Issue #57  5/6/2003
New York Spring Auctions/Part One: Christie's Sells Nearly $2 Million But Has a High 42% Buy-in Rate

Christie's had the unfortunate position of leading off in a week of auctions that had the tempting Seagram's sale at its end. I counted only about 20 bidders in the room at the start of the morning, although bidders dribbled in through out the morning session and showed up in larger numbers at the afternoon session. In addition, the material did not generally seem as strong here as at Sotheby's (which had several Westons and the George Eastman House material to help make its sale) or Phillips (which had the additional distinction of that Seagram's sale). Despite a high buy-in rate of 42% and only one image in six-figures, Christie's still managed a very respectable $1,938,649 total with a strong lot average of $14,687. Contrary to the auction house's publicity department, no world records of consequence were set here.

Edward Curtis was the biggest seller here, representing over 30% of the total dollar take for the house ($587,852). Christie's both led and ended with Curtis, and the top material did well, accounting for three of the top ten lots in the sale. Most of the Curtis lots, except for the top lot, either bought in or sold to the phones. Sometimes the bidding was only against reserves, but a bidder is a bidder.

The first lot, an orotone of A Chief of the Desert--Navaho, went to the phone for $20,315 with the buyer's premium included. All the prices quoted for this story include the premium.

The next lot, another orotone of An Oasis in the Badlands--Sioux Chief Red Hawk, brought $14,340 from another phone bidder. Again the lot was within its estimate range.

Still out West, the auction's next important lot (10) was an 1880s-1890s album with 46 views of the Bear Valley Irrigation Company, Redland, CA. This item was seriously underestimated at $4,000-$6,000. San Francisco photo dealer Paul Hertzmann battled the phone until he walked away with the album for $22,705, which was still a very good value in my own estimation. Oddly enough, the best view of trees was not even illustrated.

Lot 11, an Ansel Adams of a frozen tree in Yosemite went to the phone for the low estimate plus premium at $17,925. But then even stalwart Adams had four passes even though most of this material would have normally sold over their modest reserves.

Paul Strand's Mullen in Rain (lot 20), possibly one of only two existing prints, sold to a European dealer over the phone against the reserve for $65,725. That was good enough for fifth place in this sale's top ten list.

Alfred Eisenstaedt's popular, if not particularly rare, late-printed V-J Day at Times Square (lot 32) sold for $15,535 to a man in the room.

It was not until 27 lots later that Christie's would latch on to a big one. Frantisek Drtikol's Step II, a pigment print, would soar over its estimate range. It even got near record range, but did not quite make it. Two phones battled over lot 59 until a European dealer was able to bring it home for $69,310, the fourth highest lot of the day.

Nine lots later a Robert Adams of Summer Night, Colorado (lot 68) sold for its low estimate to the phone for a total of $14,340.

Irving Penn's Frozen Foods (with String Beans) was defrosted for a hot $33,460 final bid. Lot 78 had been estimated at only $15,000-$25,000, but then several phone bidders and a man in the back of the room got into a bit of a bidding war.

Harry Callahan, another hot photographer, did very well with Eleanor (lot 88), which hammered down with premium for an astounding $33,460 against an estimate of only $8,000-$10,000. It was reportedly a vintage print, which probably prompted the spate of bidding over the phones.

After another Callahan of a Bulb in Grass (lot 89) passed, one photo dealer wit behind me said that Christie's should have described the lot as "Eleanor sat near this bulb in the grass."

The third Callahan lot (90) of a vintage print of a multiple exposure of trees in Detroit (editor's note: Does Detroit actually have trees?) sold to the phone for $20,315 over an estimate of only $8,000-$10,000. Chicago dealer Steve Daiter and another phone were also in the hunt.

Lot 113 was a good lot to end the morning session. The image was a very strong one of a back view of a Versace Dress (El Mirage) by Herb Ritts. It got into its mid-range due to persistent bids from the room, order book and phone. In the end, it was the phone that won out at $20,315.

The afternoon was the stronger part of the sale. Hiroshi Sugimoto's Tyrrhenian Sea, Positano (lot 118) went to the phone for the high point of its estimate plus premium at $23,900.

Irving Penn continued to do well with a series of three silver prints of the Cuzco Children (lot 123) that sold in the room for over its estimates at $41,825. That is a very high price for Penn silver prints.

Indiana dealer Lee Marks bought the later-printed Diane Arbus (lot 126) for $20,315.

NYC dealer Peter MacGill picked up two Robert Frank prints from the 1970s. Lot 127, Platte River, TN sold for $23,900 and lot 128 Charleston, SC (black nurse and white child) sold for $53,775. Dealer Katrina Doerner was the underbidder on the latter.

The next lot (129) was a W. Eugene Smith Walk to Paradise Garden reportedly printed in the 1960s (in other words a copy print like most Walk to Paradises). It sold to the phone for $22,705 over a too low estimate of only $9,000-$12,000. Although it was a small print of this image, Walk to Paradise has been selling regularly for $25,000 and up in galleries, so the price was not a surprise to most.

