Issue #58  5/14/2003
Seagram's Sale At Phillips Caps a Strong Auction Week; Sale Nets Nearly $2.9 Million

Phillips filled its new Chelsea auction sales room to capacity to garner the biggest crowd of the week of auctions. The Seagram's sale clearly had the buzz. As Phillips auction expert Philippe Garner told me earlier, "This is our week." He was not being immodest, just noting that this time out Phillips had the goods.

And those goods did very well indeed. With 100% sold (there were no reserves here) and a total take of $2,879,687, the Seagram's sale did about as well as Sotheby's take for its regular sale. Despite the hype, here the average lot sold for $8,228 versus Sotheby's and Christie's much higher average per lot sold. In fact, it was about $5,000 and $6,000 per lot higher respectively at the other houses. But it deserves to be mentioned that Phillips total take for the week was a substantive $4,453,920--greatly overshadowing both Christie's and Sotheby's, which had only regular multi-seller sales. Phillips also exceeded its high estimate for the entire sale by over 35%--no small feat.

For once smaller Phillips had the full attention of the photography market and made the best of it. It was a great introduction to Phillips' new facilities and served to answer many of the critics who wondered about Phillips' ability to remain a player after its latest financial travails.

Coupled with the strength of the rest of the week and the Breton auction in Paris, it also showed that the photography market had rebounded with some strength after a flat market period due to the problems with Iraq and the economy. Photo galleries and dealers expected that it would carry over to private sales, which had been slow lately. Perhaps other corporations might also look at the results of the sale and feel that photography might also provide an attractive and more democratic entry into the arts. All of the latter is speculation, but certainly possible.

One thing is certain: the interest in post-WWII photographs has been greatly enhanced by this sale. Numerous records were set in the course of the sale (although the 30 records claimed by Phillips is a bit of a reach; more on that later) that will push some prices higher. For instance, I think it is doubtful that you will now be able to by an important Robert Frank in an early (let alone vintage) print for under about $25,000-$35,000. Artists like Louis Faurer, Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand clearly did well here, and this may reflect in future interest and pricing. The only issue will be how to clearly tell vintage and early prints apart from later less rare work. That is a topic for discussion that we opened up last newsletter. As we noted above, if you want to add your voice to this discussion, send your comments to me at anovak@comcat.com .

The Seagram photography collection was begun in 1972 by Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of Samuel Bronfman, the company's founder; and the principal architect in building the collection was curator and photographer Richard Pare. Just over 700 photographs made up the collection and the 350 lots of this sale. Along with the Hallmark Collection, it was one of the first major corporate photography collections.

Interestingly enough, Phillips already has its next corporate photography collection ready to go for the Fall auctions. Believe it or not, it is Enron. The collection was purchased by the company's in-house art committee, headed by Lea Fastow, the wife of indicted former chief financial officer Andrew Fastow.

The huge bank of phone and commission bidders again provided some extra emotion to the event--as if it needed it. The bidders on the phone reportedly included Sir Elton John and a large number of museums.

As on Thursday night, auctioneer and principal Simon de Pury got the standing-room-only crowd going early. Lot one, a great Karl Struss entitled City of Dream, estimated at only $6,000-$8,000 due largely to a prominent developer spot in the bottom right corner, helped to build the drama right from the start. After lots of interest, NYC dealer Edwynn Houk captured his dream for a mere $62,140, nearly ten times low estimate with the buyer's premium and good enough for fifth highest price print in the Seagram's sale.

All the prices below will include the buyer's premium. As in the other auctions, I have limited the reporting to lots that grossed at least $14,000 unless there was another interesting factor involved or served to show a trend. Just to be clear: I do not consider these images to always be the most important in a sale, just the most expensive. I place this limitation solely due to space considerations.

The next lot, another Struss (Roof Tops-291 Fifth Avenue), was a battle among the phones. It sold for $16,730 against a reserve of $8,000-$12,000.

