Issue #58  5/14/2003
New York Spring Auctions/Part Two: Phillips Sells Over $1.5 Million With About 40% Buy-in Rate in Regular Sale

The Spring auction action moved downtown to Chelsea and the new headquarters for Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg. Phillips kicked off with its regular multi-consignor sale, which was a middle-of-the road affair with a $1,574,233 total take, including premiums, and a 59.91% selling rate by lot. No images made it into six figures, even with premium. The total was less than either of the other houses and well under its low estimate for the sale, but the selling rate edged Christie's by about 10% and it certainly was competitive. More importantly, the sale set up the very impressive Seagram's auction to come later.

Auctioneer and principal Simon de Pury got the strong Thursday night crowd going and it was this part of the regular sale that was most successful for Phillips. I really thought that the Phillips staff did a superb job of building the drama. There was a huge bank of people on the phone and bidding for order. Unlike the other houses, there was not just one order book, but individuals who bid for each order bidder, and they bid with an enthusiasm that was catching. It was an interesting innovation that probably resulted in more and higher bids for both auctions here. Kudos to Phillips. Another welcome innovation throughout the Phillips's auctions was the refreshments available at the back of the room. It was quite a civilized move that the other houses might consider emulating.

All the prices below include the buyer's premium. The average price per lot sold was $11,325.

An 1841 salt-fixed Talbot of a Bust of Patroclus (lot 5) went to the phone for $35,850--just at the bottom estimate, but good enough for a three-way tie for 8-10th place. Salt-fixed calotypes are very scarce and important, but also cannot be exhibited normally due to their light-sensitivity.

The wonderful Bisson album of mountains and glaciers (lot 8) sold to the phone for its reserve at $58,750, which was a very reasonable price for the quality. The price was good enough for fourth place on Phillip top ten list.

An early Jacques Lartigue Au Bois (lot 12) sold to dealer Lee Marks for just above bottom estimate at $22,705.

Dealer William Schaeffer bought a very good Moholy-Nagy image of a Shadowy Man Waiting in the Rain at the Dock in Marseille (lot 15) for $26,290, nearly double high estimate but still very reasonable.

A Cartier-Bresson Behind the Gare St. Lazare, Paris (lot 18) that was probably an early 50s print sold for a reasonable $14,340 to the phone over an estimate of $6,000-$8,000. It did have a bit of edge and corner damage, but it was still well worth the price in my opinion. Collectors have to realize that such important prints from the 1950s and before are rarely perfect, and that many are so rare that you might not see more than one in a lifetime. Minor damage is acceptable in such prints, as long as you note it when estimating its value. Photographs are objects and so their overall impression is what really counts. Of course, newer contemporary work after 1980 should always be as close to perfect as possible.

Cartier-Bresson's iconic Seville (lot 19) passed at $14,000. I mentioned it because this image had a very large and prominent stain that did not look restorable; otherwise, it would have soared over its estimate of $25,000-$35,000. Auction results can be deceiving without viewing the images themselves. Typically this image was printed in the catalogue in black and white, unlike most of the other images in the sale, and so the stain was not readily visible. I was frankly surprised that a telephone bidder did not scoop it up.

Lot 21, a very good Dora Maar, Assia in White Mask Hanging from a Ring, was hammered down at the high estimate to NYC collector David Raymond for a total of $14,340.

California dealer Rose Shoshana stepped up to buy Alfred Stieglitz's platinum portrait of Katharine Rhoades (lot 23) for $71,700, double the low estimate. That price tag was high enough to put this lot into a two-way tie for second highest priced print of the sale.

The Walker Evans print of the Wife of a Sharecropper bought in at $70,000 against a reaching estimate of $100,000-$150,000. Most dealers that I spoke with thought it was not a 1936 print but was made later, perhaps in the 1950s.

There were a lot of prints that experienced photo dealers felt were not vintage in both of the Phillips sales, but department head Joshua Holdeman told me that all had been black lighted and passed. He also noted that many of the Seagram's invoices did say the questionable prints were vintage or showed early vintage dates. But neither black lighting nor dealers are infallible on this. Even expensive paper pulp testing can show unresolved results, although this is certainly an important tool. Sometimes though prints just look wrong, especially when you have seen enough true vintage prints to be able to make comparisons. The Walker Evans print above, and the Helen Levitt and most of the Aaron Siskind prints in the Seagram's sale all clearly looked later-printed, especially to dealers with the most experience with these prints.

This leads to the issue that I raised in the last newsletter of being able to truly determine dating on prints after 1955 and the impact on prints from that period to now. I Photo Central will soon post up responses and discussions on this important subject. If you would like to add your voice, please send your response to anovak@comcat.com . Sending it will mean that you are letting us use it for posting on I Photo Central and perhaps in the E-Photo Newsletter. We will use only fully-signed postings.

