Issue #96  11/1/2005
Sotheby's Schieszler Sale: Small But Potent Results

Sotheby's kicked off the season with a very small (34 lots), but very strong sale of Joseph and Laverne Schieszler's collection of vintage icons. Embarrassingly, Sotheby's misspelled the couple's name on the heading of their sweet essay. But I don't think the couple cared that much, considering the strong results of the sale, which hit a little less than a million dollars below the high estimate with its $4,743,200 total and a sell-through rate of slightly over 97% (only one lot failed to sell). As previously, I will generally only cover lots that go over $40,000 for sake of some brevity.

The first lot, Barbara Morgan's "Letter to the World" (Kick) signaled that things would go well here, as phone bidders and commission bidders pushed the image to $48,000, over its high estimate. A phone bidder picked up the lot.

Lot 2, Dorothea Lange's "White Angel, Breadline, San Francisco", also broke over top estimates, bid up by New York dealer Howard Greenberg, who had sold it to the Schieszlers, and the phone. The phone got the image at $90,000, which a day later looked awfully cheap. This print had been printed by Ansel Adams from Lange's negative in about 1934.

The next lot, Lange's "Migrant Mother", was said to have been printed circa 1948-1950, but frankly looked 1960s to me. It was a particularly large print (20 x 16 inches) and so quite rare. It sold in the upper range of the estimate at $102,000 to the phone.

Lot 4, Laura Gilpin's "Flower Detail", bugged me. The catalogue listing said that the photographer had annotated "a platinum print" in pencil on the mount. Only it didn't quite look like her handwriting and the print sure looked like a matt silver print to me. Nonetheless, it was a lovely print and image and sold to the room at a reasonable $20,400--just above the low estimate.

Oddly enough, I had almost bought lot 5, Edward Weston's "Shells" from Joe Folberg at Vision Gallery before San Francisco dealer Paul Hertzmann cannily picked it up. Considering the price it sold for here, I should have. It is a lovely print and went well over the high estimate to sell to a phone bidder for $352,000 over New York dealer Peter MacGill's underbid--one of the few times that MacGill was deterred. The price only managed to tie for third highest of this auction.

Tina Modotti's "Bandolier, Corn, Sickle" (lot 6) had a punster in the room remark, "It has civil unrest written all over it." A phone bidder went to the midpoint of estimate and paid $144,000 for it. I wonder what Modotti's comment about this capitalistic move on one of her own images of revolution might have been.

Lot 7, Edward Weston's platinum print of "The Breast" raised more than a few eyebrows when it soared to an unprecedented level, as the room and phone battled over this image. I saw dealers Bonni Benrubi, Jeffrey Fraenkel and Peter MacGill all heavily involved in the fray. In the end, it was MacGill that came out on top, paying a world auction record for a 20th-century image, a whopping $822,400, and the top lot of this sale. Let's put that in perspective. Only last year, collector Michael Mattis had bought another Weston platinum of a breast at Sotheby's by overbidding MacGill at just less than $300,000. In my opinion the Mattis image was a slightly superior image and print, although the one that went to MacGill in this sale was still quite strong and was identified as Tina Mondotti. Of course, opinion is just that. More on this price differential and others in these auctions in a separate story on their impact on the photography market.

Chicagoan consultant Shashi Caudill bought the next lot, Two Callas by Imogen Cunningham, at the low estimate of $144,000.

Edward Weston's "Epilogue" (lot 9) was a duel between the phones and collector Jack Hastings, who took home the trophy at the high estimate of $216,000, which made the lot the sixth highest of this evening's auction.

Lot 10, Imogen Cunningham's "Magnolia Blossom", in a rather average print, was bid up--not surprisingly--by the phone to the reserve of $144,000. Presence is a difficult thing to define, but this lovely image really didn't have much of any. While I can't say what this bidder did, a lot of bidders never preview, which is a big mistake. Don't ever depend on the auction house for this. Hire a trusted dealer or appraiser to review the item and give you advice. You should always get third-party advice. Never just get a condition report from an auction house, which, by the way, always says in its legal language (in catalogue and elsewhere) that it does not back these condition reports. Believe me, I have learned the hard way on this. Let me note that Sotheby's is actually one of the better houses on condition reports, but even they miss a lot.

Alfred Stieglitz's "The Steerage" small format photogravure in its original American Place frame (lot 12) had sold to the Schieszlers for $46,750 in the Sotheby's MOMA sale of April 2001. This time out the phones would push the bids to more than double that amount: $96,000. I had been tempted by the item at the MOMA sale, but then I thought it had gone too high the first time around. This was only one of two Steerages in this sale; the other was to go considerably higher.

