How do you begin to describe what was clearly THE photographic auction sale of the 20th century? The Jammes sale, promoted for over a year by Sotheby's and switched from its original Paris venue at virtually the last hour, played to a packed house of major European, Middle Eastern and American collectors, dealers and museum personnel. And how it played!
World Record--for any photographic auction and for a single-owner photo collection sale at £7,430,693, or very nearly $12.5 million. It broke the previous Christies' NYC photo auction record by nearly a 50% margin. (All prices are given with the buyer's premium included, but without VAT.)
World Record--for a single photographic image: Gustave Le Gray's Grande Vague (or Great Wave) hit £507,500 or about $850,000, after the Le Gray Beech Tree first broke the record at £441,500 or about $750,000. Telephone buyer L080 bought both. Yes, the previous record price set by a Charles Sheeler at the Sotheby's NYC auction only weeks before was already eclipsed at this sale, and twice at that.
World Records--For the following photographers:
Le Gray (Grande Vague) £507,500 (against an estimate of £40,000-£60,000)
August Sander (Porteur de Briques/Brick Porter) £265,500 (est. £20,000-£30,000)
Edward Steichen (In Memoriam) £243,500 (est. £40,000-£60,000)
Hippolyte Bayard (Etude de Plantes/Study of Plants) £188,500 (est. £30,000-£50,000)
Vincent Chevalier (Le Pantheon, Paris, Oct. 2, 1839 full-plate daguerreotype) £166,500 (est. £15,000-£20,000)
Individual records fell--and fell like the giant of beanstalk fame--for Baron Gros, Henri Le Secq, Antoine Samuel Adam-Salomon, Camile Silvy, Robert MacPherson, Otto Wegener, and a score of other lesser-known photographers, and world records were also set on many of the publications and groups in the auction.
In the 19th century material, the Le Gray military Chalons album sold for an astounding £386,500 (est. £80,000-£100,000); the two Charles Szathmari groups sold for £139,000 (est. £20,000-£30,000) and £441,500 (est. £40,000-£60,000) respectively; the two Louis-Auguste Martin publications brought £41,100 (est. £5,000-£8,000) and £18,400 (est. £2,000-£3,000); the Charles Marville Boulogne album fetched a respectable £80,700 (est. £35,000-£45,000); the J.B. Green Algerian photographs (a lucky 13 in all) sold for £150,000 (est. £8,000-£12,000); and, finally, Desire Charnay's Ruines Americaines hit £122,500 (est. £40,000-£60,000).
In the 20th century material, Hans Bellmer's Les Jeux de la Poupee brought £21,850 (est. £8,000-£12,000); and the archive of Brancusi photographs netted £122,500 (est. £60,000-£100,000).
All of the above were records for this material at auction.
Also a copy of Man Ray's scarce Champs Delicieux hammered down to a "reasonable" £111,500 (est.£80,000-£120,000), which, although not a record, was certainly a respectable showing.
World Record--for a total by an individual bidder in a single photographic auction: the mysterious phone bidder L080 (the paddle number assigned to their bids) bought well over £4.5 million (that's about $8 million). In fact, this one buyer, who was rumored to be a personal client of Sotheby's Philippe Garner, purchased most of the record-priced photographs from the 19th century. Philippe, always the gentleman, would not even confirm this tiny bit of information. The bidder was conversing in English, but was not calling from the U.K. or the U.S., according to one astute observer who was viewing the phone call-back to this bidder over the shoulder of the young woman from Sotheby's, who covered up the phone as soon as she realized that she had an audience. "I only saw the first six digits," this English dealer told me. Of course, in this age of jet travel, this information is hardly decisive.
World Record--all in all, 34 lots edged, or vaulted, over the $100,000 mark during this sale. I believe this to be the highest number to break that mark at any photographic auction. Several other lots also got very close to this mark..
