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Current News             Issue Archive             Article Archive E-Photo Newsletter   Issue 69   3/19/2004

Christie's February Auction Makes $1.5 Million

The Christie's post-AIPAD auction did relatively well, selling 85% by lot and bringing in almost $1.5 million. Not bad, considering that this was Christie's version of "cleaning out the attic." The sell rate was helped considerably by the fact that 108 of the lots in this auction were sold without reserves. Nearly all the "big" action came from phone or order bidders and not from the small contingent in the auction room.

The 170-lot Alexander Rodchenko portion of the sale was apparently owned by Christie's itself, which somehow wound up with this selection from Gary Tatintsian, who had in turn gotten it from Nikolai Sokolov, a member of the caricaturist group "Kurkryniksy". This group's work on "Old Moscow" was intended to accompany Rodchenko's photographs from the book "The New Moscow" to make another publication entitled "Two Moscows". Reportedly, Sokolov received the photographs from Rodchenko, but Christie's did not explain how this all came about. The prints were all annotated 'Two Moscows--final version' in Russian, and Rodchenko stamped most of these prints.

Of course, it was the Rodchenkos that made the biggest splash here, even though some were reportedly in only fair condition. Besides the condition variation, the prices actually realized also reflected the fact that the group had been "shopped around" by Tatintsian--some images even showing up in a previous auction and being bought in.

The prices below all include Christie's buyer's premium.

The top lot of the sale was nearly at the end of the sale, lot 358, which was of the Metro during May Day illuminations. It lit up the auction tote board at a hefty $35,850 and was bought by an American museum. The estimate had been $30,000-40,000.

One of the few other lots outside of the Rodchenkos to break through into the top echelon was a late-printed Paul Strand of Wall Street (lot 37), which had been estimated at $12,000-18,000, but sold for an astounding $33,460. I wonder if the buyer (a persistent phone bidder) and underbidder (an order bidder) had focused on the fact that this was not a vintage print, but a print made 1976-1977. It was bought by an American collector and took home second place in this sale. More on this one below.

What is in a name and what is in an image and print quality? Unfortunately too many collectors (and even some curators) do not spend the necessary time to educate themselves as to the differences and nuances of condition and image interest and focus instead on a "name". I see this very often, especially with unsophisticated bidders on eBay, where a very poor image by Walker Evans will often outperform a very fine and important 19th-century salt print. For a more complete examination of this topic go to my article, "On Connoisseurship and Print Values: A Discussion" which can be found by clicking: http://www.iphotocentral.com/collecting/article_view.php/11/11/1 .

Why do I bring all of this up here? Because the market did a very good job on distinguishing by connoisseurship instead of just by name on lots 25, 26 and 27--all salt prints by J.B. Greene, an American calotypist who has achieved some strong prices and name recognition by 19th-century collectors. Lot 25 was a marvelously rich print of an interestingly abstraction of jumbled ruins. Three phone bidders went after this one with a passion. Estimated at a mere $3,000-5,000, it sold for what might seem like a very high $28,680, but the image and print quality more than justified the price, which was actually a great bargain, in my opinion. The price was good enough to place the print into a tie for fourth highest price of the sale. Likewise, lot 26, was a weaker image with fading or exposure problems on the right side of the image. It actually failed to find a buyer at the same low estimate. It probably deserved its fate. Lot 27, a very good print of a decent, if unremarkable image, sold to a West Coast dealer for a very reasonable $6,573--again a bargain proportionate to the photograph. The market did very well distinguishing between the photographs, I think, in this instance.

Lot 33, a tiny but cute Frederick Evans image of his wife and children, sold for the ridiculously low sum of $299, which had to be the best buy of the sale. It made me wish that I had not fled New York City in the face of what turned out to be an imaginary snowstorm that had been predicted by weather forecasters.

Lot 37, Paul Strand's New York, 1916 (often referred to as "Wall Street") was an instance of the market going totally the opposite direction compared to my J.B. Greene example above. Paul Strand is admittedly a "hot" name, but this image was a late printed image, not printed by Strand himself, unsigned and in a very large edition size of 100 prints (and you have to ask yourself: What is to prevent others from being made?). Estimated correctly at $12,000-18,000 (although not worth even close to this amount, in my opinion), the image soared to $33,460. Come on people! You can still buy excellent signed vintage pieces by Strand for this price (see Swann story below for an example of one that actually bought in briefly). I apologize in advance to the "winner", but education is important to all of us.