A very nice Paul Outerbridge platinum print of the 42nd St Elevated (lot 4) again drew Houk's attention, but this time LA dealer Rose Shoshana pushed him up the bidding ladder. The estimate was $30,000-$40,000. In the end Houk got the lot, but it cost him $74,090, which made this photograph the third highest priced in the sale.

Marjorie Content's From Doctor's Hospital, Morgantown, WV (lot 6) just edged the old world auction record for this artist at $5,975, although the final bid was well over the high estimate. The lot was won by a commission bid.

The Walker Evans prints were among the first purchased by Seagram, added even before Richard Pare joined the collection. While the prints that were indicated as vintage all appeared to be early, the only question that I had on a few was "Exactly how early?" A number of experienced dealers felt that this was a problem that seemed to exist for many prints in this sale.

The auctioneers had done a decent job of due diligence (black lighting the most questionable lots and checking Seagram invoices), but that does not mean that there were no questionable date designations here. Besides some of the Evans lots, Helen Levitt, Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind all had their share of questionable dating. Interestingly enough, the Levitts came directly from the artist, and yet those were the ones many experienced dealers felt were clearly not the dates indicated in the catalogue. In any case, the Walker Evans lots did very well, although many of the other photographers received prices more in keeping with later-made prints.

The first of these (lot 9, Traffic, NYC) brought $11,950 from the phone to put it in the middle of its estimate range. Then lot 10, Signs, Charleston, SC, sold to another phone for $15,535, again in the mid-range. Still another phone bought lot 11, Sidewalk in Vicksburg, MS, for the same amount, although this was below the low estimate. That was probably because the print was a shade light. Evans' Roadside Gas Station (lot 12) also sold under the low estimate for $13,145 to a new phone bidder over newly independent dealer Tom Gitterman's underbid. Also well under the low estimate was lot 13, Selma, AL Storefronts, which sold for $16,730 to dealer Lee Marks.

The phone, bidding over dealer Edwynn Houk, took home the Penny Picture Display, for $35,850, which was the high estimate.

Sandra Gilman was the successful bidder for the slight variant of Main Street, Saratoga Springs, NY. Estimated at a low $40,000-$60,000, the image took off and Gilman had to pay $101,575, which was the second highest priced lot of the auction.

Collector Richard Menschel picked up the next Evans image of a couple on a subway (lot 16) for $20,315, which was a bit over the high estimate.

Dealer Howard Greenberg took home (or at least to the gallery) Ben Shahn's Deputy Sheriff during Strike, Morgantown, WV (lot 17) for a record-breaking (just barely) $10,158, but that was over an estimate of only $4,000-$6,000.

Marion Post Wolcott's Jitterbugging in a Juke Joint on a Saturday Night (lot 19) was a very good and large vintage print. This well-known image was estimated at only $5,000-$7,000, but it danced its way to a world auction record of $23,900 and into the arms of Toronto dealer Jane Corkin.

Weegee's Crowd at Coney Island (lot 22), estimated at $7,000-$10,000, drew its own crowd of phone bidders. One of them snagged the image, which is the best-known version of this image, for $32,265, which is a world auction record for a Weegee image. Oddly enough, Phillips did not claim one for this lot, but claimed a number of other dubious "world records" (more on that later). It was indeed a world auction record for an individual print by Weegee, which is how most of the photo world tracks world auction records for artists. The previous high price for this image was $20,700 at Sotheby's in April 1994.

The next lot, another Weegee, did almost as well. Weegee's scarce and important Macy's Parade with Woman Taxi Driver (lot 23) topped its highest auction mark bringing $31,070. It was this image that held the previous world auction record ($25,850) for Weegee set at Christie's in October 2000. It was an interesting duel between NY photo dealers Deborah Bell and Henry Feldstein, whom many have nicknamed "Mr. Weegee" for his interest in this photographer. Right from the start, Feldstein laid down the challenge, yelling out a bid of $15,000 at the opening--nearly three times the high estimate. But in the end the strategy failed him, as Bell won despite his strong, but frustrated efforts.

