Issue #30  7/23/2001
Day For Night: The Spring Auctions, Round 2

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector

The lethargy that pervaded the first week of the auction season unfortunately hung like a pall over Christie's Rockefeller Center sale on April 18, a fortnight later. Christie's was surely feeling the effects of having lost out on the privilege of selling the duplicates from the Museum of Modern Art Collection, as their offerings were rather thin. And if the offerings were thin, the results were downright emaciated. The buy-in rate was an anorexic 42%, the total a meager $2,539,175.

There were only 20 lots in the sale with estimates between $15,000-$35,000. Of those, eight passed (40%), three sold for under the low estimate, five within the estimates, and four above the high estimate. There were only nine prints with estimates from $40,000-$90,000. Of those, five passed (56%), two sold below the low estimate, and two sold within the estimates. There were only three lots with estimates over $90,000. All three were bought in.

Five bidders dominated the sale. New York dealer Edwynn Houk came away with 10 lots, totaling, $143,351, including a Man Ray solarized nude ($50,000-$70,000) for $47,000. Another New York dealer, Howard Greenberg, won nine lots, totaling $145,113, including Walker Evans's Sidewalk Scene, Selma, Alabama, 1936 ($20,000-$30,000) for $37, 600. San Francisco dealer Michael Shapiro took home 10 lots, totaling $94,002, including Brassaï's Le Canal de l'Ourcq, Paris, 1934-35 ($7,000-$9,000) for $17,625. A mystery woman, who is a private collector known to at least one dealer who declined to divulge her identity, won seven lots, totaling $94,588, including a fiercely fought over Hiroshi Sugimoto print of Radio City Music Hall, NYC, 1977 ($8,000-$12,000) for $30,550. And a phone bidder, #1735, claimed nine lots totaling $78,139. In all, the five took 45 of the 222 prints sold for $555,193.

There were some other highlights, too. San Francisco dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel won the top lot, Arbus's A family one evening in a nudist camp, Pa., 1965/67 ($20,000-$30,000), for $88,125. Man Ray's Enigma II, 1935 ($40,000-$60,000) brought $52,875 from Thea Westreich of Art Advisory Services, and his portrait of Lee Miller, 1933 ($40,000-$60,000) fetched $37,600 from Michael Senft of One Bond Incorporated. Brassaï's Ciel Postiche (False Sky), 1932-34 ($20,000-$30,000), soared to $44,650 even though it was announced as a later print. Andreas Feininger's The Photojournalist, 1955 ($25,000-$35,000) set a world auction record for the artist at $41,125. On the contemporary front, Sam Taylor-Wood's Five Revolutionary Seconds XI, 1997 ($40,000-$60,000) breached the barricades to the tune of $64,625.

Just about all of the other featured lots: Evans's Auto Graveyard, LeGray, Kertész, a Man Ray, Struss's Cables, Sommer (admittedly a difficult, if important, group of six prints of chicken parts), Arbus's Identical Twins, and the Christopher Bucklow cover lot failed to sell. Not even the day's stock market rally (the Dow was up nearly 400 points, the NASDAQ 56 (8%)) could illuminate the gloom.

In the afternoon, auctioneer Rick Wester brought a moment of needed levity while selling a male nude by Mapplethorpe. According to the printed saleroom notice, repeated by Wester to open the lot, "the illustration in the catalogue is incorrect and should be viewed 90 degrees counter clockwise." After hammering down the print to a phone bidder, Wester exhorted Bryce Wolkowitz, who handled the call, to tell the bidder "to make sure it's hung correctly."

One image illustrated an interesting dichotomy in the market. Ansel Adams's Moonrise in a 16" x 20" print from 1978 estimated at $20,000-$30,000 sold for $41,125 to a relatively young bidder. Another print from the 1960s in an 11" x14" format with the same estimate went for $28,200, surprisingly to dealer Charles Isaacs, who is best known for 19th- and early 20th-century material.

"The people who are driving the Ansel Adams market are greatly lacking in connoisseurship," Isaacs proclaimed. This lot, he said, "is the most beautiful print of this image I have ever seen." It had been made after the intensification of the negative, but with more detail than the later, more contrasty prints that Adams made. Rarer in this size, and more "vintage," it is, in Isaacs' consideration, a more valuable print. According to the current wisdom, this is theoretically true. But if the majority of buyers go for "bigger is better," practically it's not. Time will tell, though we think Isaacs got a bargain.

Christie's really encountered a run of bad luck this auction season, fighting an uncertain economy and a series of sales spread out over four weeks. It was a sad U.S. swansong for head of photographs Rick Wester, who is reported to be leaving for a position with Gagosian Gallery. Wester oversaw the spectacular growth of Christie's photographs department and mounted a number of record-breaking sales. He deserves a more rousing send-off.

Although it was somewhat predictable, the lyric "the sun will come out tomorrow" couldn't have been more true than when applied to Sotheby's sale of the MoMA Collection a week later on April 25. Here was rare work with an impeccable provenance that probably wouldn't be appearing on the market again anytime soon. The auction set a record for a single-owner sale in New York, bringing in $4,015,230 with a buy-in rate under 11%. (The previous record for a single-owner sale of photographs in New York was set by Sotheby's sale of photographs from the collection of 7-Eleven, Inc., which brought $3.6 million in April 2000.)

Again Edwynn Houk was a major player, taking almost a quarter of the sale by dollar: 15 lots for a staggering $895,350. Howard Greenberg bought only two lots, but they totaled $217,500. Jeffrey Fraenkel took three for $197,350. And Michael Shapiro made off with nine lots for $186,600.

