Issue #31  8/2/2001
Christie's London Focus On 19th Century Pays Off as Sales Top Sotheby's By a Hair

Christie's South Kensington had a slightly better outing this time than Sotheby's. The sell-through rate was 71.25% and the total take including premium was 1,165,717 pounds. Both numbers were a hair better than their competitor on New Bond Street, and Christie's did it on its old standby: 19th century photographs. Only two lots of consequence were 20th century and one of those just barely. Pre-sale estimates were demolished in many instances. As I've said many times, forget the auction house estimates if you are serious about buying something. They are rarely a good guide.

Lot 6 was a three-volume set of salt prints of glassware. Containing 343 prints from paper negatives, the group went well past its estimate of 15,000-20,000 pounds. After a brief bidding battle between French dealer Marc Pagneux and Hans Kraus, Pagneux won the lot for 64,250 pounds including the premium (all prices below will include the premium). This was the fifth highest lot of the auction.

Lot 52 provided some levity as Hans Kraus bought his own production of the Pencil of Nature for a world record auction price (at least now it is) of 763 pounds, helped up by many of his friends in the business.

It was not until lot 81 that prices again took off. The lot was a group of mixed daguerreotypes with an estimate of only 1500-2000 pounds. A number of us eyed the lot with care. There were three very early (one dated 1841) and unusually small views of Ledbury and some interesting and early portraits. The eventual price turned out to be 22,325 pounds. Irish collector Sean Sexton bought the lot.

The next lot also brought considerable action. The catalogue description read in part "portrait of a gentleman, identified as Charles Dickens." It was hammered down finally to a phone bidder for 39,950 pounds. Obviously there were a lot of believers.

Lot 86 was a daguerreotype of the Japanese castaway Sentaro, one of only 15 surviving daguerreotype portraits of Japanese known (most in Japanese institutions). The image had been consigned by London-based Old Japan after attempts to sell it in Japan had failed. However, there was considerable exposure and consternation in the Japanese press about the image in the days preceding the auction. In any case, the image sold very well, reaching 37,600 pounds and going to a phone bidder. Could it be that the image found a Japanese home after all?

Gustave Le Gray's Forest of Fontainebleau sold for 65,350 pounds with lots of interest in the room and on the phone. Likewise a seascape (lot 99, Le Soleil Couronné) sold to the phone for 75,250 pounds.

But the next two seascapes were really mediocre prints. The first passed and the second (a Great Wave) sold to the phone for a mere 18,000 pounds, a far cry from the record set at the Jammes sale with the same image.

Lot 102 had some serious problems of its own, but the phones battled over this one and it finally sold for 69,750 pounds.

For once it was Christie's with the excellent Talbot prints. Lot 124, High Street Oxford sold to dealer Robert Hershkowitz. Then Lot 125 Articles of Glass sold over the phone for 42,300 pounds. Lot 126 Articles of China, which was initially bought in (a crime considering how nice a print it was) apparently sold afterwards. It had been estimated at 35,000-45,000 pounds without the premium.

San Francisco dealer Robert Koch picked up a very nice Lewis Carroll (lot 136) for 28,200 pounds (another steal after the results of the Carroll sale in June).

Two nice Julia Margaret Cameron's did well. Violet Hamilton, bidding for James Bond film producer Michael Wilson, bought lot 146, an unmounted but very nice print and image for 17,625.

Lot 147, another good and scarce Cameron print was the battleground for Robert Koch and Hans Kraus. It sold to Koch for 47,000 pounds.

At lot 173 Rick Wester took over the auction reins at a photography auction apparently for the last time. As noted previously, Wester has moved on to Gagosian Galleries in NYC. Rick has an auction style of his own that is smooth and fun. I have always thought that he and Philippe Garner of Sotheby's London were the two premier auctioneers in the photo trade. While he did not have a lot to work with here (the morning session had the more high-powered lots), he still did it with grace and style: the mark of a true professional. I told him afterwards that he would indeed be missed on the podium.

An important album of Felice Beato images of India did very well (16,450 pounds) against the estimate of 4000-6000 pounds. It, and many others of the Indian items, went to phone bidder 939.

Astronomy images always seem to do well, and so lot 226, a Henry Freres print of a nebula, fit the pattern and sold for 15,000 pounds. But then the next two lots of their work bought in.

Scenes of crime (lot 254) sold for 65,350 pounds against an estimate of only 12,000-18,000 pounds. The price on these 169 prints shows the strength of the archive vernacular market these days. Most of the images were grotesque to the extreme.

Ansel Adams provided the last big action with a Parmelian portfolio of the High Sierras going for 25,850 pounds.

As Wester gave up the gavel, he said the crowd, "Thank you all and I look forward to seeing you all on the other side of the podium." It was a better ending to this chapter of Rick Wester's life than New York's auction could give him. He clearly enjoyed himself here at the London auction. We all look forward to his work on the dealer side of the business, especially if he brings to it the same passion he had at Christie's.