Issue #97  11/9/2005
Christie's Regular Sale Has First Photo Lot to Break $1 Million Mark

It did not look like it would be a good day for Christie's. The weather was a brisk 52 degrees Fahrenheit, but what really made the day suck was the torrential rain coupled with high winds that turned umbrellas inside out with ease. After I got to Christie's completely soaking wet, I had a look around. There were only a few pioneering spirits who had made the trek to Rockefeller Center--about 35 in all as the auction began on this last day of the New York Fall photo auctions. But the low initial turnout (people kept drifting in as the auction proceeded) did not put a damper on the day's auction results. In fact, Christie's did very well indeed: $5,841,880 and 82% of the lots sold. And many records, including the highest priced lot in a photography auction, were set here. But a lot of the action came from the phone bank or from commission bids, although the room did occasionally make its presence felt. With a lot of the buying on the phone or at the podium, being in the audience didn't add a lot to your sense of drama.

All prices below include the buyer's premium. For sake of brevity, I will only report on lots above $40,000, although there were a fair amount of even low four-figure photographs in this auction, unlike most of the previous auctions this fall.

Christie's had a group of very nice Ansel Adams prints to kick off the sale, and they all did very well. Lot 2, Adams' "Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite", sold at nearly twice the low estimate at $57,600 to a phone bidder. Lot 4, a pre-intensification print of Moonrise, had been gravely underestimated at $30,000-50,000. It had a slight overmat burn on the mount, but it was a good, early print. But no outright steal here, as the print went to a phone bidder for $78,000--still a good value for this early a print.

Lot 8, a Talbot salt print of a tree, would have gone well over its estimate, but the seller pulled it from the sale. Too bad.

But the real drama of this dreary day was on lot 12, a copy of the Edward Curtis portfolios and volumes of "The North American Indian". I thought the last time it sold was at Bearne's auction in the U.K. in May 2001 for just over the equivalent of $702,000 to a group of U.K. book dealers. That set was then resold to Seattle-based Curtis dealer Lois Flury for a bit more. Curtis dealer Andrew Smith corrected me on this. Apparently two sets were sold at auction after Bearne's: one at Christies in 2002 (bought by Donald Heald and

Bill Reese) and one at Christies in December, 2004 (bought by Matthew Zucker)--both in Christie's book department. I don't generally get the Christie's book auction catalogues and the normal auction sources of information--Gordon's, etc.--also did not list these sales in their photography auction results.

The Christie's set was decent but not perfect by any means. However, complete sets are getting rather scarce. This set was estimated at a very low $400,000-600,000.

The battle lines were drawn early, as the bidding settled down to Tucson photography dealer Terry Etherton, who was bidding in the room for an institution according to my sources, and the phone, who was apparently an American collector. As the bids went up and up, the room became still. This was one of the few high dramas that really played out as such in the room. When the smoke had cleared, the phone bidder had bought the single most expensive photography lot ever to be auctioned at $1,416,000. The Met sale at Sotheby's had been preempted this honor (although they will certainly set the record for a single photograph and maybe even the first photography lot to break $2 million). And, of course, this was the top lot of this sale.

I talked over a late but very pleasant lunch with Minneapolis dealer Christopher Cardozo, who is the preeminent Curtis expert. He told me that he would have been in it to a $1 million hammer price, but that the condition of the material held him back from going higher.

Completely switching gears, lot 22, a Man Ray nude torso, sold to a phone bidder for above the estimate range at $84,000. That was good enough for tenth place on Christie's top ten list of highest priced lots.

William Eggleston finally broke through on lot 31, "Huntsville, AL". Santa Monica photo dealer Rose Shoshana ran up an American collector on the phone to $120,000 before having to retire from the field. The price put the lot into seventh place in the top ten. A commission bid by a European dealer picked up Eggleston's Southern Suite, which had been featured on the cover of the Christie's catalogue, for its low estimate of $96,000. That price put the lot into eighth place in the list of top lots at this sale.

One comment: the Thomas Struth flowers in this sale were something any amateur has in their collection of slides. This series is just plain mediocre and not worth the thousands of dollars showered on it from bidders who should know better. A name does not make a good piece of art. Stop buying signatures and start buying significant art. I think Struth does do some fine work, but this group is not a part of it.

Robert Mapplethorpe, on the other hand, does have a unique feel for flowers, even if I am not enamored of them. His "Orchid" (lot 43) sold to New York City dealer Jayne Baum for $54,000, who promptly left the room after she got the image. The phone underbid her.

New York dealers Bruce Silverstein and Peter MacGill got into a tug of war over lot 64, Robert Frank's "City Fathers--Hoboken, NJ". Silverstein took this one, but at above high estimate at $45,600.

Diane Arbus vintage prints continued to do well. Lot 70, "A Family One Evening in a Nudist Camp, PA", sold just above the low estimate at $307,200 to New York dealer Peter MacGill. That put the lot in third place in the top ten. And lot 71, "Xmas Tree in a Living Room in Levittown, L.I.", managed to get to about the midpoint in the range at $204,000. It sold to German dealers Camera Works (or it might have been just the chairman's purchase on this one) and placed fifth in the top ten highest priced lots of the sale.

Peter Lindberg's fashiony kitsch "Vogue US, Beach Los Angles" sold to the room for $42,000.

