Issue #29  4/28/2001
April Cruel to Christie's East

The Christie's East sale was jam-packed with work in the $1,000-$5,000 range, but no concentration of anything particularly interesting that might have drawn a crowd. There were few Ansel Adams prints and only one Adams portfolio, number IV ($15,000-$20,000).

The Berenice Abbott portfolio, Selected Portraits from the Twenties ($10,000-$15,000), was the only other lot with an estimate over $10,000. The result was discouraging.

The morning began with only 55 chairs set out and only 30 people in them. There was a lovely pile of muffins and cakes set out along with hot coffee - a very welcoming touch that might draw a few more people once they find out about it. (This really is meant as a compliment.)

But have I said this before? At Christie's East, each lot is shown on two big monitors. The pictures seem to have been shot off the wall with a digital camera so that reflections of other pictures, keystoning, color shifts, and lack of resolution detract from the desirability of the image. Does this not distract anyone else? Almost everyone has the catalogue in front of them. Why bother to provide this disservice? All the images must be scanned for the catalogue. Why not just upload those? Or at least get a better camera and put the images on a copy stand? It just seems amateurish.

Then there was morning auctioneer Sarah Lidsey. She has just the right traditionally deep, aristocratic Christie's tone, but her cool manner is more suited to the million-dollar crowd. She doesn't quite connect with this audience. Technically she's a fine auctioneer, but unfortunately she was reduced to a point of transparency bordering on parody in taking imaginary bids in the small room, and when she says "STY-glitz" instead of "Steeg-litz" it makes you jump right out of your skin. End of rant.

My complaints are not meant to be personal. Christie's staff from Rick Wester to Leila Buckjune, the new head of photographs, to Christie's East photography specialist Laura Paterson are all as gracious and intelligent as you will find anywhere. They certainly deserve a better fate than befell them here.

There was not much to report in the way of sales. A new collector, bidder #257, saved the day, such as it was, by buying numerous lots and underbidding various others. He overpaid for Ansel Adams's Winter Sunrise ($5,000-$7,000) at $21,150 (though someone else on the phone was bidding against him), a print someone in the room told me had some problem or damage. The morning's other surprise winner, O. Winston Link's Hot Shot ($2,000-$3,000) chugged to an astounding $17,625 as British dealer Michael Hoppen outlasted #257. Hoppen had noticed that the print was miscataloged as a 1991 print but had actually been printed in the late 1950s to early 1960s. At mid-morning, bidding came to a screeching halt: 37 of 52 lots were bought in, including the cover lot. Of the 15 that sold, 14 sold below the low estimate.

Along the way, a disheartened Lidsey just stopped announcing the photographers' names. On the other hand, it was nice to have a full two hours for lunch.

Rick Wester presided over the afternoon, fashionably elegant in a pale green shirt with French cuffs and a lavender tie. He's pretty relaxed after only a couple of years of auctioneering and relates much better to the audience. But even he couldn't get the normally reliable Curtis's to sell. The Adams portfolio brought $21,150, but the Abbott only $8,813.

In mid-afternoon after competitive bidding on three straight lots, Wester exclaimed, "It feels like an auction!" But at the end of the day he had to just shrug off the results. It was beyond his control.

The totals were sobering: The gross was a scant $682,404. The buy-in rate was 44%. Only 8% sold over estimate and 16% within estimate, while 32% sold below estimate. As T.S. Eliot said, "April is the cruelest month."

(Copyright © 2001 by The Photo Review. My thanks to Steve Perloff and The Photograph Collector Newsletter for giving me permission to use this information. The Photograph Collector is published monthly and is available by subscription for $149.95 (overseas airmail is $169.95). You can phone 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.)