Issue #57  5/6/2003
Sotheby's Sells Nearly 75% of Its Lots and a Total of Nearly $2.9 Million

The next day over at York and 72nd, Sotheby's geared up for its sale with 61 more lots than Christie's, some booty from George Eastman House and a half a dozen vintage Edward Weston prints. The combination seemed to work for Sotheby's as it sold a solid 74.83% of the lots and made a very good total of $2,885,540 on this mixed owner sale. Coupled with the Phillips results, this sale showed that the market has bounced back after the US-Iraq War. The only negative might have been that Sotheby's actual average per lot sold was a little under Christie's at $13,297. As at Christie's (and later Phillips), there were many phone and order bids. Sotheby's instituted an even higher buyer's premium at the full 20%.

Sotheby's had a strong start, selling its first 27 lots. Lot 7, Ansel Adams Clearing Storm, made it into the bottom of its range, selling for $26,400 with the premium. All the bids below contain Sotheby's new 20% buyer's premium. NYC dealer Robert Mann wrested this lot away from California book and image dealer Michael Dawson.

The next Adams, the Oak Tree, Snowstorm, Yosemite National Park, was picked up by a man in the room for $28,800.

Lot 12, a 15-3/8 x 19-1/4-inch Moonrise printed in 1978 sold for its going rate (despite the lower estimate of $25,000-$35,000) of $43,200 to a phone bidder. Then another phone bidder picked up lot 17, Adams' Portfolio Three, Yosemite Valley, for $56,400, below its estimate. This last lot made it into Sotheby's top ten at number eight.

Lot 21, the always-popular Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine by Adams, sold for $28,800 to a phone versus other phone bidders and an order bidder. The bid was just under the top of the estimate.

Lot 26, an unsigned Moonrise and not an attractive print, sold to the phone (these always do) for $10,800. This is why it is not always a wise idea to just look at auction results without knowing exactly what was going on with a lot.

Sotheby's also had its fair share of Edward Curtis images (lots 36-45). Lot 39, another Portfolio 2 from the North American Indian, sold for $18,000, virtually the same amount (except for the slightly higher buyer's premium) as at Christie's. These portfolios seem to have almost made themselves a standard commodity with standardized prices, as long as condition is ok. This one sold to Jersey book dealer Joe Caney for a NY book collector.

Lot 40, Portfolio 12, sold to the room for $25,200, just one increment higher than at Christie's. However, lot 41, Portfolio 1, sold to a phone bidder for $74,400, substantially higher than the one at Christie's, and good enough for fourth highest lot of the day. The caveat is that I didn't examine either portfolio for condition differences.

Massachusetts dealer Mack Lee paid $16,800 for lot 47, Carleton Watkins' Grizzly Giant.

Collector Bruce Lundberg, who was bidding from the far back of the room, took home lot 50 and group of ten good George Barnard images for a very reasonable $19,800 over the bidding by Howard Greenberg and others. The estimate was a typical Sotheby's tease of only $8,000-$12,000. Actual retail value is probably over $30,000 for this fine group.

A very fine and large Baron De Meyer, probably of his wife Olga, sold to dealer Mack Lee for a very low $14,400, although again the estimate was a tease at $6,000-$8,000. It was a beautiful print and, in my opinion, one of the steals of the auction. It appeared to be more than just the platinum print that was mentioned in the description. I suspect gum on platinum with some toning.

A large-format Stieglitz Steerage then sold to the phone for $14,400.

The phones were also busy on lot 61, a small Bourke-White of the Chrysler Building Announcement. It got past the mid-point of its estimate and was bought for a total of $31,200.

Michael Hoppen took lot 70, a Lewis Hine of a Worker, Empire State Building, for below estimate at $16,800.

Oh the ability of Sotheby's low estimates to generate interest! Lot 72, a group of six Bourke-White's of studies for photographic murals for Alcoa and the Amoskeag Manufacturing Co. for the Ford Exhibit in the Century of Progress Expo in Chicago in 1934, was estimated at a mere $8,000-$12,000. So, of course, many took the bait. First the phone and dealer Charles Schwartz, then dealer William Schaeffer and the phone, and then Mack Lee and the phone. But the phone finally took the prize at $25,200, about three times the low estimate.

Lot 77, Berenice Abbot's El Second and Third Lines, got into the mid-range of its estimates at $15,600 with a bid from the phone taking it.

The George Eastman House is another institution that has lent its images and prestige to Sotheby's auction, albeit in a more careful way than had MOMA earlier. GEH's board of trustees approved unaccessioned duplicates to raise funds to purchase other images.

