PART ONE: NYC AND EUROPEAN PHOTOGRAPHY
AUCTIONS APPEAR UNAFFECTED BY 9/11 EVENTS; SWANN KICKS THINGS OFF WITH TWO CATALOGUES AND
SETS RECORD ON PHOTO AUCTION AND SINGLE ITEM; SOTHEBY'S BRINGS IN NEARLY $2.8 MILLION AND SELLS 67% BY LOT, DOING VERY WELL ON BIG ITEMS
THE HAUNTING EXPERIENCE OF COMING BACK FROM EUROPE AND PREVIEWING IN NEW YORK
I had watched the second plane fly into the World Trade Center in real time on CNN on the streets of Sienna, Italy, where I was on my first vacation in four years. The crash looked like something out of a B-grade disaster movie, but this was real and the death of thousands in an instant takes some time for the horror to sink in.
My brother worked at the World Trade Center, but fortunately was late for work that day. He wound up on a Path train that was diverted to Christopher Street after the train conductor refused to open the doors, thereby saving hundreds, maybe thousands more. I did not find out about this until later.
Communication to the US was non-existent even by Internet for the first few days after 9/11. But when I was able to reach my tearful assistant director Maria Connolly, she told me of the many emails from my friends in Europe and the US wishing us and other dealers well, letting us know that galleries were reopening and staff was safe or had relocated (many with new phone numbers and changes in schedules). We have tried to give these changes priority in posting up to the iphotocentral on-line calendar.
The Paviots send a brief but eloquent email from their Paris gallery: "No words to tell you how much we are shocked. Courage..." It echoed many of the other emails and notes that we received from around the world.
While in Europe I attended a number of auctions (more on that later). The 9/11 events did not appear to impact prices or even buy-in levels. But these were either small or highly specialized (for instance, the Gujral Indian auction), so they might not have been very representative. New York would be the first real test. The NYC photography auctions would indeed go on--some of the very first auctions of any kind after the disaster.
Flying back from Europe to Newark the Saturday before the auctions was a little surreal. The two young women behind me in the check-in were flying back to Boston and were clearly nervous. They asked me whether or not I was concerned. I told them that we couldn't let such people intimidate us, and that the odds were very much in our favor in any case. I told them that I was more worried about the weather conditions. That did not mean that I did not feel at least a bit nervous, especially when one particularly large and surly man decided to stand up in the cross aisle for about half the trip.
I tried to get a good look at the NYC skyline as we came in, but the plane had obviously taken a route that no longer passed near New York City. Whether this was because of new security directives or just a sense that the airlines want to avoid the negative, I could not tell you. In any case, the plane was about a third full, and we breezed through customs in record time.
I took the bus into New York City on Sunday morning because no one could tell me whether or not the limitation on one-passenger cars was in effect during the weekends (it is not). I was struck by two things coming into the city: the three huge American flags draped over the Lincoln tunnel entrances and the deflated skyline of lower Manhattan where the World Trade Center towers used to be. It is somehow different to actually see it in person rather than on television.
I must have misunderstood when Swann would open, so I walked down the street to get a quick breakfast. I was the only person in the restaurant, but its take-out line grew quickly from just me to about a dozen. New York was starting to wake up. Looking towards downtown, I felt the absence of the twin towers. I decided to hop up to Christie's on the subway. At 10:30 am not a single person was in the car with me for the three stops that I had to go on the 6th Avenue train. It was a haunting feeling to see all the empty seats.
Christie's had not opened yet either and I was feeling a bit stupid and headed back to Swann. I decided to hit the 25th Street flea markets and met up with fellow dealers Terry Etherton, Joe Bellows and Steve Bulger. After buying a few nice images from my friend Glenn Spellman and then having it begin to rain, I went back over to Swann to preview. More and more people drifted in while I was there. Some looked a little shell-shocked.
It was still raining as I walked to the subway stop and took another almost empty train back uptown to Christie's Rockefeller Center. There was another somber but slightly larger crowd there.
After finishing at Rockefeller Center, I grabbed a cab with fellow dealers William Schaeffer and Hans Kraus, Jr. to preview Christie's East (the last photo auction to be held at that location; future sales would move to the Rockefeller Plaza location). In the cab, Schaeffer told us about how he had cancelled his flight plans on the ill fated Boston jet, one of the two that crashed into the World Trade Center towers just two and half weeks before. He also related how he had been startled awake in his hotel room last night, still shaken by the events and his own narrow brush with death.
