Issue #60  7/21/2003
Sotheby's London Sells Over £1 Million and Over 77% By Lot

Besides Christie's success with its Girault de Prangey and regular multi-owner sale, Sotheby's London also had a successful spring outing, netting £1,050,248 ($1,716,091) and a superb 77.14% sold by lot figure. If these London sales were any barometer, the photography market must be on a rebound.

I should note that all prices below include the buyer's premium and that the pound sterling was about $1.65 during the sale (although Sotheby's P.R. release says it was $1.63, which was even worse than Christie's) and now a bit higher still. I paid $1.67 when I actually paid for my lots. And, for the most part, I have confined myself to lots that sold for over £10,000.

French book dealer Jean-Claude Vrain took the first big lot of the sale, Maxime du Camp's "Egypt, Nubia, Palestine and Syria, 1852 (lot 6), over the phone for £48,000, which was good enough for fifth place in this sale's top ten lots by price. My French sources tell me that Vrain used to buy for Andre Jammes, but apparently he was buying for himself on this sale. He told me that he has restored the copy and is now selling it as one piece, rather than breaking it up. A true book dealer, which I greatly respect.

The next lot, another from the Middle East, Francis Frith's mammoth plate "Egypt, Sinai and Jerusalem", sold to San Francisco dealer Robert Koch, who outlasted UK dealer Robert Hershkowitz. The price was more than two and half times the low estimate at £78,000 (about $129,000) and pushed the lot into fourth place on the top ten list. There was considerable print variation in the lot, but the best images were often the very best prints (isn't that the opposite of what you usually find?).

One of the groups that everyone was waiting patiently for was three lots of Linnaeus Tripe albums. How the bidding unfolded for these three lots was almost surreal.

Most of us were pretty focused on the last lot, lucky number 13, so it was a pretty stunning turn of events when the first lot (#11) sold to Robert Hershkowitz for a mere £19,200 (about $31,000)--placing the lot in a three-way tie for tenth place in the sale. Yes, this was a shade over the high estimate, but frankly I would have been happy to have the lot for £30,000+. I estimated that there was at least $100,000 retail in the album.

UK book dealer Richard Kossow did nearly as well, scooping up lot 12 for below the low estimate at £13,200--again a tremendous bargain.

Frankly it all went so quickly and we all were so stunned about the prices, no one had a chance to react, although Hershkowitz and Kossow would most assuredly have bid anyone up to levels above £30,000 for each of these two lots.

The final shocker came on lot 13: but here it was the astoundingly high price that stunned the crowd. I and several other dealers had conferred and all agreed that the total retail value on the lot was somewhere around $200,000--nearly half of that in the marvelous cannon, which was illustrated in the catalogue. Dealer Charles Isaacs outbid the floor easily, but there was still that pesky phone. Up and up went the bids, until that rarified six-figure level was reached and breached. Finally the phone, the German contemporary painting and 19th-century photography dealer Daniel Blau on the other end, took the lot for an astounding £134,400 (about $220,000). When I asked Isaacs why he went so high, he told me that I was indeed correct on my estimates and that he probably should have stopped at about £50,000-60,000. In any case, the lot tied for the dubious distinction of most expensive of the sale. Interestingly enough Blau told me that the album was not available for sale.

If there was a major disappointment (with the exception of the much more understandable Cameron below) for Sotheby's, it had to be the Roger Fenton self-portrait in the Billiards Room at Mentmore. Estimated at a reasonable £30,000-50,000, the image failed to find a buyer and was bought in at £28,000 with no interest at all. That is an unusual turn of events. Just two years ago, the Getty Museum bought the Billiards study out of the Paul Walter's collection for nearly $445,000 or £278,500 at the time. Why wouldn't the museum buy this piece to "bookend", as it were, this image? While this print was not quite as stunning as the one from the Walter's collection, it was still decent and it actually showed Fenton playing billiards--and it was one-tenth the cost! With the Getty's money and its charter for research, I do not understand why this opportunity was lost. Go figure.

As I said earlier during the Christie's report, some very mediocre (at best) Julia Margaret Camerons either passed or sold very low, but there were even a couple of overpriced ones that sold better than they should have in this sale. It seems the Camerons that are coming on the auction market fall into two categories at present: either terrible condition or too high prices.

A mediocre but perhaps unique print of Kate Keown (lot 29) sold to a commission bidder for £4,800. Then a woman in the room bought lot 30, a weak (highlights gone, flat, etc.) Alice Liddell (an older version of the Alice of Alice in Wonderland), for the midpoint of the estimate at £15,600 (over $25,000).

Lot 32, Julia Jackson, an ok print but estimated at a ridiculous £70,000-90,000, was bought in at a still way-too-steep £68,000. I believe this was the same image (or certainly a close variant) that sold in about the same condition (except on a modern mount) at Swann's recently for under $20,000. Yes, that latter price was very low and a bargain except for the mount, but the estimates on the print in this sale had no sense of reality. At best this is a £40,000 (about $65,000) print at full retail. With the premium and currency exchange, if you bought this print even at the buy-in rate, it would have cost you about $135,000, or over double what it might really be worth.

Lot 33, another Julia Jackson, but in a very poor print, went to a commission bidder for below estimate at £1,800; and lots 34 and 35--both in poor condition--were bought in.

