By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector Newsletter
Not all life is baseball (though perhaps much of it is), but to continue the metaphor I opened with, just as we look up at the beginning of May and see the Cleveland Indians (69-93 last year) with the best record in the American League, there can be no more surprising result than what Phillips de Pury & Company accomplished on April 9. The inaugural Photographs Auction Day at their new Park Avenue headquarters began at 10 am with a Photographs Aficionado Class, covering how to start a collection, how to auctioneer, and how to care for your collection. The exhibition and a café were open all day, and downstairs from 1 to 4 pm Sophie Elgort made individual and group portraits. It was a happening!
By the time I walked in about 10:40 am the place was already packed, the audience was attentively listening, and when auctioneer Simon de Pury bounded onto the stage to begin the sale there was an energy that was almost as electric as a sold-out Phillies game. There were already 100 people in the room and 17 or 18 people on the phones. And more came throughout the morning until there was standing room only. Clearly, many of these people had not been to Christie's or Sotheby's. Many seemed to be from the Park Avenue neighborhood--including two very hip gray-haired women, sitting separately, one of whom had hair dyed bright blue on top and the other of whom had hair dyed purple on the bottom--and a couple of others who brought very small dogs snuggled in their large purses (though I imagine those purses are really very upscale designer dog-carrying bags). And not all of those new attendees sat on their hands. There were numerous new bidders, and even for those who didn't bid this time, they might yet educate themselves and become collectors.
Like Phillips's Chelsea space, there were high ceilings, a magnificent view--on a beautiful sunny day--bad acoustics, and a column partially obscuring the view from some seats. And the auction began with the wrong image on the screen. But no matter, it was a party atmosphere and no one was to be deterred, even as the cappuccino machine constantly ground away in the background.
The first 25 lots sold before the first pass, including Horst's Corset for $57,500, well over high estimate, and Cartier-Bresson's Rue Mouffetard at the same price, but triple its high estimate. (Generally when I don't mention the buyer it means the lot went to the phone, order, or internet.)
Robert Frank's Paris New Year (Young Man with Tulip) ($40,000-$60,000) took ninth place in the sale at $104,500. Cartier-Bresson's portrait of Alberto Giacometti sold for four times its high estimate at $74,500!
A silver print of Irving Penn's Woman in Palace (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Marrakech, Morocco brought $112,900, good for sixth place; and just edging that out in fifth place was Peter Beard's Tsavo North on the Athi Tiva, circa 150 lbs.-160 lbs. side Bull Elephant, February, at $120,100. All of the Beard's exceeded their admittedly low estimates, including Hunting Cheetahs on the Taru Desert at $74,500, which doubled its high estimate.
I'm sure there are some among the old auction hands who may be annoyed by de Pury's manner. But it is a kind of performance art as he leans over the podium, gesticulates freely, and cajoles the audience in his clear but unmistakable accent. Most of the audience seemed to be enjoying the game. The fact that there were often multiple bidders on many lots helped keep the energy high as he bounced between several phones, the internet, and even an occasional bidder in the room. There certainly seemed to be far more bidders on most lots than at the other houses.
A Weston Nude of Charis sold below estimate, but still at $56,250. Mapplethorpe's Flowers in a Vase ($35,000-$45,000) just missed the top ten at $100,900. His Flag here came in seventh at $110,500, just at high estimate.
Kevin Moore strolled off with Avedon's Bob Dylan, Singer, at $68,500. And Irving Penn's striking Miles Davis hand and trumpet, New York, almost tripled its high estimate, selling at $122,500, fourth place. Robert Frank's Fourth of July--Jay, New York, edged past its high estimate at $92,500.
There was a slightly smaller crowd of 70 after lunch, but that still outnumbered the attendees at Sotheby's and Christie's. And the afternoon session provided the top three lots of the day. Third was Frank's Café-Beaufort, SC ($40,000–$50,000). Both Edwynn Houk and Michael Mattis bid, but another bidder in the room took it at $182,500. Diane Arbus's Jewish giant brought $68,500, the same price as Peter Lindbergh's Kate Moss.
Then Cindy Sherman's Untitled #278 sold at the low estimate, but still garnered the top spot in the sale at $242,500. Steve McCurry's renowned Afghan Girl more than tripled its high estimate, selling for $60,000. The latter probably the most overpriced image in the marketplace, given that the photographer has not editioned these images.
A phone bidder strolled off with David Hockney's Walking in the Zen Garden at the Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto, ($35,000-$55,000) at $108,100, eighth place. Robert Mann was certain when he bought Elger Esser's Doubt just over estimate at $92,500.
Florian Maier-Aichen's Untitled, a large color print of Mount Williamson overlooking a vast expanse of a town at night, tied for ninth place at $104,500. Desiree Dolron's Xteriors VI, claimed second place at $194,500, and her Xteriors XI ($30,000-$50,000) also did well at $70,900.
Contemporary work was strong here. Barry Frydlender's Friday sold over estimate at $68,500. David LaChapelle's Statue, Los Angeles, from his Deluge series, floated to $80,500. Candida Höfer's Real Gabinete Português de Leitura Rio de Janerio II attained the same price.
Ahmet Ertug's The Annex of the Library of Senate, Paris, France ($25,000-$35,000) was another contemporary work to sell over estimate at $50,000. And lastly Sandy Skoglund's well-known Revenge of the Goldfish doubled its high estimate at $47,500.
While Phillips de Pury & Company's Photographs sale did have more lots--260--it took the various-owners sale crown at $5,802,250, and they did it with a season low 9.6% buy-in rate. And who saw that coming?
Simon de Pury, Chairman and Chief Auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company, enthusiastically averred, "I am thrilled with the results of our inaugural Photography Sale on Park Avenue, which allowed us to achieve an excellent total and to break many records."
And Vanessa Kramer, Worldwide Director, Photographs, exclaimed, "We are tremendously excited with the results that reflect our dedication to offer the best in classic and contemporary photographs. We broke a great number of world auction records for emerging and established photographers, which speak of sellers' confidence in offering top-quality works as well as buyers' confidence in aggressively pursuing them. Today's results are a testament to our commitment to the field of photographs."
Including Swann Galleries' March 24 sale, the overall total for the spring auctions was $20,577,594, up 10% from the year before. With strong prices, low buy-in rates, and numerous records set, it's clear the photography auction market has recovered nicely from the lows of the recession.
(Copyright ©2011 by The Photo Review. 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 (overseas airmail is $169.95). 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 for a subscription order form to The Photograph Collector Newsletter, go to: http://www.photoreview.org/collect.htm