After a brief look at a rather weak group of images, Hans and I decided to move on to Sotheby's. In the cab, he invited me to see his current exhibition of Hill & Adamson images. My whirlwind-previewing jaunt was coming to a close with our arrival at Sotheby's. I was particularly impressed with Tina Modotti's Hats, more properly called a "Workers' Parade".
After a quick return to my office in Pennsylvania's Bucks County, I drove back into New York City on Tuesday, timing my trip so that I hit the Lincoln Tunnel (the only one still functioning for in-bound traffic at the time; the Holland Tunnel just reopened this week) after 12 noon, so that my one-person car would not be turned back.
SWANN KICKS THINGS OFF WITH TWO CATALOGUES;
SETS RECORD ON PHOTO AUCTION AND SINGLE ITEM
The first auction up was at Swann, scheduled for an unusual afternoon and evening session. Just how would the market hold up post-9/11? Actually Swann had no big images in the morning session. Nothing was even supposed to go for more than $9,000 on the HIGH estimate: lots of $1000-$3000 items. But it was an interesting group of material despite the low price range, and the auction house had done its best (as Sotheby's and Christie's did as well) to get consignors to review their reserves, so items were reasonable if not a steal. The room had decent attendance and the order and phone bids were--not surprisingly--quite active.
Things went about the way you might expect they would go before the 9/11 events: 51% sell-through and a meager $376,884 total for the afternoon, although there were a couple of pleasant surprises. All prices and totals include Swann's reasonable 15% buyer's premium.
Two very fine Frank Mason Good albums went well above their high estimates: lot 34 going for $7475 to an order bidder over an estimate of $3000-$5000, and lot 35 going to the phone for $9200 over an estimate of $3500-$4500. A partial Paul Strand portfolio sold in the estimate range for a respectable $10,925 to the room. And finally, a very nice album of New York City views by Irving Underhill sold on the phone to another dealer for $25,300 (against an estimate of only $6000-$9000) with NY dealer Edwynn Houk underbidding apparently for a client.
Swann had created a second catalogue for its evening session--something called "100 Fine Photographs"--as opposed to "Important 19th and 20th Century Photographs" in the afternoon session catalogue. While some of the evening's images were considerably more "fine" than some in the afternoon, not all were, leaving some of us confused by the distinctions. In any case, the evening session did much better than the afternoon, bringing in a total of $1,060,675 and a sell rate of 62%--a sell-through rate not far off last spring's auction mark. And very importantly, most of the big lots sold well. The total for the entire day was a very respectable $1,437,559. Indeed, it set a record for a Swann photography auction.
There was an interesting group attributed to Thomas Eakins. While the material was a bit erratic, the provenance and other evidence were compelling. The lead image, a study for Eakins' painting entitled The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake, sold to a dealer in the room, for $51,750, well under the estimate of $70,000-$100,000. It was not a particularly exciting print but it was a study for an Eakins' painting. This same male dealer left after also winning lot 361, a group of scullers for a mere $2300. An order bidder, who was a dealer, picked up lot 362 for $12,650. And I bought lot 364 a group of four enchanting images of the Crowell children. They reminded me of Lewis Carroll's work and I thought that the lot was the best of the group. Eakins is getting hot now with the major show (see below for details) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. On lot 360, auctioneer Nick Lowry stumbled on the pronunciation of "Wissahickon" as the projection of the image also faltered, prompting a quip that the word "was so hard to pronounce that it hurt the projector." After a few laughs and some help from the Philly contingent in the room, Lowry was able to get it right.
One of the big lots of the night was a very rare Herbert Bayer print of Marseilles. The shadows and forms made it a wonderful modernist image and the large print was truly a stopper. Apparently it came originally from Dr. Erik Bender, a German Jewish refugee, who came to Long Island and became a noted collector of children's books and ceramics. Bender was himself an amateur photographer. After a heated bidding session with several people in the room, including dealer Lee Marks, and the phone, another bidder in the room got the nod at $68,500 including the premium--well above the estimate of $30,000-$50,000, but still a bargain for this unique work.
