Issue #76  9/7/2004
Christie's Multi-Owner Sale Totals Just Over 800,000 Pounds

The next morning Christie's held its regular multi-owner sale. It was certainly not the most exciting group of material to be offered here at auction, but the sale did about as well as might be expected. While totaling a respectable 806,532 pounds including premium (about $1.43 million), the auction only managed to sell a meager 47% of the lots offered. In my opinion, this low "sold" rate was simply due to a lack of decent material, which also resulted in a lack of interest, particularly by Americans, who, as I indicated in the previous article, attended in very small numbers (perhaps a half dozen in the room).

I will report primarily on lots that were about 10,000 pounds or higher and I will include the buyer's premium in these prices. Again, Christie's reported a too low exchange rate of $1.77 for the sale (I paid about $1.85 for my own purchases).

New York dealer Hans Kraus, Jr. picked up lot 4, a very rare and important account of the weekly sessions of the Academie des Sciences for the year 1839, which traces many of the various early inventions of photography. Estimated at 10,000-15,000 pounds, Kraus picked it up for only 9,560 pounds with premium.

Kraus was also involved in several other big lots, including the wonderful whole-plate daguerreotype of a microscopic section of Clematis. Not only is it a fabulous example of very early microphotography, it is the earliest known example done by artificial light, utilizing "hydrogen cold light". The estimate on the lot was 90,000-120,000 pounds, and it did not disappoint. After some heated bidding between dealer Hans Kraus and the phone (which turned out later to be German dealer Rudolph Kicken), the phone scored the lot at its high estimate, 139,650 pounds including premium, or just over $247,000 or 205,000 euros, using Christie's low exchange rate (I hope my European readers will pardon me for using commas instead of periods in the appropriate places for euros for ease of understanding for my U.K. and North and South American readers). The price was high enough for the lot to take second place in this auction's top ten highest prices.

Unfortunately, after the successful sale of this lot, there was a string of 14 out of 16 lots that were bought in, signaling that this would not be a good day for most lots. The lack of bids was a result of three very normal factors--condition, image quality and price. Many of the images were just simply in mediocre condition, were simply boring examples, or were overpriced. And some went down to a combination of all three factors. My notes on the lots were interspersed with words and phrases, such as "stained", "light spots and boring", "very bad condition", etc.

After a group of Louis-Remy Robert paper negatives broke the string of buy-ins by selling well into their estimate ranges, several poor to mediocre Le Grays also struggled. The first two lots of Le Grays were two Brigs on the Water. The first one was a more typical and average print that lacked any special qualities and had a few small condition problems, but would normally have sold within its range of 15,000-20,000 pounds. Instead it was bought in at a mere 9,500 pounds (about $20,000 with premium). It would be a tough day for many such lots. The second Brig on the Water was a very poor print with staining, etc. It was bought in at an even lower level.

Lot 29 was a strange album mostly of Le Gray Camp de Chalon images, but included an image signed in the negative "Benedict Masson", a painter who, along with Le Gray, was commissioned to document the camp. The album also contained the important Le Gray "Bunker" image. Again, there were no stunning prints, although many of the prints were certainly acceptable. A phone bidder got a bargain at a mere 19,120 pounds, which made the lot the fifth highest in the sale.

Two other pale and otherwise mediocre Le Gray images of Camp de Chalon were bought in, as well they should. But these lots began another run of buy-ins.

Several Paul-Emile Miot portraits of North American Micmacs were bought in. The print quality was barely average and the estimates and even the reserves were a bit too greedy.

An album of nudes said to be by Auguste Belloc was another victim of seller greed and poor condition on the bulk of the images. There were perhaps a half dozen really good prints/images in this album of 48. Most were blown out and simply fading away. The estimate of 60,000-80,000 pounds would have been considered "reaching" even if all the images were like the four that were illustrated in the catalogue. The group was bought in at 40,000 pounds without the slightest showing of interest at that very inflated reserve. Frankly, I doubt the album is worth 20% of that reserve (including premium).

The other buy-ins went by, occasionally interspersed with a phone bid or two, until we got to the morning's "piece de resistance", lot 48, a good copy of the extremely rare "Photographs of British Algae" by Anna Atkins, which many consider the first photographically illustrated book. The provenance was also highly interesting, involving several key figures of photo history, including Robert Hunt and William Lang, Jr. New York dealer Hans Kraus bought the group for the low estimate at 229,250 pounds (including premium) or about $406,000. You could almost hear the sound of relief from the Christie's team. At least their two major lots sold reasonably well and salvaged this sale's results.