I could see the hand of Philippe Garner, the former London Sotheby's expert who invented the come-on in photography auctions, on the cover lot by Louis Faurer. Perhaps it was just his mentoring of NY expert Joshua Holdeman. In any case, after giving this iconic image the front cover position, the auction house gave it an equally enticing estimate of only $10,000-$15,000. Faurer's Broadway Convertible, Times Square (lot 29) was sure to ride away into world auction record territory. The only question left was: How high was high? The answer for NY dealer Peter MacGill, who drove this one away, was $43,020, which placed the lot in a three-way tie for 9th/10th/11th place.

Not to be outdone, dealer Howard Greenberg also got his share of Louis Faurer images, picking up the next two (lot 30, Theatergoers, NY; lot 31, Times Square) for $14,340 and $15,535 respectively.

There was a string of Siskinds and Callahans that may or may not have been printed on the dates assigned to them in the catalogue. The prices seemed to reflect that the prints were later than when the images were actually made.

The Robert Frank made his way on to the auction podium for the first of two appearances. With the new show in Washington DC and escalating prices, Frank is hot (as if there were a time after publication of The Americans when he wasn't). In an odd twist, Frank was one of the few photographers who was purchased solely by photo dealers at this auction (and at most of the other auctions this Spring). It is probable that dealers realized before most of their clients how scarce the top work in early (before 1980s) prints really is and how prices are quickly soaring out of sight for this master photographer. Top images from The Americans have virtually disappeared from the market. Photo dealers also did much of the underbidding here, although a few sophisticated collectors waded into the fray.

One other comment: the prints here were also the reverse of the problems with some other photographers. Although all dated 1973 by Frank, most were thought to be earlier prints by the group of dealers who bought them. Some, like the Covered Car below, might have been as early as the 1960s and possibly printed by Frank himself. Certainly the paper was quite different than other later copies of this image.

All the Robert Frank prints were estimated at a silly $5,000-$7,000. Only one Frank print in the entire sale sold any where close to that estimate range.

Lot 39, View from Hotel Window-Butte, MT, kicked off the Frank lots. This gritty image got the attention of a few dealers and collectors. Dealers William Schaeffer and Tom Gitterman--the latter bidding for a client--were both early bidders along with the phones. But Peter MacGill, who had snapped up Robert Frank images at the earlier auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's, picked up this one for $25,095. The race was on.

Perhaps my favorite Robert Frank was lot 40, Covered Car, Long Beach, CA. London dealer Michael Hoppen picked this great one up for $54,970. Maybe he should swap it with California dealer Robert Koch for the one of London that Koch bought at the regular sale here. In any case, Hoppen's bid made it to sixth place in the top ten most expensive lots of this sale.

William Klein's the Bride (lot 41), catalogued as a 1955 vintage print, got over its low estimate and into world auction record territory for this artist at $13,145. The photograph went to a phone bidder. Two other Kleins followed at just below this mark, one bought by the phone and the other by NYC dealer Robert Mann.

W. Eugene Smith's As from My Room (lot 45) did very well selling for $14,340 to a German collector in the room.

Kenneth Josephson's shadowy Chicago sold in the room for a world auction record for the artist at $11,950. Peter Bunnell from the Princeton University Art Museum told me that the museum had bought another Josephson (lot 258). Chicago dealer Steve Daiter told me that he is planning an exhibit of Josephson's work and was pleased to see the strong prices and reception for that work here at auction.

The focus was back on Walker Evans with lot 47, Seagram Plaza. Estimated at just $3,000-$5,000, the lot soared on active bidding. In the end it was Richard Pare, former curator for the collection, who took home this souvenir for $26,290.