The sold rate was extremely high--92.33% by lot and 99.20% by pounds sterling, with only 22 out of 287 lots remaining unsold from the auction itself, and several additional lots sold immediately after the sale. Charles Isaacs and Robert Hershkowitz, for instance, purchased a key salt print by Nadar, which had somehow slipped through.
Andre and Marie-Therese Jammes and Sotheby's Philippe Garner began their discussions about the sale a number of years ago. In fact the sale was to take place in Paris as early as two years ago. But the in fighting between the big London houses (both Sotheby's and Christie's) and the monopolistic French auction houses has been fierce and finally the delays forced the Jammes family and Sotheby's to move the auction to London.
The delay and shift to London actually worked in the Jammes' favor. As Garner told me after the sale: "The market has found further strength over the two years." And, he noted, "It is principally an American-lead market." He felt having an English language catalogue and an English-speaking context--combined with easy access of Continental buyers--resulted in more participation and higher prices from all sides.
He also noted one other major positive in moving the sale to London from Paris: "It ruled out the risk of preemption. Major or even minor lots have been preempted by French museums, but here it was an open competition. Having something snatched from you is demoralizing."
Garner went on to characterize the French museums' bidding at the sale as "very strong but they had to put their hands up like everybody else."
Observing that "great material, great provenance and a receptive market" pointed to excellent results, Garner continued modestly, "But success is never a foregone conclusion."
Garner and Sotheby's were chosen because of their long-time commitment to photography. In fact Garner and Andre Jammes had met in the early 1970s and both men obviously respect each other highly.
HIGH PRICES AND A MYSTERIOUS PHONE BIDDER
After several Baldus prints, including a salt print of an Avignon flood image, which went for £36,700, came a good copy of the Baldus photo survey of the North Line from Paris to Boulogne. It brought a respectable if not quite astounding hammer price of £80,000 against an estimated range of £100,000 to £150,000. It began to look like prices might actually be reasonable, considering the hoopla. It goes to show that initial impressions may indeed be deceiving.
Although the marvelous Parisian full-plate daguerreotype in Lot 5 did bring just over £80,000 against a reserve of £15,000-£20,000, the first indication that this was going to be a more extraordinary sale than even the hype would have suggested came on Lot 18, Hyppolyte Bayard's Study of Plants.
A stunning and large example of Bayard's early photogenic process, it was, for me, one of the finest and most important images in the sale. As it climbed up the range and well past it, you could sense a change in the room. A phone bidder ultimately took the prize at £188,500 (est. £30,000-£50,000)--at that point a world record for a 19th century paper image. And the auction was primed for what was to come.
Next in line were the Bayard self-portraits--the two salt prints taken by Hans Kraus, Jr. for high but still reasonable multiples of their estimates and the cover image, taken again by a phone bidder. After a few more bids, Kraus had won two more Bayard portraits of women and then took the lot of salt microphotographs by Bertsch for ten times the admittedly underestimated high estimate. It was to set the tone for a lot of images to come.
But it was the French master Gustave Le Gray who shattered the market price perceptions of 19th century paper photography. The iconic Beech Tree or, more properly, "Hetre, Fontainebleau" was the third Le Gray up. As the price began to rise, the crowd sensed this was going to be a record. It is a particularly rare image, although the Getty had another from the Wagstaff collection and had passed on the Jammes image because of that. Lucky Jammes. As the image broke through to a world-record price for ANY photograph, another factor at the auction began to get noticed: the unknown phone bidder L080 was starting to snag some very important and expensive trophies. The image was a particular favorite with Garner and much of the crowd.
A NEW WORLD RECORD SET
After two more trees by Le Gray and more activity by L080, Le Gray's "Grande Vague--Sete" took center stage.
