The Paul Walter Collection had all the components to be another blockbuster sale for Sotheby's London special May auction: a big name collector and some strong images. This time English images were the predominant country represented, rather than France as it was in the Jammes sale. And indeed the Walter's collection did deliver, bringing in just over two million pounds sterling, including the steep buyer's premium. That is a pretty healthy average when spread out over the 174 lots that actually sold.
One thing that took the buzz out of this auction though was that much of the material had serious (or minor) condition problems, most of which were not visible in the catalogue. I was stunned to see even heavy foxing marks that somehow became invisible in the catalogue (lot 73). While this was not the rule, certain prints certainly "improved" in the reproductions as red predominated over yellow in the printing. The printing may be something that the auction house has really no control over, but some of the prints looked like a photo editing program such as Photoshop was overused. This was a case of the catalogue clearly looking better than the reality of the prints themselves, although the curating/writing was mostly excellent throughout.
The weak condition problem was a repeat of the situation at the MoMA sale at Sotheby's New York at the end of April (see the previous newsletter #30), where some of the material was clearly "seconds" or had condition issues. Like the MoMA sale, this auction did, however, offer some extraordinary buying opportunities if you were cautious, patient and opportunistic. It also makes one think what the prices might be for really great prints of rare 19th century work.
The other issue that hampered the results was that the images, in many cases, were simply not Walter's best pieces, which went earlier to MoMA in the mid-1980s or sold at auction previously (His Indian collection, which was one of his core interests, sold several years ago in London.). There were, of course, extraordinary exceptions.
Despite all of this, the results were still very strong with little left on the table. The sale sold over 78% by lot and even more by pound sterling result. Unlike in New York, where many of the top collectors were blocked from bidding at the Sotheby's MoMA photography sale due to potential conflicts of interest and a MoMA-issued "request" to those on its various boards to not bid, Walter's sale drew both collectors and dealers alike. And they seemed reluctantly hungry. There was no dominant player at this auction, but several participants spent well into six figures.
The first real battle shaped up over a study of trees by Giacomo Caneva (lot 5). It was a nice salt print, estimated at 4,000-6,000 pounds. Three bidders were active: collector Bruce Lundberg, and dealers Charles Isaacs and Mack Lee. When the dust had settled, it had gone to Malvern, PA dealer Charles Isaacs for a whopping 23,500 pounds including the premium (all other prices for this sale will also include the premium).
Lot 31 the 15 Frith mammoth plates of Egypt, Sinai and Jerusalem, was hammered down at 39,500 pounds to the phone. That is over $4000 per plate: pretty stiff when you consider that the best five plates had already been removed.
Talbot's photogenic of samples of lace circa 1839 (lot 39) hit 73,900 pounds. New York dealer Hans Kraus edged a phone bidder on this one.
Lot 47, which was another photogenic drawing of lace from 1840-42 by Nevil Story-Maskelyne, sold to the phone for 55,700 pounds. This time dealer Hans Kraus was the underbidder, bidding very slowly indeed. A few wags in the audience felt that Hans was being a bit too cautious, because the price did still seem reasonable for such an important piece. But then no other dealer was bidding.
But Kraus was to come back on the very next lot, which was of the Newhaven Pilot by Hill and Adamson. He had lost out to dealer Lee Marks at Christie's New York two years ago. Marks, probably bidding for collector Howard Stein, had paid just under $80,000 at that time, setting a world record for a Hill and Adamson at auction. The Walter's print, while excellent, was, in my opinion, not nearly as good as the one at Christie's, but then Kraus "only" paid 31,550 pounds for it--about 60% of the price at Christie's.
A lovely Capel Cure Split Tree sold for a record 22,350 pounds to Hans Kraus over Lee Marks. The pre-auction estimate was a very low 2,000-3,000 pounds, an obvious come-on by the auction house, considering they picked this image to be one of the 20+ prints from this auction to be shown on the road.
Roger Fenton hit some records here for non-Crimean images beginning with lot 85, an orientalist study of two men, which sold for 47,650 pounds against an estimate of 15,000-20,000 pounds.
