Issue #121  3/15/2007
Christie's Solley Auction Brings in $4,328,460 With 79% of Lots Sold

After the Feb. 14th Swann photography auction, a group of us slogged over to Christie's by taxi. The first sale here was the auction of material from Indiana collector Thomas Solley's estate. Under Solley's guidance as director, the University of Indiana's Art Museum greatly expanded its collections and moved into a new I.M. Pei-designed building in 1982.

Christie's did reasonably well here, selling 79% of the lots for a $4,328,460 total--all the more impressive considering there were only five lots which poked into six-figure territory. This individual sale clearly outshone Christie's regular multi-owner sale the next day.

The "crowds" at all of these February sales were tiny. The phones, commission bids and even the internet played more important roles here on most lots, although there were a few very important exceptions where the "room" made its voice heard. As you will see, the estimates on many lots in this sale were mere come-ons, as I have repeated so often in my recent newsletters.

Because of the quantity of lots, I will generally focus only on those above $30,000. The prices will include the 20% buyer's premium (auction house commission). At Christie's, as at Sotheby's, the charges at 20% have all moved up now to $500,000 from $200,000. Previously, you would pay 20% on the first $200,000, then only 12% on the rest. One more hike by the auctions as prices escalate. Perhaps the fable of the goose that lays the golden eggs has not yet been heard by auction management. And, it is odd how one auction house (in this case Sotheby's) announces an increase in rates, and the "competition" is so "fierce" that the other auctions just fall in line the very next week with that increase. Even the money-hungry airlines haven't been able to get away with that.

Irving Penn's "Summer Sleep, NY" (lot 5), an attractive dye transfer color image of a sleeping woman with fan behind a fly-laden screen, was estimated at a come-on price of $25,000-35,000, but sold to a phone bidder for $72,000. I am not positive, but I think Penn's dealer Peter MacGill underbid. Dealer Robert Klein was just under these two.

Lot 8, Eugene Atget's "Chatillon, Glycine" (Wisteria), was a beautiful print and image, actually presenting better than in the catalogue. The print was subdued in its sheen and very rich in its color, and the best Atget in this round of auctions. The estimate, as so many in this sale, was set very low ($12,000-18,000) to produce action. And action is what it produced. Although there were other bidders in the fray, at the final dual it came down to Boston dealer and AIPAD president Robert Klein versus curator Keith Davis. Davis took home the prize at a whopping $50,400.

One of the surprises of the auction came on lot 16, a large late-printed Horst of "Lisa with Harp" in platinum-palladium (18 x 13-1/4 in.), which had been estimated at an admittedly too low $6,000-8,000. The prints had been selling at galleries for $18,000-25,000 before the sale in this size in this medium--when you could find them (the edition is only ten, although there are plenty of other editions of the same image in other sizes and mediums). The phones were all over this one. One finally topped the rest at $50,400. That's a lot of money for a late-printed Horst of a "B" image. If it were Swann's publicity person, I am sure that they would say: "a new world auction record for a late-printed Horst."

Paul Outerbridge's color carbro of "Nude with head Sculpture" (lot 19) got San Francisco dealer Paul Hertzmann's paddle up, but he couldn't outlast a persistent phone bidder, who finally took the lot for the high estimate plus premium of $42,000. Personally, while I liked the image, I didn't care for the condition of this print with its many blotchy color areas. Carbro can be a tricky process.

Condition was also a factor largely ignored on lot 24, Henri Cartier-Bresson's "Italy, 1933", an early print of his surrealist image of friends Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues and Leonor Fini. It had been estimated at a ridiculously low $40,000-60,000. Retouch work in several places, heavy silvering on the edges and an area of slight sun burn probably from an overmat were apparently meaningless here, and they were indeed relatively minor on such a print. Collector Michael Mattis took the early lead until $120,000, but he succumbed to the duo, which ultimately battled it out over the print. New York dealer Howard Greenberg and a phone bidder continued the dance upward, until Greenberg finally won out at $204,000. The price was a new world auction record for the artist and the third highest priced lot in this auction. Cartier-Bresson is hot, hot, hot.

Lot 31, Paul Outerbridge's platinum print "Musical Semi-Abstraction, 1924", was bid up by the phones to just under the high estimate at $33,600. Outerbridge's Self Portrait (lot 34), which was believed to be a unique silver print, also sold for nearly the high estimate, this time to collector Michael Mattis in the room for $66,000. Again, condition was not by any means perfect, something for collectors to understand about such rare early prints. When something is truly rare, you can't wait for a "perfect" print, because they simply do not exist in many photographs prior to 1950 or even 1960. Their minor flaws, as those of our own loved ones, may even be treasured as a part of their overall character. The last similar (but a vertical variant) photograph from this series that sold at Christie's in October 2000 went for a whopping $226,000.

