Issue #51  11/27/2002
NYC Auction Sales Like a Roller Coaster Ride; Swann's Lead-Off Position No Benefit

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector

(with some assistance from Alex Novak, Vintage Works and I Photo Central)

To say that the Fall New York City photography auctions were like a roller coaster ride is not to convey the nuances of the actual experience. Given the long decline in values on the stock markets and what seemed in late October to be a more precipitous rush to war with Iraq, uncertainty and a few jarring bumps along the way were to be expected. The prices below include buyers' premiums.

Swann Galleries was first up. Swann is usually somewhat insulated by the fact that they reach a slightly different audience by having lower-priced and quirkier material that often appeals to a crossover market. Alas, that was not to be the case this time. Most of their featured lots did not sell: the daguerreotype of the equestrienne, the Civil War photographs of Andersonville Prison, the cover lot of Herbert Bayer's Smoking Knight, the Horace Bristol Grapes of Wrath portfolio, Coburn's The Cloud, Cunningham's Amaryllis, and Curtis's The North American Indian Portfolio X. And, of the top lots that did sell, most went below low estimate: Johnson's views of the Delaware and Lehigh Canal ($29,900), which Steve White told me he purchased over the phone; Edward Weston's Boat ($29,900), which went to a collector in the room; and the Robert Cornelius daguerreotype ($20,700), which went to the phone. Richard Prince's untitled diptych of Cindy Sherman and himself passed in the auction but sold afterward for $39,675 on an estimate of $60,000-$90,000.

The crowd was relatively small--thinning out even more after the break--and lethargic, with relatively little active bidding in the room. Phone and order bidders took most of the top lots. Swann's buy-in rate was a disheartening 52% at the sale (10 pictures sold right afterward to bring the overall rate to 49%). For 19th-century material the buy-in rate was 63%; for 20th-century 48%; and for contemporary 65%. Of the 159 lots that sold at the sale, 99 sold below low estimate and only 20 sold above high estimate. The 10 that sold afterward were at the reserves and so all below low estimate.

Even some of Swann's usually reliable material faired poorly, like the marvelously kitchy cheesecake pictures of Bettie Page. The only moment of real energy was when a Chelsea military antiques dealer made his presence known by jumping increments a couple of times and walking off with one group of Civil War pictures and two portraits of Custer.

Daile Kaplan, Swann's Photographs Specialist, said, "The performance of Swann's sale, which was chock-full of great photographs, was mixed--a consequence of economic uncertainties and the inordinate number of lots at auction in New York this week." It was probably an accurate assessment, especially about the inordinate number of lots at auction.

(Copyright © 2002 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/.