Thirty-seven prints of the Seagram building by Ezra Stoller, the next lot, sold to the phone for an even more astounding $31,070 over an estimate of $9,000-$12,000. Phillips claimed a world auction record for the artist, but only because it was a large group of photographs--hardly an individual record.

Gary Winogrand's 21 photographs from the Animals (lot 49) had been selected by John Szarkowski and Pierre Apraxine in the early 1970s. The estimate of $30,000-$40,000 for this lot easily fell. A commission bid took home the prize for $65,725 after spirited bidding--good enough for fourth highest lot of the auction. Again, Phillips made a claim for a world auction record for the artist even though this was a large group. The house need not have been so needy. It still managed to set a real individual record for the artist just a few lots later.

Out of the 30 new world records that Phillips claimed in its press information, 16 were for group lots and quite a few of the other individual image records were for relatively minor photographers, who rarely come up at auction. And some of Phillips' claims were just plain wrong (Friedlander, Lerner).

The next lot of Winogrand photos (lot 50, 14 prints from 15 Big Shots) sold for $50,190 for a partial portfolio of prints made in an edition of 100 in 1983. The estimate had been a reaching $18,000-$22,000. The bid was good enough to place this lot at number seven on Phillips's top ten list.

The first individual Winogrand photo to actually break the world auction record for the artist was a reported 1967 printing of Laughing Woman with Ice Cream Cone from the Women Are Beautiful series. Estimated at $7,000-$10,000, it sold for $15,535 to the room.

But it was Winogrand's iconic Los Angeles, Man with the Bandaged Nose Driving (lot 52) that shattered the previous lot's new record and other former records. Estimated at $6,000-$8,000, the reportedly vintage 1964 print became a battle between Theo Westreich of Art Advisory Services and myself. Westeich outlasted me to take home the lot at a world record $21,510. None of these images are left in the estate.

Phillips conveniently omitted group lots in its claims for world auction records when it served its own purpose, for instance excluding the "group" world record when claiming a new individual one for Danny Lyon on the next lot. I am probably being picky, but it seems to me that you should at least pretend to be consistent when making claims on records. In any case, this item, Crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky by Lyons (lot 53), got enough bids to bring it to the top of its estimate range at $5,975 and an individual image world auction record for this artist. I believe it went to a phone bidder.

Another bizarre claim of a world auction record was made for Lee Friedlander's 15 Photographs portfolio (lot 57). While it was the highest price ever paid for this particular portfolio, Butterfield and Butterfield actually still holds "the group world record for the artist", if that is any kind of record at all, for Cray at Chippewa Falls (79 prints) at $23,000, which was set in November 1999. Ironically, it is Phillips that actually holds the individual world auction record for this artist at $18,564 (Hillcrest, NY) achieved last October. In any case, San Francisco dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel got this one below low estimate for $21,510.

William Eggleston's 14 Pictures (lot 60) became the next group to be claimed as a world record for the artist by Phillips. Estimated at $100,000-$150,000, Theo Westreich took home the 14 prints for $185,500. This made it easily the top lot of the auction.

Joel Meyerowitz's Broadway at 46th St, NYC (lot 61) set a legitimate world auction record when it was hammered down for $10,755 with premium over its estimate of $3,000-$5,000.

Someone in the room could not bear (sorry about that) to part with Hiroshi Sugimoto's Still Life, Polar Bear (lot 63), which sold over its high estimate for $16,730.

The Friday evening session closed with another Sugimoto, Cabot Street Cinema (lot 64) selling way over estimate at $26,290 to the phone.

The next morning, Philippe Garner took over the auction reins. His elegant auctioneering and the refreshments at the back of the room combined to lend the sale a very civilized touch.

Lewis Hine's photographs were the first lots up and they generally did well against their estimates, particularly the first one (lot 65, Girl at Factory Loom). Estimated at a ridiculously low $3,000-$5,000, the lot sold to the phone for $27,485 over my own underbid (for a client).

