Issue #135  10/31/2007
Part I: Sotheby's NYC Sales Hit Over $12.7 Million, Setting New $1.1 Million Record For Edward Weston; Evening Sale Nets Over $6.53 Million On 36 Lots

Sotheby's Fall sales of photographs in New York totaled just a shade over $12.7 million, which matched the middle of its estimate range when you added in the higher buyer's premiums, which now start at 25% on the first $25,000. Sotheby's sell-through rate was an impressive 86.3%. No let down here.

The two-day series of sales was highlighted by Edward Weston's seminal "Nautilus", an early state of the image on matte-surface paper, from the collection of Alexandra R. Marshall, which commanded $1,105,000, a record for the artist at auction and was one of the few photographs to break the $1 million mark (est. $600/900,000) and only the second lot to do this in this round of auctions. This was the top lot of the various-owners sale of photographs, comprising the priciest group of photographs from various-owners to be presented at auction in recent years, which brought $10,950,038, a record total at Sotheby's and, for that matter, at any other auction house. An amazing $3.7 million came from just 24 photographs by Edward Weston that were sold here and provided the primary difference in totals between Sotheby's and Christie's this time around. The front-loaded evening session alone resulted in over $6.53 million on just 36 lots sold! That comes out to about $181,500 per lot sold on average! All the top ten prices for the overall multi-owner sale came from this evening session.

The single-owner sale from the collection of Nancy Richardson the next day achieved $1,759,351, which was about low estimate including the high buyer's premiums here. Ironically this collection was about to be closed by Phillips de Pury Auctions the same day that house fired its two top auction experts, who then gave Richardson Sotheby's phone number. More on this collection and consignor in a future newsletter when we cover Part II of the Sotheby's day sales. This time out we will report on the high-powered evening sale results at Sotheby's.

Before I go any further, I want to discuss one of Sotheby's client-oriented innovations that I am sure will be part of the other houses' repertoire shortly--or at least should be. Beginning with this auction, Sotheby's posted up its detailed condition reports right on line. No begging by phone, in person or by email is now necessary. And, at least in Sotheby's case, so far, the condition reports are really worth the paper (or cyberspace) that they are printed on. I found most of the ones that I checked this go-round at Sotheby's to be pretty accurate and detailed, which was not always the case in the past and wasn't the case with competitors this time (at least consistently). There is always still the possibility of an oversight when working with so many hundreds of such reports, so I still recommend that you either preview carefully yourself or get expert help doing so, otherwise you can make a very seriously expensive mistake. But Sotheby's does deserve plaudits for its stronger than average showing here. Now if only we can get Sotheby's to get rid of its ridiculous password protected website, we would be in business. Why you have to register and need a password, which I promptly forget, to get simple information on this auction house is beyond me.

Just because of the sheer volume (and new higher premiums), I am going to have to limit the coverage mostly to lots that broke over $49,000, including Sotheby's (and also Christie's) very steep 25% premium on the first $25,000, 20% premium from there until $500,000, and only from then on its more modest 12%.

This is the first time these extremely high premiums were in place. Most buyers seem to take it in stride with many lowering their bids appropriately, but I wonder how sellers will deal with this issue when they realize that the new, higher "buyer's" premium is really coming off of their part of the deal. Will they, as Richard Morehouse suggested in the Photograph Collector newsletter, consign more work to dealers and galleries and less to these greedier auction houses? Will sellers negotiate harder on their own deal? Will they shift some of the consignments to other auction houses which have not followed suit? Stay tuned. This may be the straw that killed the auction market--or caused the big two's lockstep pricing to falter. As long as the auctions kept getting very high results, most sellers have gone along with the hikes in the past. But now taking over 40% of the proceeds in many cases (buyer's and seller's fees, insurance fee, illustration fee, etc.) does seem more than a bit greedy to most of us, especially in the face of a potentially less dependable market. To add insult to injury, it's doubtful that any of the two auction house's overworked personnel will see much of this increase.

Also expect to start seeing higher buy-in rates as these new hikes make bidders more wary about bidding against reserves with such high buyer's premium markups. Often it is only a 5% difference that determines whether or not someone bids. Believe me when I say that the buyers who forgot the fee hikes this time sure won't forget the next time.

Sotheby's though had lots of treasure this time out to tempt reluctant buyers. The material here was simply a step up from the other houses, and the results showed it.

The evening crowd at Sotheby's was one of the better crowds of the week. And Denise Bethel as auctioneer was in good form--perhaps the best I have seen her. She seems to be getting better and better up on the podium each auction--more comfortable and dramatic. She always had the knowledge of the material, but now she is getting a stronger handle on the auction mechanics themselves.

Robert Frank kicked off the auction and did well, but not at the nose-bleed levels of past Sotheby's auctions. In fact more than a few seemed like genuine bargains. The same phone buyer, which had a paddle of L0067, scooped up the first three lots, all Robert Frank pictures, including lot 3, Frank's "New Orleans" (Trolley) in a 1986c print for $91,000. The buyer had to battle first New York City dealers Bruce Silverstein and then Edwynn Houk for the prize.

