Issue #90  6/18/2005
Sotheby's Also Scores Big, Topping $5-3/4 Million and Taking Top Lot of Season

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector

Sotheby's taut sale of just over 200 images, highlighted by a group of photograms by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy from the collection of Eugene and Dorothy Prakapas, was remarkably even better.

Ansel Adam's Clearing Winter Storm, blew past its high estimate to $48,000. Robert Mann left Edwynn Houk behind, and then battled a phone to take Adams's Maroon Bells, Aspen, Colorado at $43,200, more than double the high estimate.

Following that, a glorious early vintage print of Adams's Clearing Winter Storm, here titled just Storm, Yosemite Valley, California, came on the block. Collector Michael P. Mattis wrote, "I think it has to be mentioned that this print--the only known DATED vintage print--redates this seminal image by a full six years prior to its usual dating (1938 vs. 1944). [John] Szarkowski had mused in his recent book on Adams that the photo may well predate 1942--according to Denise, he apparently was very excited when this print surfaced, proving his hunch. How bloody often does this type of major redating happen? NOT BLOODY OFTEN!!" Estimated at $25,000-$35,000 the print climbed in $2,000 increments as a determined Mattis held off two phone bidders to take home the prize for $96,000, the tenth highest price of the sale. "It's the price of a Weston sand dunes study," Mattis later quipped, "but infinitely rarer."

Clarence H. White's beautiful platinum print, Morning, 1905, inscribed to Laura Gilpin and printed no later than 1918, brought its low estimate of $60,000 from the phone. Another White print, Drops of Rain, 1903 ($25,000-$35,000), also from the collection of Laura Gilpin, found shelter with a European dealer, at $105,600--a record for the artist and the ninth highest price of the sale.

A set of the rare Stieglitz publication 291, mostly or entirely the deluxe edition ($20,000-$30,000) was the object of intense bidding. Collector Manfred Heiting dropped out at $84,000 and finally dealer Francis Naumann gave in to surrealist collector Silvio Perlstein at $144,000 (tied for fifth).

Edward Steichen's vintage print of the movie icon Gloria Swanson (one of only three to be offered at auction, plus another variant) found company with a phone bidder for $273,600, just under the high estimate, after Peter MacGill dropped out. This lot managed to come in second in the top ten. Edwynn Houk took the elegant print by Alfred Stieglitz, From the Shelton, West just under low estimate at $72,000. Anne W. Brigman's lush pictorialist study, Sanctuary/The Grand Canyon, 1921, doubled its high estimate at $24,000 as a phone bidder left Howard Greenberg, Paul Hertzmann, and Jill Quasha behind.

A Lewis Hine Empire State Building study, 1931, passed at $34,000. Perhaps the taint of the old scandal has not been purged from the Hine market yet.

Jeffrey Fraenkel outbid Edwynn Houk for Walker Evans's Penny Picture Display ($20,000-$30,000), paying $91,200, or a little more than $403 per portrait. Michael Hoppen flew high for Margaret Bourke-White's Sikorsky Engine, reaching $81,600, over high estimate.

With only 78 lots in the morning, the lunch break stretched out just a little too long, especially with the anticipation for the Moholy photograms. Eugene and Dorothy Prakapas, pioneering New York dealers, bought most of these images from the photographer William Larson in 1980. Larson himself had acquired them in 1973, long before there was such an intense interest in the Modernist period and before there was any real market for this work.

In order of price the lots went as follows: Fotogramm (Photogram with Diagonal Shape) went to Thea Westreich, Art Advisory Services (bidding at these auctions through her assistant) for $240,000; Fotogramm 1922 (Photogram with Spiral Shape); $228,000 to Thea Westreich; Skizze für das Titelblatt der Zeitschrift "Broom" (Photogram Sketch for the Title Page of "Broom"), $96,000 to Peter MacGill; Untitled (Photogram with Circular Shapes and Diagonal Line), $86,400 to Kenneth Wynn; Untitled (Photogram with Wine Glass), $60,000 to Michael Hoppen; Untitled (Photogram with Interlinking Circles), $43,200 to Kenneth Wynn; and Untitled (Photogram and Cliché Verre), $28,800 to Timothy Baum. Two were bought in, but according to Denise Bethel, Director of Sotheby's Photographs department, "The two photograms that did not sell during the auction were sold privately, immediately following the sale."

