Issue #31  8/2/2001
Sotheby's London Spring Sale Breaks Over Million Pound Mark, Selling Two-Thirds By Lot

The regular Sotheby's London spring photography auction was a better than average outing, selling just a little less than two-thirds by lot but bringing in a total of 1,157,410 pounds. Most of the buy-ins were due to poor condition.

German painting dealer Daniel Blau took the first high-priced lot (number 308), a group of 61 Maxime Du Camp prints of the Middle East, for a total of 62,600 pounds, which includes the buyer's premium. All the prices below will include this premium unless otherwise noted. The prints were exceptionally rich.

A so-so Tibetan album by John Claude White still brought 30,400 pounds.

New York dealer Janet Lehr bought a nice portrait of Mrs. Herbert Duckworth, nee Julia Jackson (lot 317) for 29,250 pounds.

Where were all the Earl of Craven fans when the next lot, Wild Dayrell, Derby Winner 1856 by Craven, took in a paltry 432 pounds? The print was weak and the image was not much, but...

A beautiful and important whole-plate daguerreotype of Lyon from 1846 or before by Jean Pierre Thierry went for 44,200 pounds to Connecticut dealer William Schaeffer. It was one of the nicer items in the sale in my opinion.

After the failure of the Le Gray Broken Wave in the Walter's sale, I wondered what would be the fate of the next lot a Gustave Le Gray Cloudy Sky--Mediterranean with Mount Agde, especially since it too was only an average print. I also wondered if it had not been restored as well, but that was less certain. But the print did well, bringing in 119,000 pounds from a phone bidder over active bidding in the room.

The next lot, another Le Gray, this time a rare Paris scene but a yellow and poor print, failed to sell and was bought in at the 64,000-pound level. The market for great Le Grays is still very strong, but the weak prints and/or images just cannot command the upper (or even middle) level prices.

There was a very nice group (38 lots) of Eugene Atget prints, and the condition was for once very fine for the most part and while prices reflected that, the feeling was that most of the bidders got bargains. It was the best string of lots for the house that afternoon.

The top Atget image (at least by bid price) went to dealer Lee Marks. Lot 382, Porte de Choisy, Zoniers, a marvelous modernist view of a wagon covered in a patchwork of cloth scraps, sold for a total of 29,250 pounds. Frankly that was a true bargain.

Lot 398 a negative filmstrip of a horse by Etienne Marey failed to go and was bought in at 34,000 pounds. That is 40,800 pounds with the buyer's premium--a rather steep price even for so rare an item.

Moving a little more into the 20th century, Lot 405, an oversized multiple gum print of Rudolf Koppitz's Movement Study, brought 97,000 pounds from a phone bidding exchange.

Collector Thomas Walther bought lot 422, a whimsical portrait of Marcel Duchamp "while his hair and face were in a white lather during a shave and shampoo," for 58,000 pounds.

Walther then bought the next Man Ray lot, a contact strip from Emak Bakia, as well, for 14,875 pounds.

A Renger-Patzsch Das Baumchen (Tree, lot 430) dated 1928, but looking later, got the black lamp exam from Sotheby's and passed (did not glow). It went to the phone for 17,750 pounds. A second print of a tree (but a different image from the first) that did glow only brought 4320 pounds, although it also was not quite as strong an image as the other. Not glowing on commercial photographic paper does not necessarily mean a print is earlier than 1955, but glowing does mean that the print is after that date. I now think that auction houses and dealers should run paper analysis, not just black light, on all prints above $20,000 that have any question about vintage.

The next high roller action took place on the very controversial Edward Weston prints. There was serious restoration on both prints, yet both did very well.

Collector Walther was back again on Steel, a platinum image that marks Weston's transformation from a pictorialist to a modernist. The pre-auction estimate was a very low 15,000-20,000 pounds. Walther battled New York dealer Edwynn Houk for the prize. In the end, Walther had bought it for 104,700 pounds. Here is the kicker: Walther had just sold the image to MoMA (along with the other 300+ masterworks), but he loved it so much he just had to buy another one.

Houk came back and bought the next Weston, a nude study of Margarethe Mather, for 33,850 pounds. This print had even more extensive restoration than the first.

Finally, the last lot (505 and the inside back cover as well) by photographer Chris Von Wangenheim, which was simply entitled "Erotic Subject", got into a bidding war between the phone, Rick Wester (formery of Christie's and now of Gagosian Gallery), and appraiser Monika Half (formerly of Christie's). When it was over, Wester had bought the 1970s sexually charged print for 2880 pounds, well over the estimate of 800-1200 pounds. His somewhat embarrassed explanation was that he knew the photographer and had always admired him and his work. Gadfly Michael Mattis--never at a loss for a good quote--had to have the last laugh, deeming the lot: "a seminal image from an up and coming photographer."