The evening auction of "100 Fine Photographs" at Swann Galleries did not have the fireworks of some of its past auctions, bringing in only $571,320--over $116,000 below its low estimate for the whole sale. The buy-in rate was at 33%, and the totals and sell rate were actually helped by some important after-auction sales, including the top lot of the day, Paul Strand's Chris-to, Tlacochoya, Oxaca [sic], Mexico. Although the crowd was a little larger here, it was still the phone and order bidders who made up most of the real action.
All the prices above and below include Swann's buyer's premium.
Lot 1 kicked off the auction in style as two half-plate daguerreotype portraits of a dentist (one with the tools of his trade and the other with his daughter) sold within the estimate range for $19,550 to a collector on the phone.
An 1864 Mathew Brady informally posed portrait of Ulysses S. Grant, City Point, VA (lot 7) brought well above its estimate of $5,000-7,000 at $9,200. It went to a collector.
The group of 10 photographs of Rio de Janeiro and its environs by G. Leuzinger from the late 1860s (lot 15) got a lot of attention. A collector paid $10,925--well over its presale estimate of $5,000-6,000.
Lot 18, an 1874 nine-part 360-degree panorama of New York City taken by William W. Silver from atop the Post Office Building in lower Manhattan sold to a collector for $23,000, which was above its high estimate. In my opinion, the print did not exactly have the strongest tones. But it still commanded top dollar.
Swann has become known for its archives of images, and this sale was no exception. Lot 31 had by pure chance, I am sure, exactly 31 photographs of the Peary expeditions to Greenland and the Arctic (1908-09) that had been passed down in the Peary family. It sold to an institution for $18,400.
Charles Sheeler's " Pennsylvania Barn" (lot 33) sold to a dealer for $12,650, which was in the upper range of the estimate. His "American Interior", a silver print from circa 1917 (lot 34), went to the same dealer just at the low estimate at $11,500. Frankly, a photograph of a painting does nothing for me--even if it is by the artists themselves, although here, at least, an argument could be made for the artistic importance of the connection between the paintings and the photographs that Sheeler made.
One of Swann's disappointments of the day was the back cover lot, a spiral bound album entitled Rayographs 1922-28 but printed by Man Ray about 1965 (lot 35). It failed to generate enough attention and was bought in. The estimate range had been $30,000-50,000, but the album passed at $19,000.
Lot 36, Camera Work, Number 36, 1911, signed and warmly inscribed by Alfred Stieglitz to his friend, the influential art critic Charles Caffin, sold for a record $34,500 to a collector. No dealer in his right mind would have paid that much, although that was about the top retail total for all the prints in the publication. Perhaps the collector needed this last copy to fill in the rest of a collection of Camera Works. I remember when you could have bought an entire set for less than this, but I guess I am showing my age.
Dadaist Hannah Höch's Collage, circa 1925-30, cutout and overlaid photomechanical elements (lot 41) fetched $24,150 from another collector, which was well within the estimate range of $15,000-25,000.
Lot 43, the pretty Drtikol pigment print nude "The Movement, bought in. It had been estimated at a reaching $40,000-60,000.
Two of Lewis Hine's silver prints of the construction of the Empire State Building, 1931 (lot 47 and 48), brought $14,950 each from a collector. There was considerable wear and tear on both prints. These images of construction workers high above Manhattan's cityscape without safety harnesses still give me vertigo.
Lot 56, Edward Weston's "Cypress, Pebble Beach", silver print, 1932, sold to a dealer for a mere $13,800, although that was virtually midpoint in the estimate range.
I thought that Strand's "Chris-to, Tlacochoya, Oxaca [sic], Mexico", a varnished platinum print, 1933 (lot 59), was perhaps the most interesting lot in this sale. It certainly was a strong and emotionally involving print. But I hesitated because of its religious content, which I find sometimes difficult to sell. I guess the rest of the buyers also hesitated for the same reason, because the lot bought in, but then was "resurrected" after the sale, selling for $34,500 to a collector with the strength of their convictions. Mel Gibson perhaps? Now there is a good rumor! My congratulations for a job well done.
The most competitive bidding arose for groups of portraits of iconic American celebrities. The same collector acquired a group of 30 Jacques Lowe photographs of John and Jackie Kennedy on the campaign trail, 1959-60, for $12,650, considerably over the meager estimate of $4,000-6,000; and a group of 30 Mark Shaw photographs of the young Kennedy family, circa 1960, for $17,250, which soared over the estimate of $3,000-5,000. The winning phone bidder and another phone bidder battled it out, often jumping bids in order to try to intimidate the other. Apparently that strategy did not exactly work well. While I understood the bidding on the Lowe's, which were quite strong, I frankly felt the Shaw's were a pretty mediocre group.
Celebrities continued to do well. Bert Stern's The Last Sitting, portfolio with 10 chromogenic prints of Marilyn Monroe, New York, 1962, sold to a dealer for $10,925, which was slightly above the high estimate. But there were also some other chromogenic prints in this sale that clearly showed signs of color shift and fading--including one from 1995! This kind of thing never seems to show up in the condition reports, so buyers should always view such prints before they bid. I would really hesitate before buying chromogenic color prints. Stick to dye transfers and other more archival color processes.
Contemporary works included a signed and inscribed copy of Eikoh Hosoe's elegantly produced "Ordeal by Roses", Tokyo, 1971, $9,775; Robert Mapplethorpe's Leaf, $10,350; Eliot Porter's Western Landscapes", portfolio with 12 original dye-transfer prints, 1988, $10,350; and Richard Misrach's "Moon over Black Rock, 8:22 p.m.-10:24 p.m.", chromogenic print, 1996, printed 1997, $10,925. All were reportedly bought by collectors, according to Swann.