The next lot was perhaps the lot of the sale and certainly received the most "buzz". Estimated at a mere £12,000-18,000, this mixed and early album contained important work by top photographers of the 1850s-1880s. All sorts of discussions and alliances were launched by this mystery entry. My estimate of retail value? About $250,000 if broken up, although some of the material might be difficult to sell. On the floor the bids came from many directions: Cindy Herron (bidding for Paul Sack), Robert Hershkowitz, Michael Sachs, and several French dealers. In the end it was French versus French, one on the floor and one on the phone. In the end a French book dealer bought this one by phone for a staggering £134,400 (or about $220,000). Reportedly he had asked several people which lot was getting the most attention, and when told, he said he would have to have it. His bid was good enough to tie the Tripe album for most expensive of the sale.

Philippe Garner made his return to the Sotheby's London showroom, not as an auctioneer or expert, but as a bidder--a successful bidder. On lot 68, the marvelous cover image of Nikolska dancing in the Parthenon, he took on a determined phone bidder. The lot, which was only estimated at £2,000-3,000, wound up costing Garner £14,400 (almost $24,000). As photography department head Juliet Hacking told me, "The cover image certainly deserved the wonderful result, and it was great to see that, despite the fact that Nelly did not have much of a record at auction, the quality and appeal of the photograph convinced buyers that it was worth much more than the estimate."

A Man Ray Rayograph, which didn't do much for me, still managed to find two bidders willing to fight it out. Estimated at £12,000-18,000, lot 79 soared when Toronto collector Harry Malcolmson and a phone bidder got into a bidding war. In the end the phone bidder (L018) bought it for a very high £89,600 (about $148,000), which made this lot the third highest of the day. Personally I think a little over the high estimate would have been the right price for this one.

Another Man Ray of a woman's face through netting was the scene of another battle. Estimated at only £4,000-6,000, which was admittedly way too low, the unsigned print (lot 84) soared to £33,600 (about $55,000), which made it the sixth most expensive of the day. A man in the room bought this one. Again, I think the final price was considerably too high (perhaps double what it should have gone for).

A Man Ray that went for a reasonable price in my estimate was lot 85, Fireworks, Le Bouquet, which sold to an American buyer over the phone for only £19,200 (about $31,000). Dealers Edwynn Houk and Paul Hertzmann had vied with the phone. The lot price tied for tenth most expensive of the sale.

The next Man Ray, Antoine, also drew a lot of attention. Dealer Edwynn Houk, collector Michael Mattis, the phones and others all chimed in on the bids. A man in the room finally won the lot at £31,200 (about $51,000), over an estimate of only £4,000-6,000, which tied for seventh most expensive lot of the sale. Yes, the estimate had been a come-on, and the bidders bit. The final price was certainly no bargain.

The final Man Ray print, lot 87, Elsa Schiaparelli, found collector Harry Malcolmson again bidding against the phone. Estimated at £4,000-6,000, the lot was hammered down (plus premium) for £19,200 to the same American phone bidder who bought the Fireworks lot. This price was good enough to put it into a three-way tie for tenth highest priced print.

Richard Avedon's triptych of Andy Warhol and members of the Factory (lot 142) nearly didn't sell. In fact, it had hammered down as unsold, but was reopened for a late-reacting phone bidder, selling finally for its low estimate at £12,000.

The next lot was sure to get attention after the Seagram's sale. The Garry Winogrand 15 Photograph Portfolio (lot 143) was estimated at a too low £4,500-6,500, which was probably why in the end it did so well. After very active bidding from numerous sources, it was hammered down to a man in the room for £31,200 (about $51,000), which was good enough for a tie for seventh highest lot of the auction.

There was one more interesting item. Lot 145, a Bill Brandt nude from 1949, that the catalogue said was printed "circa" 1960, sold to collector Michael Wilson for £9,600 (almost $16,000) over an estimate of only £800-1,200. If anything, I felt the print was actually made in the 1950s. It had all the hallmarks of an early print by Brandt with lovely tones. The final price was just about very low retail for such a fine and early print (if it could be found, of course), and the estimate had surely been a come-on to build interest.

Not so on the later print of the same image. Lot 160 was clearly a very late print and had the harsher contrast of such prints that I find somewhat distasteful myself. However, the earlier run-up had apparently inspired several bidders to bid as if this lot was something similar to lot 145, which it wasn't. Estimated at a still too low £400-600, the lot soared to an extremely high (for this late a print) £4,560 (about $7,500). It was finally sold to a man in the room. I would say that the print's full retail value should hardly reach $5,000, let alone a 50% premium to that price. When bidding on late prints, buyers should do their homework rather than get carried away by mistaken notions of value based on faulty thinking; otherwise, buyers will overpay. While this happens to all of us from time to time, it shouldn't happen on items that come up with regularity at auction.

New photography department head (more on that in the story below) Juliet Hacking told me that she was "delighted that we were only £10,000 shy of our total high estimate (and I think we may have made the last £10,000 in post-auction sales). And that's without selling the Fenton and Cameron. The strong sell-through was pleasing too. We were delighted with our first all-colour catalogue and hope that people found it visually appealing and a good read."