The French newspaper Le Monde had run a two-page story on the morning of the sale and had prominently featured this image across four columns of newsprint. But the image is not a particularly rare image and often trades in the £30,000-£60,000 range, and in fact was estimated at £40,000-£60,000. One excellent print but with limited foxing problems sold at Christies' London just this past May to Alan Leeds, a US collector, for £42,000, a price that many at the time thought high. But, as Garner was to say to me later, "The feedback on the seascape was a sense of amazement of its condition: a perfect printing of that image in staggering condition. It was a combination of these that took it up to that level. It was the one print of Le Gray's that we've all seen that takes your breath away. It was not possible on this earth that I could see a finer Le Gray."
However, could this print be included in the "half a dozen prices" that Andre Jammes later characterized to me as "really quite crazy and difficult to understand"?
Most observers certainly would not fault the quality of the print. It was the price that staggered most: £507,500, a new world record for a single photograph. As Hans Kraus quipped: "Even if I had a Le Gray of the quality of that image, I don't think that I could charge that much for it. I could certainly ask, but I don't think I could get half the price it sold for."
Garner points out there were a number of players even at the £300,000 level. And the print unquestionably was one of the finest ever to be offered for sale. But Garner, who argued that the sale "was not in any way an aberration, but a consolidation of where the market is heading," did note in perhaps serious understatement: "Prices may be hard to replicate tomorrow."
Especially if you don't have L080 pushing up your bidding level. The phone bidder again scored on this Le Gray as well.
After taking the seascape, L080 proceeded to knock down two additional Le Gray trees that followed, and then got into an excruciating battle with Jeffrey Frankel on the Camp de Chalons album by Le Gray. Frankel agonized over each level of bidding, waiting until the hammer was literally falling before bidding again and again. Finally at a hammer price of £350,000, he left the field--and the album--to L080, who paid a world record price for this album.
AND THE BATTLES CONTINUED
The next pitched battle set a new world's record for Henri Le Secq. The image was a dramatic Atget-like Parisian bridge, which hammered down to £82,000 plus premium, after Lee Marks, bidding for Howard Stein, underbid L080. The unidentified phone bidder continued to rack up records.
Bidding against a reserve, L080 took the Le Secq four studies of bas-reliefs, a rather boring but historically important collaboration between Le Secq and Charles Negre, who printed the negatives. A letter from Le Secq to Negre was included in the lot, which sold for a hammer price of £24,000.
The next real action oddly was untouched by L080. It was the Etienne Jules Marey photographs. After the first lot passed, the activity level went up dramatically, with every lot but one breaking the top of the estimate. Lee Marks took lot 92, which many thought to be the most important of the images. Robert Hershkowitz (underbidder on lot 94), Hans Kraus (lot 97) and myself (lot 96) were some of the known players on the remaining lots. The last of the Marey's, Lot 98, a beautiful but later silver print of a pelican in flight, was brought down at £20,000 or five times the low estimate.
When two scarce, but not unknown publications by Louis-Auguste Martin sold for about six times estimate to L080 with little other activity level, one French dealer was heard whispering to herself that she knew where other copies were and at much lower prices. The only problem was: who would buy them now that L080 had their copies?
The next big item was the Charles Marville album of the Bois de Boulogne, which again went to L080 for £80,700--about double the estimates. One had been broken up and sold in Paris in June--the only copy to become available to the marketplace. I bought some of the top images in the Paris album, some of which were not replicated in this one. The quality of the prints in the two albums was very similar with the same very light spotting on some of the images in the highlight areas, but still good prints.
The group of Nadar prints that came up next actually fell within or close to estimates in most cases. Most were reasonable value for very rare images. Charles Isaacs bought the portrait of Paul Legrand as a mime, reportedly for Henry Buhl. Price? Nearly £60,000. While it didn't soar to the $200,000+ mark that the Tournachon clown did last year, it also didn't have quite the panache that image had. However, with the hand gestures, it was a perfect match for the Buhl collection.
L080 continued on a winning path with the Paul Nadar lots of Chevreul at £40,000 and £60,000 respectively with virtually no opposition. L080 then took lots 130 and 131, both historically important. Lot 131, Nicephore Niepce's Cardinal d'Amboise, was a particular favorite of Andre Jammes, who shared the reason with me: "Because this portrait is the link between photography and printing, which are my double passions." The 1862 print is from a heliographic plate of 1826.