Throughout, the bidding was hot and furious, with multiple bidders in the room, on the phone, and in the book vying for many lots and sending works at all levels over their high estimates, although many of the top lots sold near their low estimates. It was as though the economic doldrums, the crash of the NASDAQ, the dotcom conflagration, the results of the month's previous auctions were all a bad dream, banished by the dawn light.

This all took place against an important handicap: several major collectors who are on the board of the Modern were enjoined from bidding, since it was their votes that brought the work to sale in the first place. If anything, that made the results even more reassuring for the market.

A group of 14 Man Ray images originally from the collection of James Thrall Soby, brought a total of $814,000, with all but one work finding a buyer. Edwynn Houk took the top three: the Untitled (Rayograph with Statuette and Geometric Shapes), which surpassed a pre-sale high estimate of $150,000 to sell for $176,250; Nude for $121,250 against an estimate of $70,000-$100,000; and Untitled (Rayograph with String and Hand Shadow) for $104,250 on an estimate of $80,000-$120,000.

Nineteen photographs by Walker Evans, most from his work with the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s, brought $444,450, with every lot finding a buyer. Penny Picture Display, Savannah, 1936 ($150,000-$250,000) was the top lot of the day, bringing a world auction record for the artist of $181,750 from Jeffrey Fraenkel. Houses in Negro Quarter of Tupelo, Mississippi surpassed a high estimate of $30,000 to sell for $69,750. And a later print of Main Street, Saratoga Springs, New York drove past an estimate of $3,000 to sell for $21,450.

Edward Steichen also took three of the top ten slots. His rare Self-Portrait from 1898 brought $170,750 ($150,000-$250,000) from Howard Greenberg. His Heavy Roses, Voulangis, France sold for $154,250 ($150,000-$250,000). (An image like this is always rumored to go to Elton John.) And Daniel Wolf won The Black Canyon for $115,750, over the high estimate of $100,000.

Alfred Stieglitz's Dorothy Norman's Hands, 1932, went to a private collector for $115,750 ($100,000-$150,000). His Radio City, Morning brought $104,250 against a pre-sale estimate of $80,000-$120,000 from Edwynn Houk. As many as six bidders vied for Stieglitz's classic photogravure of The Steerage, in its original American Place frame, driving the price to $46,750, nearly double the high estimate.

And rounding out the blue-chip top ten was Charles Sheeler's Slag Buggy, Ford Plant, Detroit, tipping in at $88,150 ($70,000-$100,000).

Also of note, Berenice Abbott's iconic New York at Night, set a record for the artist at auction of $69,750 ($30,000-$50,000). And all six photographs of Paris and environs by Eugène Atget, drawn from the Museum's celebrated Abbott-Levy Collection, found buyers, bringing a total of $192,800. Atget's St. Cloud from 1924 surpassed a high estimate of $30,000, to sell for $51,350 to a bidder in the room.

Sotheby's various-owner sale the following day was also strong, taking in $2,217,500 on only 254 lots and with a buy-in rate just over 24%.

Selections from The Collection of 7-Eleven led the way. The top lot, Paul Strand's Central Park, New York, 1915, brought $74,350 ($70,000-$100,000) from California dealer Maggie Weston, the day's top buyer with six lots totaling $154,500. Howard Greenberg, Michael Shapiro, and the aforementioned woman collector were all active, but the next nine lots of the top ten all went to private collectors, most phone or order bidders.

Also from 7-Eleven was Carleton E. Watkins's Secret Town Trestle, which surpassed a high estimate of $50,000 to sell for $65,150, and his El Capitan, 3600 Feet, which brought $42,150 against an estimate of $20,000-$30,000. Eadweard Muybridge's Pi-Wi-Ack, Valley of the Yosemite climbed to $39,850 ($20,000-$30,000).

Contemporary works also fared well. The rarity of works by Francesca Woodman on the market inspired active bidding for five photographs from her series, Self-Deceit, Rome, which sold for $62,850 ($30,000-$50,000), establishing a new record for the artist at auction. Her Untitled Figure Study exceeded a high estimate of $30,000 to bring $49,050. Highlighting a group of Surrealist photography was Maurice Tabard's photomontage Composition, which sold for $42,150 against an estimate of $15,000-$20,000.

Straight photography also scored, as Edward Weston's Nude on Sand ($20,000-$25,000) drifted to $46,750; Ansel Adams' Siesta Lake, Yosemite National Park ($20,000-$30,000) sailed to $44,450; and Berenice Abbott's portfolio, Berenice Abbott's New York ($25,000-$35,000), jostled its way to $42,150.

There were a few disappointments. Steichen's own complete set of Camera Work, missing only a single plate, passed at $95,000 on a low estimate of $100,000, although it sold later. Certainly the break-up value of the set is several times the minimum, although one might have thought an institution would have bought it and kept it intact. The missing plate could certainly be acquired later. And Margaret Bourke-White's Gargoyle, The Chrysler Building failed to find a new home at $60,000-$80,000, as did a very erotic Man Ray nude at $70,000-$100,000.

Whereas the MoMA sale felt like an event--the crowded room abuzz with energy and anticipation--this sale felt like business: dry and efficient. Nonetheless, there was a sense of spring renewal in the air, a sense that the dark days of economic winter had finally been banished.

For the auction houses, however, there is a threatening thundercloud on the horizon: the recent indictments of A. Alfred Taubman, the former chairman of Sotheby's who is also its largest shareholder, and Sir Anthony Tennant, the onetime chairman of Christie's, for conspiring to fix the fees charged to about 130,000 customers.

(Copyright © 2001 by The Photograph Collector.)

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/.