NYC Dealer Howard Greenberg outbid the field for a small vintage Harry Callahan entitled Detroit (lot 134) at $14,340, which was in the mid part of the estimate range.

Lot 135, the Garry Winogrand from the Women Are Beautiful portfolio, sold for a little over $5,000 to the phone. The only reason that I mention it is that another print of this same image, reportedly "vintage" (1968 vs. 1981) sold later at Phillips for over $15,000.

A very rare and interesting photomontage by Vinicio Paladini (lot 144, Movement and Space) sold to the phone for $21,510, well over the estimate range of $10,000-$15,000. Howard Greenberg underbid the lot.

After two earlier passes on other Rodchenko pieces, ex-Christie's photography head Rick Wester bought lot 147, Alexander Rodchenko's Sokolniki Park, Winter, Hockey for $77,675. He merely had to bid against the reserve for this one, which was clearly the best of the three. The price was good enough for a tie for second place in Christie's top ten lots of the day.

Hans Bellmer, who did so well in the Paris Andre Breton sale, also did well in New York. Lot 165, La Poupée, a book of ten silver prints, sold for a reasonable $28,680 to NYC dealer Adam Boxer. Lot 166 (Les Jeux de la Poupée) also went well, but was bid up in excruciating $1,000 increments by Boxer and a European collector, who was on the phone. Why auctioneers think this helps is anyone's guess. The price tag with premium when the dust settled and Boxer had retired from the field was $59,750. Christie's publicity called this a "world auction record for the artist." Hardly. The same but larger image had sold in Paris for over $145,000 and then been preempted, and it was overshadowed there by a Bellmer that sold for over $236,000 to Belgium collector Sylvio Perlstein. I expect that Perlstein may have been the "bargain hunter" here. The price tag was good enough for seventh place in Christie's top ten list.

Arnold Newman's portrait of Arp (lot 174) went to Ron Kurtz of Commerce Graphics for $17,925--well over the estimate of $4,000-$6,000. Kurtz was pushed up by NYC dealer Deborah Bell and the phones.

But Christie's did seem to save the best for last with most of its five-figure lots going from lot 199 to the last lot 229. It was not surprising that its Edward Curtis ending made a decent splash.

Kicking off this string was lot 199, a Paul Strand of Corea, House on Hill, New England, apparently a unique print. Its total of $77,675 was good enough for a tie for second place along with the earlier Rodchenko. It sold to a European dealer on the phone against the reserve.

Lot 202, a Harry Callahan of Trees in Chicago, sold to the phone for $14,340--well over the estimate of $5,000-$7,000.

Then after six buy-ins versus one small sale, Christie's blissfully got to the Curtis material.

The first lot (211) was Portfolio 1 from the North American Indian, which was estimated at $50,000-$70,000. Two phone bidders battled it out until it got into the bottom of the estimate and sold for a total of $62,140, which made it the sixth highest priced lot of the sale. Reportedly an American collector bought this lot.

The next lot, Portfolio 2, which was estimated at $18,000-$22,000, just made it into reserve territory, going for a total of $17,925 to an American dealer on the phone.

The same dealer bought the next lot, although possibly for a collector because Christie's listed this one as an American private buyer. Lot 213 Portfolio 3 sold to the dealer for $57,360, against an estimate of $60,000-$80,000. It was still good enough to make the lot the seventh highest for the sale.

The same American collector as on lot 211 won lot 214 (Portfolio 4) with a phone bid of $54,970 for a tie for 9th or 10th place depending on how you want to score this. The estimate was $50,000-$70,000.

Then the American dealer came back on the phone for the next two lots, 215 (Portfolio 5) and 216 (Portfolio 6), bidding $20,315 and $54,970 respectively. The latter lot tied lot 214 for 9th/10th place.

A woman on a cell phone nailed the next lot, Portfolio 7, for $45,410, which was strong against the estimate of $30,000-$40,000.

The American dealer on the phone came back again for the next pair, Portfolio 8 and Portfolio 9, for more modest bids of $21,510 and $7,768 respectively.

An order bidder got Portfolio10 for $8,963 and then Portfolio 11 passed.

Portfolio 12 hammered down to a different phone bidder for $23,900. Then three passes on less interesting portfolios (13, 14 and 15) took a little steam out of the steamroller.

But then the American dealer came back on the phone to take Portfolio 16 for $16,730 and Portfolio 17 for $19,120.

Another phone bidder then got Portfolio 18 for $20,315.

Christie's had still saved the best for last. With the spirited bidding of New Jersey lawyer and photo book dealer Joel Caney in the room and the phones, the small format volumes 1-18, soared over its estimate of $60,000-$80,000. In the end Caney came away with the day's highest priced item and Christie's sole six-figure lot at $101,575. He had bought it for a New York book collector.

Department head Leila Buckjune said after the sale, "Prices remain strong for rare works by Edward S. Curtis, and the selling price of $101,575 for the North American Indian text volumes is a testament to the enduring legacy of his images."