After a series of nondescript Normands and Piots, largely bought by L080, the unknown bidder came out on top for a rather fabulous Antoine Samuel Adam-Salomon (simply noted as an Adam Salomon in the catalogue). Lot 146 was originally catalogued as a self-portrait but the house corrected itself, noting that the subject was a "model", after New York dealer Charles Schwartz pointed out the vast difference in ages between the man in the image and the photographer himself at that point. Schwartz, himself a collector of images of photographers, had earlier purchased the Nadar portrait of Adam-Salomon. Despite the announcement, the image in Lot 146, which had a provenance of Charles Negre, was sought by a number of collectors and dealers and finally settled out at £65,300, a world record for this artist.
The next group of photographs of importance was the two Silvy's. The first was a spectacular print of a woman. It went to the phone, with me underbidding it unfortunately. Garner told me later it was his favorite image after the Beech Tree. The next of the Silvy's was "Armee d'Italie, Ordre du Jour." It sold for an astonishing £63,100, a new world record for this photographer, and bought, of course, by L080.
The rather poor-quality but rare Tremaux material brought the same price --again from the same bidder.
London dealer Daniella Dangoor and I bought the next lot of a group of 24 actors by Julien Vallou de Villeneuve. The majority are salt prints and there are some exquisite images in the group, including the portrait of Alice Theric, which is reproduced in The Art of the French Calotype by Jammes and Janis. Collector Michael Mattis, trying to play international man of mystery, underbid us on the phone. He told me later that he had purchased six lots from the sale by phone.
L080 charged in again and took the Louis Vignes book for £60,900.
A group of nice Charles Winter prints followed to end the first round of the sale and to close out the French 19th century photography section. Dealers Hans Kraus and Chuck Isaacs took the best lots, Lot 155 and 158 respectively, two strong salt prints of the Strasbourg Cathedral. Interestingly enough Lot 155 showed the bottom and 158 the top of the same pillar.
The audience scattered for a very quick lunch break, and then it was immediately back to the same old grind: L080 taking the very first lot, a group of lovely Ahrendts for £12,650, Lot 161 of a full-plate daguerreotype of Trevi fountain for £23,000, and then the next four lots of Italian views. It was getting a bit tedious.
And then came the very decent group of Julia M. Camerons. The first lot, perhaps the most important, was wrested away by L049, another phone bidder, for £63,100. But the next two went to L080. A few others grabbed at the last two.
L080 came back to a winning path by taking two Clifford's and then bid up the Roger Fenton--late printed by Frith--cathedrals for £122,500. It was a very nice set, but also another world record for the group.
The Alexander Gardner of a delegation of Sioux went in the room for £17,250.
I then crept in to steal the wonderful and quirky group by Pittore Giacomelli. Then it was back to L080, who swooped down on the J.B.Greens and couldn't be shaken loose, not even for £150,000 for the extremely rare group of 13 images of Algeria. L080 then ripped into the Hill & Adamson's, taking the rather mediocre group of prints at prices that staggered most dealers, considering how poor the print quality was on most of the images.
And then it was time for MacPherson to shine. Most observers felt the two lots of this relatively unheralded Scotsman were some of the finest prints and images seen of his work. And the prices certainly reflected that and more. Lot 199, the Fountain of the Pisani brought a new world record at £43,300, far eclipsing previous records. Another aggressive phone bidder, L049, bought the image. Then L080 was back, taking the group of 32 MacPherson's for £87,300, or about $4,500 a piece!
But what could be said about the extremely high prices made on the Robertson and Beato lots? L080, L049 and a few others were simply out of touch with market prices on these rather mediocre (for the most part) lots.
