With the stock market on a gut-wrenching roller coaster ride after a long decline, and the photography auctions spread out over three weeks, the results at Swann and Christie's East on April 5 and 6 were wholly predictable. Some of the regulars, especially those from the West Coast and overseas, who would normally come in for four to five days of previews and auctions were not about to make three separate trips, especially with so little truly compelling material being offered in Round 1. One would think that Swann would have a bit of a floor with the unique and quirky material that is its hallmark, but that a lot of the later-printed material that comes up frequently at auction would be passed over to conserve funds.
All that was indeed the case.
You can't fault the houses, which offered pretty much the same material they have been for years (although you could argue that in itself is a fault).
At Swann the morning started with the photographic literature sale. The top lot, Alvin Langdon Coburn's London, with 20 tipped-in photogravures ($8,000-$10,000) failed to find a buyer as it was passed at $5,200, but Men and Women of the Day, 1888-94, with 251 Woodburytypes, more than doubled its high estimate at $12,650.
Throughout the day, there were about two dozen bidders in the room, that number dwindling later in the afternoon, and up to eight people manning the telephones. It's just not enough to reach the critical mass necessary for enthusiasm.
A Margaret Bourke-White photograph of Soviet children seated at a table sold well over high estimate at $12,650.
A tense bidding war between two bidders in the room for a lot of 79 photographs of China during and after the Boxer Rebellion, estimated at $400-$500, ended with the prize going to collector Fong Chow for $6,670. The loser, clearly disappointed, fled the room. While one befuddled dealer said he saw nothing interesting in the lot, Chow told me that he was motivated because it contained images of the city where he was born, proving that personal considerations can weigh heavily in the auction room.
The biggest surprise of the day came on Alvin Langdon Coburn's platinum print, Near Hollywood, California, 1911, estimated at $1,000-$2,000. Dealer Janet Lehr battled a determined phone bidder. The lot was almost hammered down at $5,000, but the fray was rejoined, and Lehr walked away with the print for $20,000 (that's $23,000 with premium). "People just don't realize what Coburns are worth. There's a lag," Lehr explained.
Two of the kinds of lots that Swann is best known for had opposite fates. Two salt prints of Pawnees mounted to a single board, 1858 ($9,000-$12,000), failed to sell, but, of course, this was the third try for this material at auction in less than a year and a half. On the other hand, an album of 216 pictures of male body-builders, 1950s-60s ($1,500-$2,500), soared to $8,625.
Alfred Stieglitz's beautiful platinum print of Flora and Dog Dandy, 1909 ($10,000-$15,000), was a steal at $8,050.
Throughout the two days, it was a good time to be a buyer. The total was only $359,810, well below the low estimate. Swann claimed a reasonable 32% buy-in rate. I counted 37% in the photographs sale, but Swann counts sales made immediately after the auction, of which there were several before I even left, and the book sale had an even lower rate. All in all, they survived to fight another day.
(Copyright © 2001 by The Photograph Collector.)
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