Another similar case in point: Christie's must be getting hard up to have put the ubiquitous Kaloma (supposedly, but not Mrs. Wyatt Earp) in this sale. There are hundreds and, I believe, thousands of these prints. This is the junk of the market, and it is a shame that the otherwise prestigious Christie's Rockefeller Center put this in an otherwise decent off-season sale. The auction houses stopped putting this image up for a while after I had pointed out that the image was neither rare nor of Mrs. Earp (see my past newsletters for details). I guess collectors and the auction houses need a reminder note.

It was not until lot 191, that another image of consequence came up for bid, a late printed Dorothea Lange of a Funeral Cortege. Made in the 1960s, the image still brought $16,730 versus an estimate of $6,000-8,000.

Another example of an image that took off well above its estimates and current market price was a late print of Bill Brandt's Bent Elbow, here entitled London, 1952, which sold to NY dealer Deborah Bell, obviously bidding for a determined client. Estimated at about current retail ($9,000-12,000), the print soared to $20,315. I sold one about seven years ago for under $4,500. There are a number of these images around, although this auction record will now raise the price and, I expect, the length of time it sits in a dealer's stock because of that price increase.

The only photographs in the higher-price category left were the Rodchenkos; however, in my opinion, these images were not really very exciting and, in fact, were rather pedestrian for the most part. Again, the name game seems to have been the major draw here, besides the enticement of no reserves. This lack of really interesting material and, in some cases, the poor condition of the prints did not stop the auction house from selling these photographs off, although often at prices considerable below the rather inflated estimates. In fact, the total hammer price of the Rodchenkos added up to less than 47% of the low estimate.

I think that Constructionist images can either be exciting or pretty boring. Unfortunately, most of these lots fell into the latter category. The prices, in the end, seemed to be rather steep considering this and the lack of freshness to the material. Perhaps the high estimates convinced some collectors and curators that the images were actually worth this kind of money, and they were getting a "deal" by paying less than the estimates--in some cases as little as 10% of these estimates. In my view, many of the lots still seemed to have sold at high retail (or more) for this difficult material, so I feel that Christie's did quite well on these. We will have to see how the market treats the buyers of this material later. The one positive is that the prints appeared to be truly vintage with good provenance; so much of the later printed Russian material is being passed off as vintage and is on papers that make it difficult, if not impossible, to tell the date it was printed.

After selling off the first two lots for less than a third of the lower estimate, Christie's did a little better with a slanted image of a sport parade on Red Square (lot 292), selling it for $17,925 versus an estimate of $20,000-30,000.

Lot 294, a shot of firemen and their ladders on a slant, managed to get to $15,535 with the premium against an estimate of $25,000-35,000.

Rounding off the top three lots of the sale was another Rodchenko, lot 296, a two-print diptych of a "Morning Exercise, Lefortovo Student Campus", which a European collector bought for $29,875, versus an estimate of $60,000-80,000.

Two lots (301 and 302) of the Dynamo Sport Society members marching towards Red Square, which were companion pieces to lot 292, sold for $17,925 and $16,730 respectively.

Lot 305 an interesting study of a group of men diving sold for $16,730 against its estimate of $25,000-35,000. A slanted Izvestiia Building (lot 313) actually got into the mid-range with a $22,705 bid; as did lot 330, Radio Listener selling for $23,900.

Another slanted urbanscape of Pushkin Square (lot 334) sold well below estimate at $15,535; then a diptych of the Planetarium building and a projector made by Zeiss sold for about a third of the low estimate at $19,120.

Lot 352, an interesting view of Arbat Street Traffic, was one of the very few images to break over its high estimate, bringing $19,120 versus a range of $10,000-15,000. The next lot 353, a diptych of student campus buildings and a "new" building, only manage to eke out the same $19,120 against an estimate of $50,000-70,000. Where exactly DID Christie's staff get these estimates?

The auction moved quickly to a finale. Lot 358, we detailed at the beginning of this article. It took first place for Christie's auction. Lot 359, another diptych of holiday illuminations at the Bolshoi Theater at Night, managed to get a bid at $19,120, versus the overly steep estimate of $60,000-80,000. And the last lot of the sale (360), one more diptych--this time of Pushkin Square and May Day Illuminations, Tverskaia--brought in $28,680 for Christie's, putting it in a tie for fourth place on the day.

The garage sale of Rodchenkos had netted Christie's a total of $609,201--nearly half the total for the day and all going to the house. Without its Rodchenkos, Christie's would have totaled less than $1 million for the day. Don't you wish you had something like this stashed away for a rainy day?

Swann's Post-AIPAD Auction Brings in Over $570,000

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.

