106,250, well above the estimate of $40,000-60,000. For my tastes it was just too simple and too small (3-1/8 x 4-5/8 in.).
The next lot, Paul Strand's Taos, NM, Ranchos Church #2, attracted several in the room, including Michael Mattis and Howard Greenberg, but in the end it was Christopher Luce who took home this small gem for a whopping $106,250 over an estimate of only $30,000-50,000.
It wasn't too surprising that the group of eight Stieglitz Equivalents would be a high-flying lot. It was only a matter of how high. Phones and Internet pushed it up past its high estimate to $269,000, putting lot 29 into a tie for fifth place with lot 14. A phone bidder (1758) got this one.
A phone battled with Michael Mattis and took home Edward Weston's Badwater, Death Valley at near the high estimate, paying $56,250 for lot 31.
Lot 32 was another of the iconic images in this collection: Edward Weston's Shell. Estimated at a reasonable $250,000-350,000, it got surprisingly little action. A man in the front row battled Matthieu Humery on the phone but only to $233,000 all in. Humery's phone (again 1763) was the winner. The lot was the sixth highest in the auction.
A later print of Imogen Cunningham's Two Callas (lot 33) sold to a woman in the room (paddle 512) for well over the high estimate at $56,250.
A lone order bidder got the softly phallic Pepper (2P) by Edward Weston, lot 34, for well below the low estimate at $62,500. I liked lot 35, Edward Weston's Knees, but it too went just under the low estimate to a phone bidder (1735) for $118,750. Michael Mattis and Howard Greenberg battled it out over Weston's Dunes, Oceano (lot 36) with Greenberg pulling in the prize at the mid point of the estimate range at $100,000. Edwynn Houk bought the next Weston Dunes, Oceano (lot 37) with Greenberg pushing him up to nearly the low estimate at $118,750.
Gustave Le Gray's Breaking Wave, lot 38, sold to a phone bidder, for below the low estimate at $137,000, which was good enough for a ninth place tie. This image has come up several times before at auction. Good copies have sold for about $250,000+. This one sold for a lot more when Rivkin bought it in France in 2011: about 372,000 euro or just over $535,000 at the time. Actually, I thought that was a silly price. As I said in my coverage back in 2011, the print had what appeared to be an ink mark on the verso that showed through lightly and, in my opinion, would be difficult if not impossible to remove. It also had some old retouch, which needed to be reworked, but that was not as serious a problem.
Talbot's Articles of China, lot 39, sold—not surprisingly—to dealer Hans Kraus for $37,500.
Josef Sudek's Melon, a pigment print, sold to a phone bidder for just over the high estimate at $40,000. The next lot, Sudek's Still Life with Bread and Frame, sold to the same phone bidder at the mid range of the estimate at $25,000. It was a bargain. I had paid just under that at Phillips London in 2008.
Another key photograph in the sale was the Coburn Vortograph, 1917 (lot 43). I thought that this was one that would fly over its estimates, but it only made it just into those estimates. The phones, Robert Koch and Howard Greenberg all vied for this rare work. Greenberg reeled it in for only $137,000, tying for ninth place and, believe it or not, a real bargain.
Maybe not quite as much a bargain in my opinion, although an important image, was the next lot, Constantin Brancusi, L'Atelier. Estimated at $40,000-60,000, the image of the artist's work in his studio soared as a phone bidder battled New York dealer Bruce Silverstein, who supported and helped build the market for Brancusi. The phone (paddle 1724) came away with this one, but at $197,000, pushing the lot into eighth place overall. Lot 45 was another Brancusi, this time of Mademoiselle Pogany II, and again the same phone bidder outbid another phone, pushing the price to well over the high estimate at $106,250.
A copy of Germaine Krull's important portfolio-book, Metal, (lot 47), sold to a phone for well over the high estimate at $50,000.
Matthieu Humery on the phone with bidder 1763 again outlasted another phone bidder on lot 49, the bigger of the two Rudolf Koppitz's Movement Studies in this auction. It sold at the high estimate at $100,000.