I really wanted to go after lot 39, Margaret Watkins' lovely platinum print "Domestic Tranquility". It was estimated at a mere $5,000-7,000. I foolishly thought that I might have a chance at a $25,000 hammer bid. Let's see, I think there were dealers Charles Isaacs, Robert Miller, Tom Gitterman, Howard Greenberg and a lot of phones bidding away, so you can imagine the result. Greenberg finally beat one of the phones for a total of $57,600 for the piece. Then he took the next lot, "Design Curves", another Watkins (but not so pretty), for $22,800 over Charles Isaacs.

But the real shocker of the day for at least the Christie's staff (although you did have to wonder, given the write-up and full page devoted to the item) was the result on Morton Schamberg's "God, 1918", "a dead-pan study of a cast-iron plumbing trap on a mitre box", as the Christie's staff described it. Estimated at $5,000-7,000, the result for this early American "Dadaist" work would rock even those in-the-know on this one. Before the bidding, Keith Davis had whispered to me that it would easily go into six figures. And indeed it did. The only question was how high in six figures. Davis actually took the early lead, fending off phones; and then dealers Robert Klein and Charles Isaacs joined in the fray. But as the price climbed ever upward many of the early bidders had to retire from the field. Ultimately even the phones were silenced as the action fell to the room and two bidders: New York dealer Peter MacGill and Gabriel Catone, who had a cell phone glued to his ear. Catone used to work with mega art consultant Thea Westrich, but recently formed a partnership with another former Westrich employee, Andrew Ruth. He was reportedly on the phone with collector John Pritzker. At $320,000 it was Peter MacGill, but Catone bid by only a $1,000 increment over MacGill (and it was accepted!). Finally MacGill bid the next level and the next, until with premium MacGill's winning bid was $390,000 (including the 20% premium that now applied to the entire amount, not just the first $200,000). That was, of course, a world auction record for the artist and the highest priced lot in this sale.

But several questions remain: What price would this item have gone for had it been placed more appropriately in an art sale of Dadaist or Modernist work? And: Why would a respected auction house or an auctioneer of the very high caliber and intelligence of Philippe Garner take measly and annoying (I am sure even more annoying to Peter MacGill) $1,000 incremental bids at the $320,000 level? And this is certainly not the only occasion where I have seen such behavior from auctioneers at all the houses. Can I suggest that such auctioneers start treating bidders and the people who come to bid with some modicum of respect and stop trying to milk every last dollar or pound sterling from a lot? It is not an effective strategy in the long term, nor does it substantially change the immediate totals to the house or consignor. Indeed, it may even reduce those in many if not most instances. Would Catone have gone to $325,000 if forced? Would MacGill have overbid to $330,000 hammer? Very possibly.

The next lot, Paul Strand's Lathe, produced some controversy about the date of the printing. Christie's had it as the image date: 1923. In a conversation during the preview, Chicago dealer Stephen Daiter said he felt it could be as late as 1950s, although I and others thought 1930s might be closer. I think we settled on "probably" 1940s, showing that there can still be considerable controversy in dating a print among experts in the absence of objective criteria to the contrary. It was a varnished print, typical of those that Strand did throughout his long career. In any case, it sold to a commission bidder for the low estimate at $48,000.

A few lots later and another surprise: Lot 46, El Lissitzky's tiny photograph of "Long Distance Runner" (shouldn't that title have been "Hurdler"?), which had been estimated at $5,000-7,000, sold for $90,000 to a European collector on the phone over other phone bidders. It was identified as "printed later", although exactly when was somewhat a question. Did the bidders think it was a vintage print? They did seem to bid like that. The price put the lot into a three-way tie for seventh place in this auction's top ten lots. Again, this was a print that was difficult to date authoritatively, but my own feeling was that it was probably after rather than before Lissitzky died in 1941.

Helmut Newton's small print of "Mannequins, Quai d'Orsay, Paris" (lot 52) sold for more than double the low estimate at $42,000 to an order bidder. A larger 14-1/4 x 9-1/2 in. print of his "A Woman into a Man, Paris" (lot 53) sold to a phone bidder for over the high estimate at $32,400. His "Charlotte Rampling, Arles" (lot 54), in a 12-1/4 x 8-1/4 print, sold to another order bidder for more than double the low estimate at $38,400.