Special Spring Clearance Sale Now On I Photo Central

You can now see a Special Spring Clearance sale on I Photo Central brought to you by our photography dealers. These items are available at special sale prices (from 20 to over 60% off the regular list price) for only a limited time, from now until only June 21st. Many of the items regular list prices were reduced earlier by over 20%, so the actual net reductions may be well over 40% to 80% in many instances. These are all final prices, so no other discounts apply. Shipping/insurance may also be added. After June 21st prices will revert on these items to the original list price.

There are some great deals, so check them out soon at: http://www.iphotocentral.com/sale/sale.php .

If you want to do further sorts on the sale list, you can go to the Search Images page at http://www.iphotocentral.com/search/search.php and put SpringClearanceSale2 into the key word field. Then you can also use the other search fields, such as price range, country, etc. When you have all your choices made, simply hit the Search button (not the Show All Images button). When you put in the key word, you must have the capital letters in properly and no space between the words or the number "1". Also make sure you do not have any extra space after the key word. This way if you are bargain hunting, you can put in a range from $1 to $500, or if you want to focus on the top end, just put in a range from $1,000 (or $2,500 or $5,000) to No Limit.

New Photo Books

By Matt Damsker

Reverie and Reality: Nineteenth Century Photographs of India from the Ehrenfeld Collection Robert Flynn Johnson, John Falconer, Sophie Gordon, Omar Khan. San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2004. 190 pages, 118 ill. (color). ISBN 0-88401-109-7 (paperback); ISBN 0-88402-220-0 (hardback). Library of Congress no. 2003-108457. List price $50; typical price $35-40.

Traces of India: Photography, Architecture, and the Politics of Representation, 1850-1900 Pelizzari, Maria Antonella, ed. Montréal, CCA; New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, 2003. 344 pages, 183 ill. (110 in color). ISBN 0-920785-74-3 (paperback); ISBN 0-300-09896-0 (hardcover). Library of Congress no. 2003-100508. List price $49.95 Canadian, $50 U.S.; typical price $40-46 U.S. (Available in English and French.)

If photography had been invented solely to document the visual richness of the Indian subcontinent, it might have been enough of a purpose for the medium. From the soaring Hindu architecture of its cities to the seemingly eternal sprawl of its impoverished humanity, from the lushness of its river valleys to the haunted desolation of its mountain passes, and from the vigorousness of its merchant castes to the bejeweled and turbaned imperiousness of its maharajas, India is the sort of locale that cameras feast upon, inexhaustibly.

It is no surprise then that we now have two richly plated photography books that chronicle a good deal of India's 19th-century magnificence and mystique. "Reverie and Reality: Nineteenth-Century Photographs from the Ehrenfeld Collection" has been published on the occasion of the recent exhibition of San Francisco vascular surgeon Dr. William K. Ehrenfeld's superb Indian images at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. At 188 pages and with 118 exemplary prints by the likes of Linnaeus Tripe, Samuel Bourne, John Murray, and Lala Deen Dayal, the book is a sheer visual pleasure, offering a truly dreamlike photo-parade of high and low India--monuments and landscapes, daily life and formally posed dignitaries. If these photos cannot induce reverie, nothing can.

On the other hand, "Traces of India: Photography, Architecture, and the Politics of Representation, 1850-1900" is a far more scholarly exploration, co-published by the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal and the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven to accompany the exhibition of the same name (it opened at CCA in the fall and then traveled to Yale). At 343 pages and with 110 color and 73 black-and-white photos, the book is arguably a classic addition not only to the record of Indian photography, but also to the intellectual debate about photography's ultimate impact on our world. Through 12 essays by a remarkable panel of Anglo, American and, Indian scholars, everything from "The Compulsions of Visual Representation in Colonial India" to "Colonial Amnesia and the Old Regime" to "The Ethics of Representation" are intensely deconstructed.

Thus, John Falconer details Joseph Lawton's photographic survey of Ceylon, while Janet Dewan studies closely Linnaeus Tripe's panoramic shots of the Thanjavur Inscription. And Narayani Gupti's essay on photography's important role in pictorializing the culture-shifting "Mutiny" of 1857 locates the ultimate irony of the whole affair: "Official India saw it as an honorable duty to keep the memory of 1857 alive; 1957 was celebrated in post-Independence India with commemorative functions, a ritual issue of stamps, the renaming of roads for Indian heroes, and the publication of official accounts of the rebellion. In these most of the illustrations used were British photographs, though the narrative had changed--brave Indians fighting the cruel British."