A woman from Guggenheim Asher Associates, with a phone in her ear, bid up lucky lot 13, Alfred Stieglitz's "Georgia O'Keefe" past the high estimate to $352,000.

It was extremely exciting to see Denise Bethel bid up two commission bidders to the midpoint in the range on the "Positive and Negative Images of a Coastal Landscape" by George Seeley. NOT! The final price announced from the podium was $31,200. This is another reason to stay home from the auctions: boredom.

Alfred Stieglitz's "The Hand of Man" photogravure (lot 15) went for the reserve at $96,000. I believe it was London dealer Michael Hoppen who bought this one.

Another Alfred Stieglitz's photogravure, "The Terminal, New York", sold just below low estimate to New York photo dealer Howard Greenberg for $168,000. That pushed the lot into a three-way tie for eighth in the top ten here.

Collector Michael Mattis picked up the next lot and the next Stieglitz, a later printed silver print of "The Steerage" described by Dorothy Norman to have been made between 1924-1932. It is thought that there are only two such prints in private hands. Mattis had to go "only" up to the low estimate including premium of $180,000 to capture this modern classic. That mark put the lot at the seventh highest of the auction.

An art consultant on a mobile phone talked his client into paying the low estimate ($240,000) for Paul Strand's modernist study, "Shadows, Twin Lakes, Connecticut, 1916". It was not a particularly great print with some light developer stains, but it is a very important image. If the print had been better, the price would have easily doubled, in my opinion. It still took fourth place in the ten highest priced prints of this sale.

Lot 21, "Elephantaisie", sold to the room (paddle 901) for $132,000, which was below the low estimate. Lot 22, was bought-in at $85,000 (Bought-in means that a lot at auction failed to sell at its reserve price or higher; the price quoted is the last one bid by the auctioneer, which is usually the reserve price but not always). The estimate had been $120,000-$180,000. This lot was the only unsold one in the Schieszler sale.

Another Dubreuil, the sexist "The Woman Driver", was purchased--again below the low estimate--at $108,000 by dealer Robert Burge.

Perhaps the only real shock of the evening was lot 24, Andre Kertesz's "Chez Mondrian". Before the auction there was some anticipation that this would be the highest priced lot of these auctions. True, there were reportedly three other vintage prints spread out among three different dealers, Edwynn Houk, Howard Greenberg and the Kertesz estate (represented by Stephen Daiter, Bruce Silverstein and Stephen Bulger). But all three prints had price tags of seven figures and not all were as good as this one, which presented very well. Frankly, I expected a hammer price of at least $650,000, plus premium, which would have put the object at about three-quarters of a million dollars. But the photograph went to an anonymous phone bidder for $464,000. Yes, it was a new world auction record for the artist and the price made it the second highest of the night, but other Kertesz prints have sold higher privately. Several dealers grumbled that they were caught off guard by the low result and would have bid themselves had they known and been able to be prepared. The image was perhaps the top bargain of the auction season, given its importance. Where were the crazy bidders on a truly important lot? Did a cunning dealer like Houk buy this print while selling the other? Speculation still rains rampant.

On the next lot Howard Greenberg battled off a phone bidder for Maurice Tabard's wonderful "Composition" (Nude Montage with Gloves). The price was towards the higher part of the estimate range at $52,800. The Schieszlers probably just got back their original purchase amount of $44,650 (Sotheby's, April 2001) after the auction got its cut. Appropriately, the new price eclipsed the old one as the new world auction record for the artist.

The Schieszlers probably didn't do so well on Man Ray's "Rayograph with Goggles, Egg and Candle", which they bought from Christie's four years ago for $160,000. It sold to a phone bidder below the low estimate for $168,000. The price tied the lot for eighth place with two other lots.

New York dealer Julie Saul picked up lot 27, Karl Blossfeldt's "Cotula Turbinata", for the low estimate of $60,000. It is a reasonable price for a Blossfeldt, but these images just don't do anything for me.

The tryptic of Harry Callahan's draped "Eleanor" just edged out the old world record ($137,750) set by the same group of images four years ago at Sotheby's. Germany's Camera Works bought the group for a new world auction record for the artist of $168,000. It was also good enough for a three-way tie for eighth place in this sale.

Callahan's work also did well on the next lot, "Wells Street, Chicago", which saw some active bidding in the room by Bruce Silverstein, Peter MacGill and Lee Marks. Marks walked away with it though for double the midpoint of the estimate range at $72,000.

Mapplethorpe's black and white "Calla Lily" (lot 32) sold to the room for $66,000--well over the high estimate. It was the last lot of the auction to make my minimum cutoff.