The next group of lots, mostly faded Hill & Adamson's and mediocre Joseph Cundall's, were largely bought in. Then there was a bit of excitement on lot 59, an early family album (1854-57). Estimated at a very tempting 2,000-3,000 pounds, it was quickly bid up by several people in the room, including American dealers Charles Isaacs and Lee Marks, but Hans Kraus, Jr. again took home the prize with his final bid of 14,340 pounds including the premium. The lot made it to ninth highest price paid in the auction.

It seems that only a few photographers will sell despite condition, and Roger Fenton is one of them. Both lots 61 (a salt print and more interesting image) and 62 were yellowed, light and marginal prints, but both found buyers at 2,390 and 1,434 pounds respectively.

The Lewis Carroll's in this sale were the exception to the rule. Most were pretty decent images and prints of children. Charles Isaacs and I battled it out on most of these lots, with Isaacs winning the majority, including lot 71, a lovely chocolate brown untrimmed print, for a still very reasonable 10,755 pounds. Lot 74, Alice Margaret Price as a Shepherdess (from a source different than the other lots), had the highest estimate at 6,000-8,000 pounds, but was bought in at 4,800 pounds. It was an interesting image, but a bit expensive for the lightness of the print.

Another badly faded Roger Fenton image (lot 75) sold to a woman with a phone to her ear for 5,736 pounds.

Frederick H. Evans' personal copy of "A Little Tour in France", lot 82, was bought in at 50,000 pounds without a whimper in the room.

Several lots of Charles Clifford images in various conditions did reasonably well. Most were much more yellow than the catalogue indicated, but there were a few strong prints including lots 86 and 87, the first of which sold to dealer Lee Marks at 7,767 pounds (about $14,000) and the second to a man with distinguished gray hair for 11,950 pounds (about $21,500). Both underbid each other. The last price made lot 87 the tenth highest priced lot of the day.

Another disappointment of the day for Christie's was lot 107, an album of Francis Frith mammoth plates of the Middle East. While the prints were not bad, they just were not strong enough to draw the money necessary for this expensive lot, especially after a few of these scarce albums had already surfaced in the just the past two and half years. At 52,000 pounds plus premium, no one was willing to take the chance on the album.

But at 31,070 pounds a phone bidder picked up lot 108, a good set of the four-volume set by Frith of smaller images, including a very rare version of a self-portrait. The price, just above the low estimate, put the lot into third place in the morning's sale. The phone bidder had competition from a man in the room. After losing lot 108, this man (paddle 422) bought the very next lot, Emile Bechard's "Voyage dans la Haute Egypte et Nubie" with its 137 albumen prints for 23,900 pounds, which was just at the low estimate and good enough for fourth highest price of the auction.

After Linnaeus Tripe's Monster Gun of Tanjore was bought in at a mere 6,500 pounds, the auction appeared to do a bit better on some ethnographic and Eugene Atget material, but then hit another string of buy-ins (lots 120-129), the most important of which was an unpublished portfolio of 42 silver prints by Germaine Krull entitled "Roman", which was bought in at 32,000 pounds (estimate 50,000-70,000 pounds).

Lot 142, a decent print of Man Ray's Le Bouquet (fireworks) sold to the phone over the room at its low estimate of 9,560 pounds including premium.

But the buy-ins started to outnumber the sold items. Even the normally reliable Bill Brandt sold erratically, although his Bent Elbow (lot 164) brought in an 11,352-pound bid.

Lot 183, an Edward Weston of a nude of Charis sold nearly at the high estimate, bringing 16,730 pounds from a phone bidder and placing the lot at number six in the top ten priced lots.

A print of Walker Evans' Sidewalk and Shopfront, New Orleans, probably in a 1960s print, brought 9,560 pounds from a phone bidder versus the room.

Boston dealer Robert Klein got lot 194, Irving Penn's Two Guedras, Morocco, for 15,535 pounds, but lost the battle to a commission bidder on the very next lot (Penn's Woman with Roses on Her Arm), who got to this same 15,535-pound bid first. Both lots tied for seventh place on the top ten list.

With auctions at Bonham's and Bloombury to come and the opening of the new Photo-London fair, there was still some more action in London.