Back to the various owners sale, a Frantisek Drtikol Composition went at the mid-point of its estimate, $60,000. Deborah Bell pushed Germaine Krull's Eiffel Tower to $22,800, more than double its high estimate. But Edward Weston's Piramide del Sol found no takers at $54,000, only 10% below it low estimate. Peter MacGill floated over high estimate to snare Weston's Cloud--Mexico for $115,200 (eighth place). Lee Marks, usually bidding for collector Howard Stein, doubled the high estimate for Frederick Sommer's Grand Canyon at $62,400. A Weston Dunes, Oceano, 1936, ($15,000-$20,000), printed no later than 1946, blew into Peter MacGill's sandbox for $76,800.

Several Irving Penn images went over high estimate and 12 of the 15 images from Helmut Newton's 15 Photographs ($25,000–$35,000) seduced $57,600 from an order bidder. Five selected images of the Brown sisters by Nicholas Nixon more than doubled the high estimate at $33,600. 15 Photographs by Lee Friedlander ($30,000-$40,000) went to the phone for $84,000 and Friedlander's N.Y.C. (Shadow on Fur Collar), 1966 ($12,000-$18,000) brought $38,400 from a different phone.

Next up was Diane Arbus's A Box of Ten Photographs ($250,000-$350,000). One sold for $405,500 at Phillips de Pury and Company in October 2003. That record would not last long as Rose Shoshana finally ended Thea Westreich's spirited pursuit at $553,600, a new record for an Arbus lot and the top lot of the sale and the season.

Edwynn Houk only had to go close to the high estimate, $138,000, for Arbus's Waitress at a Nudist Camp, N.J. (seventh place). Jeffrey Fraenkel did have to go well over the high estimate of $70,000 to corral a Selkirk print of Child with a Toy Hand Grenade — $144,000 (sixth place), more than double the $65,725 paid at Christie's in April 2004.

Rose Shoshana was back to ride off with William Eggleston's Memphis (the tricycle) ($100,000–$150,000) for $240,000 (third place), leaving behind Tom Gitterman consulting on a cell phone. Hiroshi Sugimoto's Brooklyn Bridge ($100,000–$150,000) went for $168,000 (fourth place). I imagine that's more than William McCloundy got for selling the Brooklyn Bridge in 1901 or Victor Lustig got for selling the Eiffel Tower in 1925. But I digress.

The two last contemporary lots of note were Elger Esser's Lyon and Albi, which sold for $64,800 and $43,200, on estimates of $15,000–$25,000.

All that bidding left one a little dizzy. The various owners sale itself realized $4,972,900, 89.3% sold by lot and 94.8% sold by value. Add in the $782,400 for the Moholys and you reach a stunning $31,450 per lot sold, not counting the two Moholys that sold afterward.

As Denise Bethel, said: "We are stunned by the strength and energy of today's fine art photographs market. We offered only 206 lots, the fewest lots of any auction house this time around, and again, we set the record total: our two sales together brought a very strong $5,755,300, led by the most expensive lot of the season, the Neil Selkirk printing of Diane Arbus's Box of Ten Photographs, which realized $553,600. It was also a privilege and pleasure to offer in one catalogue nine extremely rare Moholy-Nagy photograms from the Collection of Eugene and Dorothy Prakapas. The two most valuable photograms brought the most spirited bidding, and the top lot, Photogram with Diagonal Shape, achieved $240,000, one of the highest auction prices ever realized for a photographic work by Moholy-Nagy. Overall, for the two sales, we were expecting a high estimate of $5,772,000, and we achieved this almost to the dollar."

(Copyright ©2005 The Photograph Collector.)

My thanks to Steve Perloff and The Photograph Collector Newsletter for giving me permission to use this information. The Photograph Collector, which is a wonderful newsletter that I can heartily recommend, is published monthly and is available by subscription for $149.95. You can phone 1-215-891-0214 and charge your subscription or send a check or money order to: The Photograph Collector, 140 East Richardson Ave, Langhorne, PA 19047. Or to order The Photograph Collector Newsletter online, go to: http://www.photoreview.org/wordpressindex/shop/.