OK, here is where I get on my soapbox. Thankfully these clearly were not unique treasures as were some that MOMA recently sold off, but they were good solid images in many instances, and it is one sign of the economic difficulties confronting many art institutions today that the only way that they can raise funds for acquisitions (or, more disturbingly, to pay for past ones in the case of MOMA) is to sell off some of their current inventory. Trades between such institutions make good sense to me, but sales of images could lead to some dicey situations. If, for instance, an institution sells images for "acquisitions" and this allows the institution to cut and reroute budgeted acquisition funds to other areas, is this an ethical use of the funds? Or is the sale of photographs at auction under this circumstance merely paying for operational rather than acquisitional activities? Does this encourage a long-term cutback of acquisition funds, thereby encouraging a continuing cycle of sales and acquisitions? Does allowing a single curator the right to sell off past treasures for their own view of current "masterworks", therefore shaping a collection to one single taste, make sense to anyone? As I understand it, European institutions are not allowed to sell off work for this specific reason.

I am also worried by what is reportedly the major auction houses' (most of them, not just Sotheby's) strong solicitation and encouragement for non-profit institutions to sell off their photographs. While I cannot fault them for their profit-seeking hardball (that is their job, after all), I am still disturbed by these efforts, which I doubt would ever be condoned for paintings.

I guess I am concerned about all of these trends affecting photography and the arts that have developed in this recent era of cutbacks in corporate and government giving. GEH certainly seems to be handling this very appropriately, but I think we all now need to support our local and national art institutions as best we can--financially and vocally. And we need to press our political leaders to do the same. It seems that some politicians think art is fair game. I think those type politicians should be fair game. In Florida, where President Bush's brother Jeb is governor, the legislature is threatening to cut funding by 75% for the arts. Miami-Basil and other art shows and conferences bring tens of millions of dollars to this state. The arts are also a major part of tourism as study after study has shown. And tourism is big business in a state like Florida. Florida's galleries, museums and other arts contribute jobs and hundreds of millions to the state's economy.

Likewise other states and the federal government use the arts as their whipping boy to all our detriment. Even if you are a taxpayer that does not give a whit about the arts, you should be concerned about what these cutbacks will do to the economy of your state and our nation--let alone our shared heritage. It is time to raise our voices on this issue. Don't be afraid to write or call your local, state and national representatives about your concern that economic support for the arts remains strong. And if you are in another country besides the U.S., the same trend to cut arts funding is now common almost everywhere.

If you also would like to share your views on this subject for attribution, email me at anovak@comcat.com .

Off my soapbox and back to the auction of the GEH material. Lot 92, a small Ansel Adams' Frozen Lake and Cliffs printed some time before 1953, sold to collector Michael Mattis for $15,600, well into the estimate range.

Portfolio III by Adams (lot 99) sold to the phone for well over its estimate of $15,000-$20,000 at $38,400. Portfolio II (lot 103) sold to California dealer Barry Singer for a more reasonable and within-the-estimate-range $14,400. Both portfolios were short prints.

Lot 106 was a nice gum-platinum Coburn of the High Sierras that was featured as the opening pages for the Sotheby's catalogue. Estimated at a not unreasonable $30,000-$50,000, it bought in at a mere $12,000--certainly an after-sale bargain for someone.

Many of the Coburn gravures sold for low or below estimates.

Collector Michael Mattis picked up a bargain portrait of Coburn by Frederick Evans in Middle Eastern garb (lot 112) for the low estimate over a frustrated dealer Charles Schwartz, who collects photographer self-portraits. The platinum print was not brown like in the catalogue, but it was a nice print.

San Francisco dealer Paul Hertzmann picked up what I thought was the best of the Coburn lots, a gum-platinum print of Niagara Falls (lot 113), for a reasonable $21,600.

After a brief lunch break, the auction went on with property from other owners. Some of the strongest lots early on were, not surprisingly, by Edward Weston.

Lot 131, a modernist mélange of the MGM Storage Lot (Stairs), was estimated at only $10,000-$15,000 but warranted a color page by itself--a sure tip-off of a Sotheby's tease. Lots of bidders bit (and bid). In the end Rick Wester walked away with the prize at $38,400.

The next lot, a photograph of Charis, was a beautiful print with slight yellowing edges. Estimated at $70,000-$100,000, the image got lots of attention. Weston collector Michael Mattis drove it to $92,000 before making way for a number of bidders, including dealers Howard Greenberg and Lee Marks, who battled their way up with supportive bidding within the room and on the phone. Before Marks could claim the prize for her client, probably Howard Stein, she had to bid an astounding $260,000, which was good enough for first place in Sotheby's top ten.

Just a little later another Weston, a Portrait of a Debutante (lot 138), which was called a warm-toned platinum print from 1922, sold to Boston dealer Robert Klein who had a cell phone to his ear. The price was $57,600 over an estimate of $15,000-$25,000, which put it in eighth place in Sotheby's top ten lots.

Two more Weston's were to work their magic on the room. Lot 142, a contact print of Charis's bun, as Artnet so delicately put it (yes, they actually said bun instead of bum), was estimated at $30,000-$50,000. I actually had owned this image a few years ago in a different print. It became a battle between dealer Charles Isaacs and the phone. The phone, an American collector, won at $74,400, which made this the third highest priced print of the day. Then lot 143, a Dunes--Oceano, sold to the phone over a commission bid for under its more reaching estimate at $64,800, which made this lot the sixth highest priced of the day. The same American collector bought this one. Sotheby's definitely owed the spirit of Edward Weston a "thank you for a job well done". Interestingly enough Christie's did not have any Edward Westons in its sale, perhaps the first time ever.