A late-printed Two Callas by Imogen Cunningham sold to a dealer in the room for $9775. Callas lilies were to do very well during the week. It is apparently the current flower of choice.
The next big item (and the one Swann needed the most) was the Edward Curtis set of North American Indians. Swann has done well on Curtis material in the past. Estimated at $500,000 to $750,000, the lot sold in the room to dealer and collector Christopher Cardozo against the phone for $607,500, including the premium. While this was a decent price (in fact it was the highest priced item ever sold at Swann), it still didn't match the record set in May at the Bearne's sale of well over $700,000, but at least Swann had made their big sale. And to be fair, the material was missing one small format volume and two large format gravures and lacked the provenance of the Bearne's copy, although it was a more-sought-after Japanese tissue set.
By the way, Max Reed, one of the partners on the Bearne's album, told me that the group had resold it to Flury Gallery, a Seattle, WA gallery that specializes in Curtis material. No price was mentioned, although the group reportedly had offered the lot for $1-1/4 million originally. I suspect that the group made a profit but probably not THAT much of a profit. Max's bookstore, Sims Reed, on 43a Duke Street St James, London is around the corner from the Christie's King Street location (where all future photo auctions will be held, I am told) and is worth a stop to see his fine photography and art book selection.
Continuing on at Swann, Lowry got off another good crack when he tried to sell a Mario Cravo Neto image of a man with two fishes by announcing that "now it's only $800 a fish." Since Rick Wester stepped down off the podium, Lowry may be the most polished and entertaining photo auctioneer in New York, although I wish he would be clearer about what was sold and what was unsold.
A bit later an Alfred Stieglitz Poplars "sold" to an order bidder against the room for a respectable $27,600, except that it did not actually sell. It was the only "big" item to go down at Swann. It had a small scratch, but was a decent print. This was clearly one of those instances where Lowry was less than clear about the status of the item. There were bidders in the room, but apparently the reserve was not met, rather than an order bid executed.
A late-printed (1976-77) platinum print of Paul Strand's Wall Street sold for $9775 to a collector. While it did not make its estimate range of $12,000-$18,000, I still feel that is a ridiculous price to pay for a late editioned print (of 100 yet!). A copy of Doris Ulmann's Roll, Jordan, Roll sold for the middle of its estimate range at $17,250. A Roman Vishniac portfolio sold for $25,300 to an order bidder, who was a dealer, against the phone. And finally, another portfolio, this time by the recently deceased and multitalented Eudora Welty, sold for $11,500 to a Philadelphia couple.
SOTHEBY'S BRINGS IN NEARLY $2.8 MILLION AND SELLS 67% BY LOT, DOING VERY WELL ON BIG ITEMS
While Swann held its own with a very strong sale, the real test would come the next day at Sotheby's. The troubled auction house, which just announced more staff cuts, posted up respectable results for a single-sale photography auction, bringing in a total of $2,782,280. It sold 66.76% of its lots (down a bit from the spring), but, most importantly, sold every big item in the sale at decent prices.
Considering that the material in this sale was not quite up to Sotheby's normal standards (but was better overall than the other two houses in my opinion), the results were unexpectedly bullish. That prompted Denise Bethel, director of the photography department, to gush after the sale: "We are delighted with the results of today's solid sale, which was right on estimate." She noted "an air of confidence and decisiveness in the saleroom today." I guess I was breathing slightly different air than Denise, but Sotheby's had indeed dodged the bullet and done better than expected in this environment. In some instances, you might even say that it did spectacularly well considering circumstances.
The first big lot was the perennial Moonrise, Hernandez by Ansel Adams, lot 7, a mural size print 38 x 58 inches, which sold below its range for $43,300, including Sotheby's stiff 20% premium (15% on amounts above $15,000 and 10% on amounts topping $100,000). All the prices below will include this premium. The rather flat but huge print sold in the room to the Oswald Gallery of Austin, TX. The price actually pushed this print into Sotheby's top ten for the sale.
Lot 14, Half Dome from the Glacier Point Hotel, a more interesting image and print from Adams, brought $27,200 from a phone bidder over more active bidding from the room and phone. I have said repeatedly that Adams' vintage work has been underpriced versus his late-printed decorator images.