With the Charles Szarthmari images, the auction was back on track with quality images--with prices to match. L080 had a battle on their hands as L049, the Musee d' Orsay and Hans Kraus entered the fray. But in the end, the results were again the same. L080 had prevailed on both lots at £139,000 and £441,500. The latter Lot 211, an album of 11 images, brought the second highest amount by lot for the auction, only pushed aside by the Wave.
Finally, a bidder in the room bought a virtually faded away copy of William Henry Fox Talbot's Sun Pictures in Scotland for £36,700. And then we were mercifully on to the 20th century.
BIG PRICES IN THE 20TH CENTURY AS WELL
The scarce Hans Bellmer/Paul Eluard book, Les Jeux de la Poupee, with 15 (or is it 16 with the cover?) photos by Bellmer brought £21,850.
Then L080 took the Brancusi archive of 24 photographs into six figures, and then took the back cover image by Pierre Dubreuil for £32,200, against an estimated range of £4,000-£6,000.
Most of the Dubreuils were actually reasonable, but Lot 228 brought £25,300 in the room. Still, it was a fair price for such a strong image.
L080 picked up another one on Lot 242, the Lotar locomotive, one I had pointed out as a sleeper in a previous e-newsletter, for triple its high estimate (£16,100).
Then it was L080's turn again: this time picking up Man Ray's rare Champs Delicieux album of 12 Rayographs. As noted above, it wasn't quite a world record, but who's counting.
A very nice copy of Electricite with a dedication by Man Ray to his friend Robert Desnos sold to the phone for £20,700 (est. £10,000-£15,000).
Then you-know-who was back. If this sounds repetitious and annoying to you, think about those of us who paid to come to London, just to hear Philippe Garner say "same bidder as the last" for a record number of times. In any case, L080 doubled the high estimate for Man Ray's Mannequin and Comb at £97,300. It was--to all our relief--the last we would hear from the mysterious party crasher and Sotheby's benefactor.
The Otto Wegeners set two world records for this photographer, right in a row. First the other aggressive phone bidder, L049, took the beautiful tree study for £32,200 and then Lee Marks, probably bidding for Howard Stein, took the second one of the interior of a train station for £43,300. Both images were very special prints.
The August Sanders did well, and the last and most important of the group was the iconic Brick Carrier, going after a fierce battle to Lee Marks (ultimately probably to Howard Stein) for £265,500, a new world record for a Sander image.
Before the auction, I had thought that (besides the Beech Tree) the Steichens might have a chance at setting a new world record (or at least coming close). Both were large and beautiful prints of great rarity. And indeed they did well. The Orsay took the first (In Memoriam) for £243,500, a new world record for a Steichen. Dealer Hans Kraus took the second for a more modest (if six-figure nudes could be called "modest") £143,500, clearly the best buy of the two and one of the best of the auction.
West Coast Dealer Robert Koch picked up the next lot of Stieglitz and White nudes for £154,500. It was an obvious dealer lot.
I guess we all thought we could "steal" the last lot of the sale: a very fine group of Doris Ulmanns. This lot had four images out of the six in the lot that may be the very best Ulmanns that I've seen. In the end, Lee Marks won the battle at a very reasonable (believe it or not, because these are fabulous prints) £27,600. I was planning to bid when the other bidder against her graciously offered to bow out to her. The pair was seated right in front of me, and it made it difficult to spoil the moment. Oh well.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
So what exactly does this all mean to photography collecting and the marketplace? How do we begin to sift through the debris and begin to comprehend what such numbers mean to the average collector, if anything?
Well, for one thing, let me quote Philippe Garner: "It's too late to be a Jammes or a Gilman." He might have added: unless you have the resources of L080 and don't mind paying world-record prices. It seems that one must pay a "future price" to capture the best and rarest the market has to offer.
However, Philippe does have some good words of advice: "There are still areas of the market that are underdeveloped." He points to most of the second half of the 20th century: "There's enormous room for growth and research there. It's still virgin territory."