To the photography collector, of course, the images themselves will speak more potently than the intellectualism that seeks to place them in such politically charged contexts. Ultimately, the sheer evocativeness and sense-of-place delivered by these photos speaks volumes, as in an 1856 albumen print by Dr. William Henry Pigou of the columns of intricately carved columns of the Hoysalesvara Temple, with its seemingly infinite repetitions of Hindu symbology. As for Linnaeus Tripe's remarkable panorama of the immense Thanjavur inscription around the basement of the Great Pagoda at Tanjore, it is a legitimate wonder of the photographic world, composed of individually trimmed prints made from 21 negatives. Seeing it, it's hard to imagine that, as Janet Dewan writes, "Like the rest of Tripe's work, which was largely undervalued or forgotten between the 1870s and 1970s when it was rediscovered, the Thanjavur inscription panorama was apparently mislaid or discarded by many of the institutions to which it had been given in 1861; only five copies can now be located."

"Reverie and Reality," of course, locates further examples of Tripe's work in doing justice to Dr. Ehrenfeld's collection. It also takes a much breezier and less cerebral tack than "Traces of India," with a concise essay by John Falconer on the early years of photography in India and not much more in the way of postmodern philosophy than a couple of quotes from Susan Sontag's influential 1997 essay, "On Photography." With the air of a discoverer, Sontag declaimed what poets from Philip Larkin to James Merrill had already intuited, to wit: "A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, photographs--especially those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past--are incitements to reverie."

Nothing renders Sontag's assertion more convincing than these absolutely dreamlike photos, with their astonishing crispness of detail. Again and again, the intricacies not only of Indian architecture but of everything from the thatched roofs of Bengali villages to the textures of ceremonial clothing seem to shimmer in our gaze, as if in the noon heat of the subcontinental sun, through the power of these exposures. Samuel Bourne's serenely composed 1865 images of massive stone fortresses in Bharatpur, for example, convey a sense of monumentality without slighting the finely grained delicacy of the crafted pillars. And there are dozens of shots by unknown photographers that display the harmonies and imbalances of daily life--from the Taj Mahal to sharp-eyed spice merchants seemingly exalted by the richness of their surrounding delicacies, to expressive images of British colonial ladies being drawn in their rickshaws by untouchables. And a hand-colored tribal photo of the Council of the Jaipur State is an almost epic, near-cinematic document.

As for sheer mood and a native sense of India's great spaces, the subtle compositions of India's most esteemed early photographer, Lala Deen Dayal, convey an understanding of India's spirit and its situation--ancient and indomitable, yet shadowed by colonialism--that results in photography as haunting as any you will see. Indeed, where Tripe, Bourne, and the other early Western masters of the medium were documenting the architecture and attitude of a civilization that was, inevitably, as alien to them as another planet, Dayal and other, often unknown, Indian photographers came at their world from the inside out, locating a timeless reality that incites us not merely to reverie but also to respect.


Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005.

He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)

New Special Portrait Exhibit On I Photo Central

You will find a new Special Exhibit up on I Photo Central, added to the other 20 exhibits that were already on display. We have also continued to change images and add to our essays for all our Special Exhibits, so they are all worth another peek, especially if you have not looked lately.

"Portraits" is an exhibit by I Photo Central member Galerie Hypnos of Paris. The portraits in the Special Exhibit come from both the 19th and 20th century--from an 1840s daguerreotype of a man to René Moreau's 1930s portraits of West Africans. The images cover a wide range of photographic media, including daguerreotypes and salt, cyanotype, albumen and silver prints. I particularly liked the very rare images of Indians by Willoughby W. Hooper. Another type of Indian, in this case American Indians (a Crow chief and his wife by photographer Jules or Henry Ulke), is also a part of the exhibit. There are portraits of people from China, Thailand, Japan, India, Syria, USA, France, Vietnam, West Africa, Lebanon, Somalia, Ceylon and Italy.

You can see this fine exhibit, along with 20 others at: http://www.iphotocentral.com/showcase/showcase.php . We are constantly changing and updating these exhibits as we get in new items, so if you have not looked at them in the last few days, you probably have not seen a lot of the material on display even in the older Special Exhibits.

Wanted: New Assistant Director For Vintage Works

I am continuing to look at candidates for a new assistant director. The person should be located in or be willing to locate to the Bucks County area north of Philadelphia, PA. The ideal background should include knowledge of photography and photo history; and good people, computer and business skills. Job can be three to five days per week. Please send your resume by email to me at anovak@comcat.com .

Research Help On New York Water System Images Needed

Researcher Tom Tarnowsky is looking for the earliest possible photo images of the Old Croton Aqueduct (constructed 1837-1848), in addition to photos of subsequent expansion of the New York City water system, including the New Croton Aqueduct (1880's), Catskill Aqueduct (1907-1927) and Delaware Aqueduct (1930's-60's), up to and including current construction of water tunnel #3 in New York City. You can contact Tarnowsky at: tompegt@verizon.net .