Lot 50, a Frantisek Drtikol pigment print of a Nude on Steps, sold for just over the high estimate at $50,000 to a California Internet bidder, as Philippe Garner announced during the bidding. Another Drtikol Nude, lot 51, was contended by several dealers in the room, including Paul Hertzmann, Bruce Silverstein and Howard Greenberg. Greenberg was the successful bidder in the end at $50,000.
Art consultant Kevin Moore nailed down Heinz Hajek-Halke's Erotik—ganz gross! for nearly twice the high estimate at $47,500. Michael Mattis bought lot 58, a small Baron De Meyer, for the same price.
Another iconic image, Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother, lot 63, drew out Humery's phone bidder once again, bidding against the room and other phones. Estimated at $80,000-120,000, the lot soared to $389,000, or the third highest priced lot in the auction. Bruce Silverstein had bought it at Christie's in 2011 for Phil Rivkin for a mere $134,500, which was admittedly a good price.
The next lot had an incorrect description. It was the vintage version of this Cartier-Bresson print and the description had been swapped with the later 1950s print and lot 275. An order bidder took it at $43,750.
The final lot (#69) in the evening sale was another Le Gray, The Brig. This print was a decent, average print, and The Brig is not a particularly rare image. Phil Rivkin had bought it from Lee Gallery during the 2011 AIPAD show, where it was priced at a very reasonable $100,000. Rivkin reportedly got a substantial discount on the piece. Howard Greenberg bidding for a client that he had on his cell phone got the photo over a phone bidder for a whopping $221,000. I caught Hans Kraus's eye after this one, and we both shook our heads. There are Le Gray's and there are Le Gray's.
Even though the day sale had so many more lots, there were only about a dozen and a half to report on based on my price cut-off, but this included two six-figure lots.
For me the day portion of the auction had many more interesting and vastly undervalued lots than the night before. On one lot that I bought back, I was willing to go over 12 times the low estimate, but in the end I only had to double Christie's low estimate. That might give you some idea of the prizes scattered here among some damaged and miscataloged prints. Many photographs were printed later than the catalogue indicated in my opinion, so you had to preview and be very careful. But there were some great values too. It was an auction, as I said above, for professionals.
The first lot to reach my artificial minimum was lot 109. Christie's, for some reason, jumped from 69 at the end of the evening sale to 100 to start off the day sale. Lot 109 was a Man Ray of Adam & Eve (Duchamp and Perlmutter) that glowed under black light and was said to be printed in 1955. It sold at the high estimate of $37,500 to a phone bidder (1708), perhaps French, since it was Matthieu Humery who took the bid.
It was a string of Brancusi lots that sparked up the prices. Humery's phone bidder (1708) was back again trying and succeeding to keep up with the jumped bids by dealer Bruce Silverstein. The estimate of $10,000-15,000 on lot 126, Mme. L.R. just was a brief interlude on the way to an ultimate winning bid of $112,500.
Bruce Silverstein came back on the next Brancusi lot, again jumping bids multiple times in a nearly futile attempt to ward off the phone bidders. But in the end he did manage to nab lot 127, Self-Portrait in His Studio, for $100,000 over the estimate of a mere $10,000-15,000.
The third Brancusi lot (128, Femme se regardant dans un mirior) went to a phone bidder (1776) over another phone bidder for $43,750. Dealer Robert Koch had told me that he had sold another print of this image (admittedly not quite as large or as strong) for less than half that amount.
Lot 134, a copy of a Man Ray Rayograph from Les Champs Delicieux, was estimated at a tempting $15,000-25,000. It had some condition issues, but they were light and it was a nice image and print. Man Ray expert Timothy Baum had told me that he felt it was a proof made outside of the portfolio. A woman in the room battled with a phone bidder, who got it in the end at $47,500.
I'm sorry, but I just didn't get lot 163, a muddy, dark and non-descript Sudek silver print from his "The Window of My Studio" series. Estimated at—for me at least—a relatively high $6,000-8,000, the lot soared on bids from the phone and the floor, finally coming in at a very high $40,000 and selling to a woman in the room. There were lots of other great Sudek's here that I would have rather had—and at much lower prices. For instance, lot 166, went to Appraiser Penelope Dixon for $21,250. At half the cost of lot 163, Dixon got a high caliber Sudek.