The Tower of Jewels by Imogen Cunningham (lot 150) drew a lot of attention from many at the previews. Estimated at a reasonable $30,000-$50,000, it managed to soar over its high estimate. A determined phone bidder, the same American collector who bought Weston lots 142 and 143, took it away from several other bidders in the room at $67,200, giving this lot fifth place in Sotheby's top ten list.

Charles Isaacs, clearly bidding for a client, fended off all competitors to take home the Outerbridge color carbro print of a Riding Boot with Feather (lot 156) at a very steep--to me at least--$43,200, over a reaching estimate of $20,000-$30,000.

Howard Greenberg picked up a good Atget of a Flower Kiosk (lot 163) for well over the estimate range of $6,000-$9,000. The $15,600 was still a good price for such an interesting image.

Lot 169, an interesting pigment print of Josef Sudek's Studio Window, hammered down to Michael Mattis, who bought it within the estimate range for a total of $14,400.

Another hot Czech, Frantisek Drtikol, had his pigment print Half Nude (lot 171) sold to the phone, which was the same American bidder buying up top Westons and Cunningham's Tower of Jewels, for $45,600--well into the estimate range. Another Drtikol pigment print, Composition (lot 179), also went to the phone, I suspect again to the same American buyer, although I neglected to get a paddle number. The bid was well within the estimate range at $32,400. We apparently have a new major player out there and he or she likes top nudes.

Dealer Robert Klein bought the Sudek Nude (lot 183) for the low estimate at $18,000.

Another Drtikol Composition (lot 187) sold to a new phone bidder at $18,000, which was at the low estimate.

A 1955 (printed "circa 1960") Robert Frank of a Santa Fe, New Mexico Gas Station (lot 214) created some controversy. Some dealers thought it was a publicity copy print signed by Frank. It did have the MOMA publicity stamp on the verso, but it was difficult to tell if it was an actual copy print in my opinion. In any case, the image was "beautifully banal" as one dealer described it. Peter MacGill obviously liked it (and so did others), because he bid $31,200 for it over an estimate of only $8,000-$12,000.

Another Robert Frank of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building at 23rd St (lot 215) sold to the room for $12,000 against an estimate of $5,000-$7,000. At the Seagram's sale a later one sold for over $15,500.

An André Kertész 1954 vintage print (as reported by Sotheby's) of Washington Square (lot 223) brought $19,200 from a phone bidder over an estimate of $7,000-$10,000.

San Francisco dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel picked up or underbid three Diane Arbus images (two printed by Arbus and a Twins by Selkirk). The first, Three Puerto Rican Women (lot 227), sold below estimate at $16,800 to Fraenkel. The second, the Neil Selkirk-printed Twins (lot 228), went to a persistent phone bidder at $55,200 over Fraenkel's underbid. The price made this lot the tenth highest of the day. The third, A Family One Evening in a Nudist Camp (lot 229) sold to Frankel for just over the low estimate at $74,400, which was the second highest priced print of the day.

Lot 237, an Irving Penn of Girl behind Bottle, sold to the phone for $37,200--just over the high estimate.

Richard Avedon's Dovima with Elephant (lot 241) sold for $19,200 to an order bidder--frankly a ridiculous price in my view for a printed-later small print from an edition of 100 plus artist's copies, plus other editioned sizes.

NYC dealer Deborah Bell picked up Irving Penn's Nude No. 151 (lot 244) for $15,600, substantially over the estimate range of $6,000-$8,000.

The Andy Warhol of Brooke Shields (lot 255) sold to the room for the low estimate at $24,000.

Robert Mapplethorpe's Y Portfolio (lot 275) did well, selling to the phone for $38,400.

The next lot, a group of Mapplethorpe photogravures of flowers (lot 276), sold for the low end of the estimate at $60,000 to the same phone, good enough for seventh highest priced lot on this day.

The next Mapplethorpe, a large-format photogravure of Irises (lot 277), went to an order bidder. The price of $26,400 was well over the estimate of $10,000-$15,000.

Mapplethorpe's a large-format photogravure of a Hyacinth (lot 278) sold to the same phone that took the first two lots of Mapplethorpes. Its price of $18,000 was at the top of its range.

Another phone bidder took Mapplethorpe's Lydia Cheng (lot 279) for below estimate at $26,400. Still another phone took his very oversized Lisa Marie (lot 280) for $48,000, which was just at the low estimate.

Two Cindy Sherman's did well. The first Untitled Film Still #43 (lot 285) sold for just over the estimate, as several phones battled it out. The final price totaled $45,000. Lot 286, another Untitled Film Still, but #56, hammered down at $33,600 to the phone with Michael Mattis and dealer Robert Koch playing support roles.