I often feel that reporting on all these high prices is a bit misleading. There are so many good opportunities at much lower prices--often on better and rarer images. New York dealer Tom Gitterman, for instance, scooped up a real bargain on lot 58, a vintage print of Sabine Weiss' most famous image of a man running down a street at night in Paris. When I first looked at the catalogue, I thought that the listing must be a mistake and that it was one of the later-printed versions floating around on the market. Weiss' vintage prints are extremely rare (reportedly she only made three sets and one set was stolen years ago), and I have never seen a vintage print of this image, although plenty of later prints have been available. While Gitterman had to bid twice the high estimate at $7,200, it was still a very excellent bargain, easily worth triple that price. In fact Weiss' later prints of this image sell for more than what Gitterman paid for this vintage print. Compare this lot to the late-printed Horst that came up earlier in this auction, for example, that sold for more than seven times the price of the Weiss and was considerably less rare. I know which I would rather have won.

There are still plenty of wonderful rare vintage prints well under $10,000 on the market. For that matter, there are great images below $1,000. And, if you are going to spend over $50,000, why not buy a true museum masterwork, rather than a fancy "poster" type print made in combined editions in the hundreds (sometimes thousands) of prints?

Another example of what I am talking about came on the next lot (59), a late-print of William Klein's fashion-oriented "Piazza di Spagna, Rome", which sold to an Internet bidder (why am I not surprised) for nearly double the high estimate at $48,000. Christie's put it on the cover and the bidders bit.

The Internet bidders actually captured more than a few lots in this sale, pushing auctions more and more into the virtual. Could eBay and other Internet auctions be the competitive beneficiaries, as the larger auction houses take steps--inadvertent as they may be--that make their auctions more and more aimed at a virtual community of Internet, phone and commission bidders? EBay live is already playing an important role is this transition. Are auction houses using this service and, by doing so, planting the seeds of their own destruction? Hmmm.

Lot 64, another fashion-oriented photograph by Richard Avedon of "Sunny Harnett, Model. Dress by Gres. Casino, Le Touquet." in an edition of 75 in an 18 x 14-1/4 in. silver print apparently sold to the same high-rolling Internet bidder as the Klein for $57,600--quadruple the high estimate. I trust they realize that retracting a bid at Christie's is not the same as doing it to some mom & pop shop on eBay.

A small 8 x 10 in. Richard Avedon print of "Dovima with Elephants" (lot 66) in an edition of 100 sold to a phone bidder for $45,600--just over the high estimate. I believe this is the highest price paid for one in this size. One wonders if we haven't hit the top edge of the bubble on many of these late prints in these very large (and even multiple) editions that are currently selling for so many tens of thousands. Too many of these copies are around--and I don't just mean Avedon's Dovima. With a little fiscal backpedaling in the economy, I think selling such photographs will be problematic.

Meanwhile most vintage print prices look relatively more and more tempting--especially on quality 19th-century master work, of which there is very little to be had--and virtually none at auction. I do not think you will generally see a dip in pricing on vintage photographs, but I would be very worried indeed for the resale value (or lack thereof) for these overly inflated later-printed images with large editions and multiple editions (of the same image in many different sizes and media). Yes, I do understand the concept of supply and demand, but the demand side is the one susceptible to major change under economic pressures.

Lot 71, Herbert Ritts' "Versace Dress, Back View, El Mirage" (edition of 25), sold to a phone bidder for a little more than 1-1/2 x the high estimate at $33,600.

Henri Cartier-Bresson's "On the Banks of the Marne" (lot 81) was supposed to be a 1960s print, but looked to me and others to be a late 1970s portfolio print, edition number (21/50) and all. It wasn't a perfect print by any means, but it still got to the mid-range with a $33,600 price paid by New York dealer Edwynn Houk. Considering that two circa 1950 prints of this classic 1938 image recently sold for $132,000 and $96,000 respectively, this was still a bargain--later printing and all.

Like with Robert Frank a few years ago, it is dealers and very knowledgeable collectors that are leading the way on Cartier-Bresson. I would definitely watch C-B's prices, which have already gone up on many available prints--even the later printed ones. It is now difficult to buy a later printing in a 16 x 20 in. size of any of his major images for less than $16,000-20,000 from galleries (or auction). And vintage prints will largely be in six figures for similar images. Near-vintage prints (1950s-early 1960s for 1930s images) will go for about half of what a vintage print would sell for, given that there is a dearth of vintage prints available.

So what would a vintage print of the "Banks of the Marne", arguably his most important image, sell for today if it were available? Everything is relative, but certainly a true vintage one without problems would be well over $300,000. As with Robert Frank, appraisers will have to keep on their toes with Cartier-Bresson.

Albert Renger-Patzsch's "Das Baumchen, 1929", but printed in the 1950s, was bid up by a multitude of phones. After the phone banks quieted down, lot 82, which had been estimated at $6,000-8,000, sold to one of those phone bidders for $60,000.