Roger Fenton continued to do well. First lot 36, a shot of the Kremlin sold to Edwynn Houk over Hans Kraus for $15,600. (What exactly is Edwynn doing buying 19th century images any way?) And then Connecticut dealer William Schaeffer bought a nicer print of "On the Wharfe" for just over $26,000.
A private collector on the phone bought lot 61, a Stieglitz of New York from the Shelton for $44,450, a very good price, even though the print wasn't quite stunning. The price still pushed the image to number 9, on Sotheby's list of top results for the sale.
Walker Evan's Faulkner's Mississippi (lot 94), a group of images from the Conde Nast Archive and Vogue, did well, selling to a phone bidder for $27,200 against an estimate of $15,000-$25,000. The phone and order bids would be active throughout the day and week.
Perhaps the sleeper of the auction was the first lot of material from the Paul Walter Collection. The rest of the selection from the collection at this auction was largely mediocre and the results bear me out. But lot 104 was a very important group of a dozen Civil War salt and albumenized salt prints. Estimated at $5,000-$8,000, it sold for an astounding $78,950 to dealer William Schaeffer, who battled fellow dealer Charles Isaacs most of the way up to this level. Auctioneer Denise Bethel couldn't resist an ironic comment from the podium: "Wow. We estimated it only at $5000-$8000, but what do we know? We're only the experts." This was the fourth most expensive lot of the sale.
A Walker Evan's Girl in Fulton Street, NY sold for $31,800. It was one of the few other interesting pieces in the Walter's material. Then we were on to the lunch break.
Sotheby's has a lunchroom on the 10th floor that is actually pretty decent. Salads and soups have been interesting and dependable. Considering the choices nearby, this could be your best bet, especially in bad weather. Then again the restaurant also offers dining outside on the roof, making a nice break from the dull auction rooms.
The afternoon session started off with a few bangs, all of them named Modotti. The beautiful Workers' Parade became a battle between dealer Lee Marks and the phones. Marks prevailed, bringing home the image for $187,250, just $2,250 shy of the World's Record for this artist. Marks often bids for collector Howard Stein. Sotheby's had indicated in its top ten list (and this obviously made Numero Uno) that the image had sold to a "private collector."
Always a bargain hunter, Michael Mattis sneaked in to buy Modotti's Elisa Kneeling for a mere $35,250, a steal for a good Modotti print. Then New York dealer Spencer Throckmorton scooped up the Calla Lilly for $115,750 for third place on Sotheby's top ten.
Dealer Houk came back on lot 163, Imogen Cunningham's Calla & Leaf (Calla Lilly's were pretty popular here) to take it for $44,450 and a tie for ninth place on the Sotheby's top ten.
Paul Strand's Rancho de Taos Church, NM sold for a strong $24,900 against an estimate of $10,000-$20,000.
An erratic group of Man Rays brought erratic results. Top lots included lot 224, an image of Pablo Picasso, which sold for $34,100 to the phone. Then Howard Greenberg picked up lot 226, a Solarized Nude, for $46,750, putting it at No. 6 on Sotheby's list.
It was not until lot 282 that a big one would be bagged. Frankly, I had thought that Sotheby's had miscalculated on this one. I just could not see the estimate at $90,000-$120,000 for this Harry Callahan suite of three photographs of Eleanor (or at least of her towel draped crotch). It just seemed unrealistic for his work and this series of (to me at least) rather uninspired images. But as Bethel said above: What do I know? It got knocked down to a private collector on the phone for a whopping $137,750, a new World Record price for the photographer, placing it in second place for the top auction results.
Irving Penn continued to do well. His Black and White Vogue Cover (lot 300) sold for $23,750 and then his Cuzco Children (lot 304) sold for $58,250, more than double the previous auction results for this image and enough to put the image at No. 5. Both went to phone bidders. Clearly Penn seems to be on the move again.
But it was for Hiroshi Sugimoto to provide the ironic capper to this auction. His World Trade Towers had been estimated at $12,000-$18,000. The image sold to collector Leon Constantino for a whopping $45,600, a World Record for a single photograph at auction for this artist. That put the lot at No. 6 in Sotheby's top ten. The phone then bought Sugimoto's series on the English Channel for $38,700.
Now we only had to survive Christie's two sales.
(To be continued later this week)