Lot 102, Nan Goldin's "Lola Modeling", was a slow motion battle between phones. They bid so agonizingly slow that you wanted to yell, "Bid already!" at them both. And the auctioneer wasn't any help on this one, even though he was the usually suave and efficient Philippe Garner. At the end Christie's only managed to milk $8,400 from the winning phone bidder. Why spend what felt like half the auction on this one, not particularly expensive, lot? It just turns off the room, and results in an auction with no life. I guess the auctioneer would argue that he is at the mercy of the bidders, but you can always hurry them along on a lot like this one. It is understandable to use this technique when the bids are $10,000 each, but hardly worth it when most of the bids are $100, or $500 each.

Irving Penn continued to bring in the bucks for Christie's. On the next two lots, "Cocoa Dress (Balenciaga)" and "Mermaid Dress (Rochas)", the same commission bidder won out over the phones at $48,000 and $78,000 respectively.

Then we had Robert Mapplethorpe's very X-rated, "X Portfolio" sell to a phone bidder for well over the high estimate at $45,600. Actually most of the Mapplethorpe's did quite well here, as he seems to be experiencing a bit of a revival.

Penn's "Two Guedras" (lot 125) sold for double high estimate as battling phones made the price soar to $72,000. An American collector on the phone bought the next lot, another Penn of "Picasso at 'La Californie', Cannes", for well below the low estimate at $90,000. That still put the lot into ninth place in Christie's top ten of the day.

"Liz (After Warhol)" by Vik Muniz (lot132) sold at its low estimate to the phone for $48,000.

The next lot was Lee Friedlander's "Galax, Virginia", a particularly strong image of a baby's head appearing on a TV set at the bottom of a wooden bed. It quickly flew above its high estimate of $30,000, and then some. The apostles (or were they two-thirds of a folksinger trio?) and fellow dealers Peter (MacGill) and Paul (Kopeiken) provided much of the action. LA dealer Kopeiken had to go to $60,000 to take this one. At that price, I sure hope it was vintage.

MacGill was back on the next lot, a vintage print of Robert Frank's "Chicago, 1956", and I tried to do battle on this one. But this time MacGill took home the prize, but at nearly double the high estimate at $57,600.

The next lot, a rather confused and murky Charles Sheeler "Buggy (Bucks County), bought in for $70,000 (plus premium). It was simply overpriced, even though it was the basis for a Sheeler drawing.

At this point there were fire alarms going off and we were all wondering whether or not we should be fleeing the building. But Garner soldiered on. It did turn out to be a false alarm that went off one additional time for good luck.

Robert Frank, who continues on a hot streak, showed well on lot 136, three "Gas Station Attendants", which sold to a phone for $72,000. Frankly, only the middle overweight guy looks anything like the characters that pump my gas (that is when I am in New Jersey, where they still have gas attendants).

Frank's "Fourth of July--Jay, New York" in a later and small print (probably the 1977 that Frank dated the print when he signed it, rather than the c.1970 that Christie's put in the description) sold to the phones for $50,400--well over the high estimate.

But leave it to Mapplethorpe to provide some excitement toward the end of the auction. Lot 141, his "American Flag", one of three produced but the only one signed and undamaged, was estimated at a strong $140,000-180,000. The phone bank blew that estimate away, more than doubling the low estimate at $352,000. That set a new world auction record for the artist and broke the one that Christie's had set just two days before. It also made the object the second highest priced piece of the auction. Oddly enough, a European collector purchased the piece.

You might think that on the next lot there would be some let down, but, no, Ansel Adams' printed-later "Aspens, Northern New Mexico" sold well over the high estimate at $48,000. It was a very nice print, but a bit expensive. An equally nice print, also printed later, of "Moonrise, Hernandez" (lot 150) sold to the phones for $60,000.

After lot 159, Paul Strand's "Mullein, Georgetown, Maine" went unsold at $48,000 (plus premium), Edward Steichen's "Lotus, Mount Kisco, NY" (printed later in the 1920s) became the eye of a hurricane of bidders. Estimated at $40,000-60,000, lot 160 soared to 2-1/2 times the high estimate, finally selling to an American dealer on the phone at $168,000. That price put the image into the sixth spot in the top ten most expensive lots of the day.

Hiroshi Sugimoto's images provided most of the rest of the auction's high-level action. Frankly, like Michael Kenna's work, while I don't find Sugimoto's images offend the eye or spirit, neither am I terribly excited by them. I am afraid that, for me at least, they are so predictable that they have become pedestrian--well-made commercial formula art that sells well. And well they did sell. Lot 166, "Sea of Japan, Hokkaido I, Summer" sold to a Japanese man on a phone for $45,600. London dealer Michael Hoppen then picked off the next two Sugimoto lots (167 and 168), also sea studies, for $57,600 and $48,000 respectively. Then Sugimoto's out-of-focus "United Nations Building" sold for the high estimate of $42,000. I have the feeling that these large editions of 25 plus artist proofs have hit close to their ceilings at these prices; but because they make safe wall presentations, they may still add a few dollars to their market value.

Edward Weston's "Pepper No.35" (lot 202) could not find any buyers even at $65,000 (estimated at $100,000-150,000). The estimate seemed too aggressive and probably scared off potential bidders. San Francisco dealer Paul Hertzmann picked up the next lot, a lovely Weston ("Wind Erosion, Dunes, Oceano"), for $48,000.

The next lot, Alfred Stieglitz's "Georgia O'Keefe" (with African Sculpture), became the focus of a donnybrook between the phone bank and collector Michael Mattis. Estimated at $100,000-150,000, Mattis had to go to $240,000 to take home this lot. It was the fourth highest price paid during this auction and the last of the major pieces.