Lot 93, a very late (probably 1980s) print by Robert Frank of a New York City street's white middle line (and signed in the white stripe at the bottom of the image), had a fold and some crackling along the bottom and side, but that didn't stop the phones from destroying the estimate range of $15,000-25,000. When it was all over, one of those Ma Bell bidders had to pay $78,000 for this one. At $35,000 it would have been a bargain.

Two circa 1933 experimental Edward Steichen images of "View into 40th Str. To West from Steichen's Studio" (lot 95) were estimated way too low at $40,000-60,000. Former Steichen dealer Howard Greenberg knew a pair of bargains when he saw them and scooped up the lot for $96,000. Collector Michael Mattis underbid this one. This lot was perhaps the best buy of this auction and good enough for sixth place in the sale's top ten.

Lot 114, Richard Avedon's printed-later "Lauren Hutton, Great Exhuma, the Bahamas", editioned 17/50, sold to a European dealer on the phone for a whopping $90,000, over an estimate of $20,000-30,000. That price tied for seventh place here and was about triple the price of the same image just three and half years ago.

Lot 122, Irving Penn's "Vogue, Fashion Photograph (Café in Lima), Peru", edition of 25, also sold to the same European dealer on the phone for over four times the high estimate at $132,000. That put the lot into fifth place in this sale's top ten.

The ever popular (19 times at auction for an edition of only 25 in silver and 45 in platinum) Irving Penn of "Woman with Roses" (this one a silver print) sold to a European dealer again for $90,000, which was good enough for a tie for seventh place.

An interesting vintage fashion photo by William Klein (lot 148) made it over the high estimate with the help of a phone and an internet bidder. The phone bidder finally took it for $33,600.

Robert Frank keeps chugging along. Lot 149, his photograph of the back of a car (entitled "Chicago") sold to New York dealer Deborah Bell. It appeared to be a late 1960s print with a 'Study Collection' at MoMA notation on the verso. It was clearly later than the print that sold to Peter MacGill at the October 2005 Christie's sale for $57,600 over my underbid. Estimated at $30,000-50,000, this print sold to Bell for $48,000.

Richard Avedon's "Place du Trocadero, Paris" (lot 164), estimated at a too low $8,000-12,000 sold for, perhaps, a too high $60,000 to a phone bidder.

Boston dealer Robert Klein bought lot 167, a vintage Robert Frank of "Chairs, Tuileries, Paris" for just over the high estimate at $38,400.

Another relative surprise was the price reached for the 1960s print of Edward Steichen's Flatiron Building. Estimated at $40,000-60,000, the bidding soared to $144,000. It sold to collector Kathryn McCarver Root in the room at the fourth highest price for a lot at this auction. Yes, a true vintage print of the image would bring probably bring well over $3 million in today's market, but I just felt this later silver print couldn't really express the qualities of those wonderful vintage ones sitting there at the New York Metropolitan Museum.

Helmut Newton was back with an early print of lot 200, "Self Portrait with Wife and Models, Paris". Estimated at $15,000-25,000, it sold to art consultant Turid Meeker in the room for $36,000.

Lot 211, a very early print of Bill Brandt's Elbow (titled here "London, 1952"), nearly doubled its high estimate when phone and internet bidders got into it. The phone picked up the prize at $72,000. The print had a few tiny inconsequential condition issues. I originally thought that while it was printed very early, it may have been made as much as ten or 11 years after it was taken. I now think the print was made very close to the image date due to a number of factors, including provenance information, lack of glow under black light, Rapho stamp, etc. It is the earliest print of this image that I have seen on the market in nearly two decades. It was a definite bargain compared to one that sold in Paris for $19,000 more and reportedly glowed heavily.

A small and relatively unattractive Robert Frank (lot 214, "London, 1952") sold to a phone bidder for double its high estimate at $36,000.

After this, it was "slim pickins". Cartier-Bresson's Seville (lot 270), probably printed in the early 1950s instead of the 1960s as the catalogue said, sold to New York dealer Edwynn Houk for a very bargain price of $45,600 over the underbid of fellow New York dealer Charles Isaacs.

Finally the controversy over dating and the Lissitzky prints in this sale continued with lot 283, "Portrait of Kurt Schwitters", which was dated 1924 in the catalogue but which appeared to be about the same vintage as the earlier Lissitzky photograph of the "Runner" in this auction. It went to a European dealer on the phone for $252,000, which was a world auction record for this artist. Many who saw the print felt it might be as late as the 1940-50s, which would mean that the artist did not print it, because Lissitzky died in 1941.