Back at Phillips, Edward Weston made his arrival felt with lot 25, White Sands, NM, which sold in the middle of its estimate range at $46,605 to an order bid. That price was good enough for seventh highest print of the sale.

A Weston portrait of Tina Mondotti then passed. But then Weston came back strong with a vegetable still life of chard (lot 27). Weston's various vegetables have been doing well privately. This one sold to San Francisco dealer Paul Hertzmann for $71,700, which was the midpoint of the range. Weston collector Michael Mattis told me that this was indeed a very good price for this fine image. And it was good enough to bring it into a tie for second highest price of the sale.

Lot 28 was an unsigned but very nice 1932c. Edward Steichen White Clematis. The phone and NYC dealer Edwynn Houk battled it out to the low estimate, and the phone took it for $35,850, which tied it with two other images for eighth place in Phillips top ten.

On the next lot, another flower--this time a Magnolia Blossom by Man Ray--also got bidders. In the end, I believe Harriet Levine took it home for the low estimate at $47,800, which gave this image a tie for the fifth most expensive image of the sale.

The huge Walker Evans Penny Picture Display passed at $19,000.

The Irving Penn Nude No. 62 (lot 36) drew a crowd. Dealer Deborah Bell, the phone and commission bids were all in the running, but it was Theo Westreich of Art Advisory Services that took home the prize at a very reasonable (although more than double the low estimate) $13,145.

Bill Brandt East Sussex Coast (lot 37) sold to a commission bid for an increment above the high estimate at $19,120.

The cover lot (38), a great Robert Frank of London, reportedly a vintage print, got to its low estimate at $47,800. San Francisco dealer Robert Koch took home this one, which tied for fifth highest priced print of the sale.

A commission bidder got the William Eggleston (lot 44) at its reserve of $14,340. That kind of limited enthusiasm seemed to be the signature of this sale on Egglestons, which have set records at Phillips in prior sales. Low estimates and passes were the rule early on.

The next Eggleston (St. Simons Island, GA, lot 45) got to the reserve and low estimate through a commission bid at $23,900. Then his Tennessee Portfolio of 10 dye transfers again just made it to low estimate with a phone bidder at $35,850. Then the back cover lot (Memphis, Tiled Shower, lot 47), which had been well hyped, passed at a mere $58,000 versus the estimate of $70,000-$100,000.

Richard Prince's Point Zero (lot 49) had its estimate revised upward to $15,000-$20,000 from its original $10,000-$15,000. So where does the bid go? To only $12,000 plus the premium. The phone took this one.

Lot 52, a Mapplethorpe dye transfer of Tulips, sold at its reserve to a commission bidder for $22,705.

The next lot, four unique large Polaroids by James Welling, sold for its low estimate to a commission bidder for $17,925.

A Pierre et Gilles La Princesse et le Paon (Sophiya) (lot 58) went to a commission bid for the reserve at $27,485.

Lot 59, Shut, a huge unique work by Gilbert and George, passed at $62,000.

A very tall Panoramic Nude, the School Teacher, by Helmut Newton (lot 60) was bought below low estimate for $22,705 by a man in back who left the room immediately after he won the item.

Gregory Crewdson's Awake sold for nearly double the low estimate at $33,460 to a commission bidder.

The last lot of the night (lot 69), a large C-print by Elger Esser of Canal des Allemands, France brought a total of $16,730.

The next morning the sale resumed but the material was not quite as strong despite auctioneer and expert Philippe Garner's efforts. I believe that this was Garner's first photography auction as auctioneer since he left Sotheby's.

Garner did catch one big sale though: lot 117, Edward Steichen's huge George Washington Bridge. This giant exhibition print soared over its meager estimate range of $15,000-$20,000 to a total of $77,675. I am not quite sure it sold to a commission bid or the phone.

Prior to the Steichen lot, there was one lot of note, Berenice Abbott's Ten Photographs portfolio (lot 113), which sold at the reserve to a German collector for $14,340.

Walker Evan's Nuns in a Subway (lot 118) brought a below-estimate bid of $13,145 from a phone.

Robert Capa's self-portraits caused a stir. Both had been estimated at $3,000-$5,000, but a persistent phone bidder nailed them both at $21,510 and $20,315 respectively (lots 145 and 146).

Six unsigned Robert Adams's photographs (lot 171) sold to San Francisco dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel for $28,680 over an estimate of $8,000-$12,000. They were inscribed with the title and "NO" on the verso.

One of the stitched up Andy Warhols (lot 181, Stools) sold to the phone for just over the high estimate at $19,120.

A Mapplethorpe dye transfer of a single rose (lot 199) also sold to the phone for just under the low estimate at $19,120.

The rest of this auction was anticlimactic, but the anticipation for the Seagram's sale in the evening was building.