Lots of smaller stuff followed, including the Helen Levitts, Siskinds and some of the Callahans with the questionable dating. When dealers stay away from images that look like incredible bargains, there usually is a good reason.

A fine group of three Arthur Siegel dye transfers sold to NYC dealer Howard Greenberg for what Phillips (not me) was calling a world record again at $15,535. That was well over the estimate of $4,000-$6,000, although no surprise. Actually Siegels have often sold for considerably higher prices privately than at auction, where only lower-end material has usually appeared. This lot was a nice exception.

Dan Weiner finally got some recognition. NY dealers Bruce Silverstein and Keith de Lellis pushed a fine group of four urban scenes (lot 127) well over its meager estimate of $2,000-$3,000. But both of them lost out to the phone, which scooped this one up for $26,290. Of course, Phillips again claimed another world auction record. Maybe Phillips was justified on this one since the previous record was only $4,113, set by Christie's in October 2001. Even the average per print on this lot was over this former record.

Another string of Robert Frank lots stirred up the crowd. The estimate for each of these Frank lots was only $5,000-$7,000, which was largely ignored. As I noted above, these prints were probably slightly earlier than even the 1973 date written by Frank. It was primarily dealers who were the successful bidders on these.

NY dealer Robert Mann took the first lot (129, Los Angeles, Neon Arrow) at $33,460 over many bidders. It was a very strong image--one of my favorites.

The next Frank (lot 130, Salt Lake City) was perhaps the weakest in a very strong group. It actually sold within estimate to the phone at $6,214.

Dealer Deborah Bell took the next lot (131, Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, NYC) for $15,535. Then Toronto dealer Jane Corkin took the following one (132, Barber Shop through Screen Door) for $31,070.

I took lot 133, the iconic Rooming House-Bunker Hill, Los Angeles, for $17,925. Collector Michael Mattis strolled by a bit later and whispered to me that he had "wondered who had stolen that beautiful Frank", and then he noticed it was me.

NY dealer Peter MacGill bought lot 134, Coffee Shop, Railway Station-Indianapolis, for $23,900.

As I noted above, the winners on the Robert Franks in this Spring's auctions were virtually all dealers.

After many smaller lots, Gary Winogrand scored with lot 162, World's Fair, NYC. Estimated at $4,000-$6,000, it became a contest between myself bidding for a client and fellow dealer Deborah Bell. Bell picked up this one at $16,730.

The Saturday morning session ended with the pioneering work of Bernhard & Hilla Becher. Dealer Jane Corkin took the first lot (172, a pair of Cooling Towers) for $12,548, just over low estimate. Then a phone took lot 196 (Water Towers) for $26,290, which was the high estimate. Another phone got lot 197 (Gas Holders) for $43,020, over an estimate of $18,000-$22,000. That last bid was good enough for a three-way tie for 9th/10th/11th place in the Seagram top ten.

Jane Corkin came back to take the last two Becher lots. The first (lot 198, more Water Towers) sold for a total of $43,020--again over the same estimates as the previous lot and also good enough for that three-way tie in the Seagram top ten. Lot 199, Water Cooling Plant, cost Corkin a little more, going for $45,410, which put it into eighth place. Corkin told me that she was considering using the Becher images in the opening show for her new gallery.

After lunch, the bidding resumed with a series of Camera Work photogravures. Most of the lots did very well, some setting records for the images. Paul Haviland's New York at Night sold to the phone for $3,585 over an estimate of $800-$1,200. All I can say is that I expect at least a drink from Chris Marquez at Andrew Smith Gallery (he should know what I mean). Paul Strand's New York (Wall Street) sold to London dealer Michael Hoppen for near auction record levels at $11,950.

Lot 210, a Jacob Riis/print by Alexander Alland, went to the room for $1,554--another rather iffy world auction record claimed by Phillips.