Garner said, "I think there are a lot of minor masters on the slopes that one can work with. I felt elated and encouraged by a market that has plenty of possibility."
A further thought: I have always felt that a major work in fine condition by a lesser known or even anonymous photographer is always preferable to buying an inferior work or print by a well-known "name". Perhaps the market will mature and collectors and institutions will grow in the courage of their convictions and explore some of these "minor masters" as Philippe calls them. I also feel there is even more room in the 19th century than Philippe implies by omission. There were many lovely prints in lots that still went relatively reasonably--even at this extraordinary sale.
After the auction, I talked to dealer Hans Kraus who noted, "Sales certainly did as well as one could have imagined. But this doesn't mean much of anything. For the best material there will always be a market. The sale did show the supremacy of 19th century photography, particularly French. Maybe early British photography is relatively reasonable and will be 'discovered' next."
Hans also told me he saw no slow-down in business after the sale, but instead saw an increase in activity, which he attributed to unsuccessful bidders who had stockpiled funds only to be denied by the auction's high prices. As he put it: "Those who were saving money up are now looking for ways to spend it."
Kraus won't be increasing prices on his own inventory due to the sale; however, the price on the excellent Bokelberg collection did go up 20%, but BEFORE the sale. I also have no plans to raise any prices on my inventory, and most other dealers I spoke with were also acting with restraint.
One word of advice to my many French dealer friends: don't expect this sale to change the pricing structure on most images; otherwise, I believe you will be sitting on your inventory a long time. Additional respect for French images, yes; immediate price increases, no.
As I have noted in previous newsletters, I have found the French market already posting increases this past year that were not sustainable in American markets.
American and English dealers are not anticipating any major upward thrusts in this market already somewhat tired from too many images in too many auctions. As Garner remarked to me: "I am regularly surprised about the volume of material, particularly in New York, which seems to drown under the 'printed-laters' and second-level things. You have to be pretty selective in those markets and you might miss things. When it comes to viewing sales, I could see the temptation to pass on the big boys and view at a Swann, whose catalogues remind me of the glory days of the 70s."
Unfortunately, even Swann has gone to the numbers game, putting up their largest catalogue to date at the last auction. It's understandable, of course, because all the houses are under the constant pressure to grow and to get the "big" items and the "new records". But one has to wonder about the high buy-in levels this time around at all of the houses in New York, and a glance at the Jammes sale illustrates the point that interesting and genuinely rare material with good provenance will always command top dollar and interest. The problem is getting it, of course.
WHAT NEXT FOR THE JAMMES?
While Andre Jammes was "surprised by some prices, he felt that the sale was for the most part "a very rational auction. If you suppress a half dozen of the prices, which were really incredible and out of the scope of the estimated bids, you will discover the estimates were closely followed by the bids. Most of the bids were only slightly over the high estimates."
Jammes was "very pleased" about the sale, "but from the point of view of the stature of photography and the recognition for what we have done." He was particularly pleased with having a role in boosting photography in France to a level where "photography is now equal to prints and a Baldus or Le Gray could be compared to a Daumier or Toulouse-Lautrec."
Jammes mentioned to me that he and his wife still have two major collections. He intends to sell their Charles Negre collection to a major museum. He told me that as a precondition to originally buying the collection from the Negre family he had to promise to do a book on Charles Negre. You could hear the pride in his voice when he reported that he produced an excellent book that still stands as one of the most important works on the photographer.
He said he would keep the large collection of Blanquart-Evrard prints that he used in his collaboration with his daughter to create the catalogue raisonne on Blanquart-Evrard.
Jammes will devote himself to the history of printing and bibliography, besides maintaining his active book business. Jammes says, "I will now be able to restrain my scope."
We in photography are all the richer (and not in dollars, pounds or francs) because of the Jammes' involvement. As Hans Kraus notes, " Andre Jammes has been one of the most influential figures in the fields of image collecting or books published. He has had a major influence on our whole generation in the photography world."
Amen to that.