But it was lot 90, The Billiard Room, Mentmore, a print only "attributed to" Fenton but reportedly from Fenton's own "Grey Paper Album", that was to generate most of the excitement at this sale. Prior to the sale, nearly everyone admired the image and it had been reproduced in many articles previewing the auction. The lot had a ridiculously low estimate of only 15,000-20,000 pounds. It was clear there was interest, but it was less clear who would be the real "players" for the image in the end.
Earlier in the action both collector Michael Mattis and Hans Kraus had helped to move the bidding along. Then the print became the object of a bidding war between the Michaels: Michael Sachs at the front of the room and Michael Wilson at the rear. To actually see Michael Wilson bidding was itself an unusual event. On most occasions it is his London-based curator Violet Hamilton who bids for Wilson. Sachs was clearly frustrated when the bidding broke over the 200,000-pound mark. Now it came down to Michael Wilson and a phone bidder. At a record (for Fenton and perhaps for a single English photograph) 250,000 pounds (278,500 pounds with the premium), the phone bidder (perhaps Sheik Al Thani?) finally gave up the fight. When I went to congratulate Wilson, he looked over at Weston Naef of the J. Paul Getty Museum and said coyly, "I was bidding for a friend." The Getty had walked away with the prize image of the London spring auctions.
Malcolm Daniels at the NY Metropolitan, who is working on an upcoming Fenton exhibition, told me later that in his mind "there is no doubt that the work is by Fenton." I would have to agree but also note that I do not really think it makes a bit of difference, considering how strong the image is any way.
Lot 94, the only Fenton still life in the sale and perhaps the only one to come up at auction in recent years, was withdrawn. Apparently, the Royal Photographic Society felt that it might be one of their missing still lifes that were stolen in the 1970s.
Lot 95, another Fenton of E. Ross, Winner of the Queen's Prize, set off another spate of bidding. Lee Marks lost out to phone bidder L020 when the hammer price got to 53,000 pounds (61,450 with the premium).
Michael Sachs, bidding for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, brought a lovely print by Lewis Carroll of Xie Kitchin on a Sofa for 58,000 pounds. It actually looks cheap now after the Carroll sale in June.
Records were also broken for Julia Margaret Cameron on lot 105, a beautiful life-size portrait of Kate Keown. The print hammered down to Lee Marks, probably bidding for Howard Stein, for 155,000 pounds (174,000 pounds with premium) against a persistent phone bidder and an estimate of 40,000-60,000 pounds.
An average print of Sir John Herschel brought 51,100 from a phone bidder, who was also bidding against another phone bidder. This was one that looked better in the catalogue than in reality.
Lee Marks, again probably for Howard Stein, bought Cameron's rare Dejach Alamayou, King Theodore's Son (one of her Singalese portraits), for 41,900 pounds.
Many of the other Cameron images were either a bit boring or not in the best condition. I felt that way even about lot 123, a copy of her Idylls of the King, which sold to the phone for 26,950 pounds.
Another surprise was the beautiful seascape by Colonel Henry Stuart Wortley (lot 134), which went to a phone bidder for 46,500 pounds over New York dealer Jill Quasha.
The Louis Roberts were largely disappointing when viewed, except for his tree study (lot 142), although this did have a stripe of fading on the left side. Hans Kraus won over a phone bidder at 58,000 pounds.
The next lot, a Charles Nègre of the Ramparts at Arles, went to Michael Sachs, who was bidding for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art once again. The price was 37,300 pounds.
Lot 150, Gustave Le Gray's The Broken Wave, Sete, was bought in at 58,000 pounds: one of the few disappointments of the sale. Although it had what looked to be a repaired scratch, it was not a bad print. It just seemed to lack a little punch, and its pre-auction estimate of 80,000-120,000 pounds felt a little aggressive.
There was not much high level action until lot 198, when Hans Kraus and Lee Marks bid up an interesting Evans' steps. No, not the famous one, but one entitled "Winchelsea: Steps to Queen Elizabeth's Well". This platinum print was finally knocked down to Kraus for a total of 30,400 pounds.
Another nice Evans, this time a photogravure of Lincoln Cathedral's Turret Stairway, brought a final bid with premium of 24,650 pounds from a phone bidder over Lee Marks again.
The final "big" lot of the sale was number 219, a portfolio of Leni Riefenstahl images of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which sold to the phone for a total of 51,100 pounds.