I really liked the next lot, the Edward Weston platinum nude study of Miriam Lerner with crossed arms. It was estimated modestly at $100,000-150,000 (if any six-figure price can really be called modest), but even with a couple of small condition issues and a lack of mount, the print had real presence. In fact it was my emotional favorite of the sale--even more so than the rather cool and minimalist Weston Shell that did seven-figure damage later. Collector Michael Mattis had to disarm a phone bidder or two before he could take this beauty home for $313,000--a relative bargain that might be worth double the price in the right circumstances. The price tag qualified this lot for fifth place in the Sotheby's multi-owner auction. As Mattis told me later, "Weston's sensuous nudes of his lover and muse Miriam Lerner are each as rare as they are beautiful."

Lot 5, a Weston dune, while also rare, didn't turn me on as much. I and some other dealers felt that the estimate of $200,000-300,000 was rather reaching, but it still didn't stop the phone bidder--the same one who bought those first three Robert Franks--from paying the low estimate (and maybe the reserve) on this one at $241,000, good enough for a tie for tenth place in this sale.

At this point I started to think that perhaps the phone bidder might be Maggi Weston, who was rumored to be back buying after her own collection netted nearly $8 million last Spring at Sotheby's. She has a habit of using the phone, and many of the lots bought felt like pictures she would buy for inventory. In any case L0067 was sure buying like they had a lot of money and wanted some big trophies, and Sotheby's was not dropping any of its usual hints as to whether or not this was a private collector or dealer in its post-sale press release. The latter makes me more suspicious about the buyer.

Then collector Michael Mattis was back to spoil the party that New York dealers Howard Greenberg and Bruce Silverstein planned. Both were outbid on lot 6, another Weston nude study of Miriam Lerner (torso) that really did seem incredibly low at its mere $20,000-30,000 estimate. Mattis took the two up to $85,000 before first Greenberg and then finally Silverstein bit the dust.

One quick aside: go see Howard Greenberg's wonderful 25th anniversary exhibit at his gallery in New York City if you can. If not, buy his new catalogue/book on the show. The images are fabulous, but Howard's words about them are really not to be missed. They are direct and from the heart and what distinguishes this show from many others like it.

Of the pricey dunes, lot 7 had the greatest sense of photographic drama. There wasn't much of that drama evidenced in the auction room though, as two commission bids had Bethel sounding like Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen (that's Candice Bergen's father for those of you too young to remember this famous ventriloquist duo). Somehow these two commission bids got over the high estimate (a very high one indeed for a Weston dune: I believe a new world record for this type of Weston image--at least one without a nude on the dune) and the final total was $373,000--$63,000 of which was just the buyer's premium, so I hope they remembered that new higher fee when leaving their bids.

At $350,000-500,000, lot 8, another Weston platinum nude (this time of the back of Anita Brenner), looked awfully high to me for this image. The lot passed at $270,000. No real presence and little interest, but it might have sold if the price had not been set quite so high.

Imogen Cunningham's beautiful "Tower of Jewels" became the center of a battle between the room and phone. Estimated at $200,000-300,000, the bid soared ever upward until finally the high estimate was matched and, with premium, Kathryn McCarver Root took the image for a whopping $361,000. That put the lot into fourth place overall in the multi-owner sale and set a new world auction record for the artist. The photograph was the first such early print to come on the auction market in decades and was fully signed and mounted.

I should note that Kathryn has recently opened a new gallery--KMR Arts--in upscale Washington Depot, CT. She often bids for clients at the photographs sales.

Lot 10 was supposed to be a reasonably priced Edward Weston of "Grass and Sea, Big Sur", estimated at $25,000-35,000, which seemed about right to me. But what do I know? Peter MacGill and Jeffrey Fraenkel battled it out next to each other to push the price to a whopping $169,000. I like Weston, but that was a pretty boring picture for that much money. MacGill won in the end. These are surely client bids that they were placing.

On the next lot though, Paul Hertzmann slipped in against a commission bidder to take Weston's "Whale Vertebrae" for the low estimate at $37,000. The photograph's provenance listed Hertzmann as the original dealer on the piece, so it has found its way back home, so to speak. Unlike the last lot, this was a definite steal. I think even Paul was surprised when he got it for that price.

Lot 12 took us back into six-figure territory. Cunningham's "Formen Einer Blume" (Magnolia Blossom) was the fuller version of this flower that was featured in the earlier "Tower of Jewels" image. The phone took the lot away from a commission bid after meeting the low estimate at $301,000. That was just shy of the new record for the artist set just a few lots previous, and put the lot into sixth place overall in the auction.

Phone bidder L0067 came back to take another Weston dune on lucky lot 13 for the low estimate, which was a whopping $241,000 with buyer's fees. That put the lot into the last place in the Top Ten for the sale and for this evening.