Bruce Silverstein was pretty active on the Alfred Stieglitz lots. After I scooped up lot 175 (Poplars) for a client, Silverstein picked up the next lot (Equivalent) for $37,500. He also picked off lots 179 and 180. Reportedly, Silverstein is planning a Stieglitz exhibit at his gallery.
The Edward Weston of Nude on Sand, Oceano, 1936 (lot 197) attracted my attention even though it wasn't a perfect print (some small chemical spots and it was off of its original mount), but the images and print was always one that I had admired personally, and the estimate was only $10,000-15,000. Not surprisingly I got some competition. After a short battle, a man in a gray sweater overbid me at $45,000. C'est la vie.
Lot 226, Happy Days by Gertrude Kasebier, was a platinum print that got a lot of attention. It's an important image reproduced in Camera Work. Lots of bidders here with the estimate a tempting $15,000-20,000. In the end it was dealer Hans Kraus over Michael Mattis at $40,000.
Michael Mattis came back though on the first of two lots of Clarence White nudes. He stole lot 229 for a mere $10,000. The next lot (230) cost Howard Greenberg a bit more as Art Consultant Diana Edkins pushed Greenberg above the high estimate to $40,000.
The lovely Heinrich Kuhn of Mary Warner (lot 239) became an object desired by two dealers, Howard Greenberg and Paul Hertzmann. Greenberg came out on top in this battle, paying more than triple the high estimate at $35,000.
Stieglitz's Spring Showers in a slightly oversized photogravure on Japan vellum (lot 250) sold to Howard Greenberg for just under the high estimate at $35,000. Lot 254, Stieglitz's Winter—Fifth Avenue sold to a phone bidder for more than 2-1/2 times the high estimate at $65,000. They were underbid by New York Gallerist Deborah Bell.
Paul Strand's tiny print of Lighthouse, Prospect Harbor, ME (lot 266), which was estimated at $10,000-15,000, became a free for all that included bidders Michael Mattis, Gallerist Robert Mann and lots of phone bidders. One of the phone bidders ultimately took this one home for $43,750.
A very late-printed Henri Cartier-Bresson of Rue Mouffetard (Boy with Wine Bottles) in the 14-1/8 x 9-1/2 in. size was estimated at $12,000-15,000, which, with premium is the full retail on this one. So, of course it had to become a battleground for the phones and the Internet. A "lucky" (note the quote marks) Internet bidder got to "win" this lot (274) at $37,500, or about double what it is worth in the real world.
Michael Mattis tried to outbid a commission bidder (1018) on a Diane Arbus-printed photo of the Burlesque comedienne in her dressing room, Atlantic City, NJ (lot 291), but he gave up the battle at $43,750, which was really not a bad price at all for this print. Two more Diane Arbus-printed photographs (lots 296 and 297) also got some action. The first one of a Teenager with Baseball Bat saw San Francisco Gallerist Robert Koch bid up the same commission bid, only to fall victim once again to 1018, who bought the piece for $37,500, the high estimate. The second image of Two Friends in the Park, NYC saw a lot of different bidders (phone, commission bids and room), but in the end phone bidder 1718 took this one at the same $37,500.
All in all, this was a successful outing for Christie's. We'll have to see how the April auctions go, especially without much of a photography team left at Sotheby's, which has been decimated by resignations.
In conjunction with Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs, Christie's will be offering over a thousand works of this collection throughout nine thematic online sales in 2016, across a wide-range of price-points and with most lots to be sold without reserve. America the Beautiful, the first online sale of the series is scheduled for March 8 to 17.
For additional information on this digital sale series, you can visit http://www.christies.com/photographsonline.
America the Beautiful
8 – 17 March
Photography: The First 80 Years
12 – 21 April
European Modernism and the Avant-Garde
10 – 19 May
The Female Form
7 – 16 June
The Picture Press
5 – 14 July
An Eclectic Eye
2 – 11 August
Fashion and Glamour
6 – 15 September
Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment
4 – 13 October
Josef Sudek: A Window into Modernity
1 – 10 November