A quirky, wonderful image by Roland Schneider (lot 214, Grotesque Shadows) got a lot of admiring attention. Estimated at a reasonable $1,500-$2,500, it soared on bidding by Susan Herzog, Michael Hoppen and then finally the phone, which took it for $11,950, a true world auction record that Phillips neglected to mention in its publicity. I noticed that the provenance came from the always-alert Tom Jacobson, who has one of the best eyes around.

Edwynn Houk took lot 222, seven later-printed images of New York by Berenice Abbott, for $21,510 over an estimate of $8,000-$12,000.

According to its publicity, Phillips set another world auction record when Frank Navara's Sixth Avenue Scene (lot 233) sold for $3,346 over the 1990 Christie's former record of $2,420.

Lot 236 was another large and interesting vintage image by Marion Post Wolcott (Day Laborers). Estimated at just $2,000-$3,000, it quickly soared to $16,730 and was sold to Santa Monica dealer Rose Shoshana.

Phillips claimed that lot 244, Nathan Lerner's El Platform, was another world auction record at $2,868, which was won by dealer William Schaeffer. The only problem is that Swann Galleries sold a Lerner at auction for $3,910 in October 1996.

Lot 247 actually got pretty close to the record for this O. Winston Link of Hot Shot Eastbound, WV. Estimated at $4,000-$6,000, this print made in 1984 shot up to $16,730, less than a thousand dollars from the all-time record. It sold to the room.

Max Yavno's Portfolio One was estimated at $8,000-$12,000, but dealer Edwynn Houk bid it up to $16,730--enough for Phillips to claim another "record". It was the highest price paid for the Portfolio though.

A phone nailed down André Kertesz's Washington Square, NY (lot 260) for $15,535, over an estimate of $5,000-$7,000.

Deborah Bell helped set a world auction record by bidding up Roy De Carava's Couples (lot 270) to $15,535 over an estimate of only $3,000-$5,000.

Dare I mention Art Sinsabaugh's three Chicago landscapes (lot 274) that Phillips claimed as another "world auction record"? Howard Greenberg took the lot for $14,340 over an estimate of $1,500-$2,500.

There were a half dozen more "world records" claimed by Phillips at this end point, but frankly all were groups of images instead of single images and not worthy of "records" for these artists.

The phones battled over lot 346, six strong color images by Stephen Shore, which were estimated at $4,000-$6,000. The lot sold for $15,535.

I actually bought the last two lots of the sale, two groups of Ansel Adams winery photographs.

While the sale was certainly an unqualified success for Seagram and Phillips, dealer William Schaeffer--always the optimist on the market--had the quote of the auction: "Only the unlucky were lucky here." For the record, please remember that Schaeffer did win lot 244.

One other tidbit: as a collecting rule, Richard Pare was restricted to a $2,000 limit per image for the Seagram's Collection. In most cases he spent far less, often only a few hundred dollars. Obviously, successful bidders at this sale generally paid considerably more.

After the auction in speaking with collector Michael Mattis, he insightfully observed: " In the '70s and early '80s there were two leading places to go in New York for modern photography, Light Gallery and Witkin Gallery. (The older material was at Daniel Wolf's.) While this was a little before my time as a collector, I do remember that the 'feel' of the two galleries was very different, with Witkin Gallery being more of a salon environment, and Light Gallery seeming more like a contemporary art gallery. And the mix of artists was, on balance, also quite distinct, with photographers such as Jerry Uelsmann, Ruth Bernhard, Brett Weston, Imogen Cunningham and George Tice at Witkin, versus Garry Winogrand, Harry Callahan, Larry Fink, Louis Faurer and Stephen Shore at Light.

"To me, the Seagram's Collection (curated with verve by Richard Pare) seems almost like a Light Gallery time capsule, although from the enthusiastic auction reception it is obvious that with the passage of time that material has become fresh all over again. It is also noteworthy who came out of Light Gallery: Peter MacGill, Bob Mann, Dale Stulz and Larry Miller among others."