Lot 14, Walker Evan's important "Breakfast Room, Belle Grove Plantation, White Chapel, LA", presented an intriguing mystery of sorts. Sotheby's was playing it safe with its "printing date unknown" notation despite a later stamp on the image. The matte surface of the paper and other signs pointed to a much earlier print than the 1963-1971 date range that the stamp would normally indicate. So did Sotheby's estimate range of $80,000-120,000. It was a challenge and more than a few dealers decided it was worth entering the fray. I saw Mack Lee, Peter MacGill and Edwynn Houk all bidding away--some with phones in their ears. But in the end it was San Francisco dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel who outbid the group at double the low estimate at $193,000.

Fraenkel was then also successful on the next lot, Carleton Watkins' "The Garrison, Columbia River" going to just under the low estimate at $229,000 against Connecticut dealer William Schaeffer. It was a beautiful and early print.

I had hoped to raise my paddle on the next lot, the book cover image of "Berthoud, CO" by Robert Adams. But collector Stephen Stein and New York dealer Peter MacGill got into ping-pong battle that MacGill finally won at the high estimate at $37,000. That was still well under the last auction price set at Phillips for this same image.

As consolation prize after losing the earlier Watkins image, William Schaeffer did get to steal lot 17, "California Oak, Santa Clara Valley", which was attributed to Carleton Watkins, and was most probably by him. There was some supposition that this might actually be a copy print of a daguerreotype by Watkins. Whatever it was, it was a wonderful, rich and dramatic image with great presence. It went very inexpensively even at nearly double the high estimate at $32,200.

But finally the BIG lot came up: lot 18. Sotheby's was not shy about estimating Edward Weston's1927 early matte print of the Nautilus at $600,000-900,000. You could feel that they pegged a lot of their auction on this piece, and it came through for them. First a phone bidder pushed up past the high reserve, and then Peter MacGill with a phone in his ear pushed it up further against that phone. Finally it was MacGill at a hammer price just above the high estimate at $950,000 (total price: $1,105,000). The price set a new world record for Edward Weston and was the top lot of this auction season, but only by dearth of Sotheby's higher premiums. Otherwise it was in a virtual tie with Swann's Curtis portfolio for that honor.

Weston was not quite done for the day. On the next lot, San Francisco dealer Paul Hertzmann fought with two phones over Weston's Dunes, Oceano, but in the end it was big phone buyer L0067 who picked up this dune as well as their others. This time the price was mid-point in the range at $169,000.

The same phone bidder also then picked up the next lot, a nice Paul Strand of "The Family, Luzzara, Emilia, Italy" (Lusetti Family) for again mid-point in the range at $253,000, which put the lot into a tie for eighth place overall in the auction.

The next Strand lot, "Café de la Paix, Audierne, Finestere, France", sold to dealer Peter MacGill against the phone and a commission bid for $181,000.

Then MacGill outbid fellow New York dealer Howard Greenberg for the Lewis Hine of the Worker, Empire State Building, at 3-1/2 x the high estimate. At $205,000 I believe this broke the world record at auction for Hine, although Sotheby's didn't claim that.

A phone paid just over the high estimate for lot 24, the Dorothea Lange of "At the Cotton Wagon, Migrant Agricultural Worker, Elroy, AZ" at $103,000 over collector Michael Mattis' underbid.

Then phone bidder L0067 was back to beat out dealer Howard Greenberg for Lange's White Angel Breadline, a print that apparently appeared in U.S. Camera's 1936 Annual. The price at $445,000 didn't come close to setting a new record (the current one for this image is $822,400) but did put the lot into second place in the top ten for the auction.

A man in the room more than doubled the high estimate on Louis Faurer's "Park Avenue Garage" to take it at a world auction record price for the artist of $133,000.

The phone outbid a man in the room for the next lot, a Robert Frank of the popular London (Belsize, Crescent), at $109,000--well over the high estimate.

The male bidder on the earlier Louis Faurer took the next Robert Frank, a later print of lot 28, NYC (34th Street), for just over the high estimate at $121,000.

Lazlo Moholy-Nagy's large but later photogram drew lots of bidders. First Chuck Isaacs and Susan Herzig duked it out, and then Edwynn Houk battled a Client next to Howard Greenberg. It went on Howard's paddle at $91,000.

Lot 30, an Edward Weston Cross-Section of a Nautilus Shell, which was estimated at a too-reasonable $70,000-100,000, got a lot of frantic bidding activity. First Edwynn Houk battled a number of phones, but then it settled back in the room between collectors Stephen Stein and Michael Mattis, with Stein taking it at $253,000. That was good enough for a tie for eighth place.

Michael Mattis became the underbidder to an Asian man at the rear of the room on lot 31, Edward Steichen's "Iris Aurea", when the latter pushed up the price to the mid-range of the estimates at $79,000.

Hiroshi Sugimoto's "North Atlantic Ocean, Cliffs of Moher" (lot 38) sold to San Francisco dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel for $49,000, just above high estimate.

Finally, after a number of other buy-ins and lower end (relatively, of course) items, a phone bidder set a new world auction record for Peter Beard on an excellent print of "Hog Ranch Night Feeder with Maureen Gallagher & Mbuno" (lot 40) at a whopping $277,000, which put the lot into seventh place in the Top Ten.

Sotheby's evening sale was very impressive indeed.

(NEXT NEWSLETTER: The rest of Sotheby's sales and Phillips' auction results)