Issue #45  6/27/2002
Sotheby's London May Auction Brings in Over 760,000 Pounds

Perhaps it was just the overload of one too many auctions this season, or maybe the lack of quality consignments due to 9/11 and the slower economy, but the London and French spring auction audience and results were off from the norm. Gone were many of the American (and even European) regulars. Collectors and dealers both took passes on these auctions, and the buy-in rates (especially at Sotheby's and Tajan) showed the impact. Many (particularly 19th-century buyers) reported being tapped out after the Jammes sales in Paris in late March. To add insult to injury, the dollar is in free fall, dropping almost 15% against the euro since the week prior to Jammes. It has also fallen against the pound. Condition of the images also appeared to be a problem throughout the sales here in London.

Sotheby's was first up with an eclectic mix of 19th and 20th century. The results were less than spectacular with just 56% of the lots selling, although the total take was 761,281 pounds sterling, which is a bit over $1.1 million dollars. These results included some of the sales efforts after the sale as well as during the sale. The pound was about $1.50 during these sales, as it is now. The prices that follow all include the buyer's premiums, which Sotheby's and Christie's had just raised in tandem prior to this sale. So much for being worried about anti-trust action.

The first lot of the sale, a group of 110 mid-19th-century images, was greatly underestimated, and, not surprisingly, did quite well. American collector Bruce Lundberg took the group for a total of 8,962 pounds, or about $13,450.

If you ever needed a reason to preview, the group of Robertson's of Constantinople that came up next would have given you one. Pale and flat, they looked great in the catalogue. Amazing what Photoshop will do. They sold, but cheaply. Great Robertson's can bring a lot of money (more on that in our article on the French spring auctions in the next newsletter).

Lot 11, 68 studies of the Krupp Armament Manufactory, 1869-79c, brought 10,755 pounds in the room.

The Roger Fentons were not my favorite lots. Most were just average prints at best. The first lot (28) was a very nice one of the Cloisters, Tintern Abbey, but there were reddish marks like a cat had swiped its claws on it. I still liked it the best of all the Fentons. New York dealer Hans Kraus, Jr. took it for 13,742 pounds.

The next two Fentons (lot 29 and 30) were bought by phone bidder L055 for 13,145 and 9,560 pounds respectively. Kraus came back to bag lot 31, a light print of Cedars, Monmouthshire, for 21,510 pounds, reportedly for a collector client.

After a group of pretty mediocre Julia M. Cameron's (the best a carbon print made after Cameron died) and one late-printed Lewis Carroll, the real test for the day came on the docket: lot 44. A pair of half-plate daguerreotypes by Thibault, which Sotheby's bravely called "the earliest recorded examples of photo-reportage," pictured rue St Maur in Paris before and after the June 1848 riots in which over 3,000 insurgents were killed. The daguerreotypes were used to make woodcuts of the event, which were then published in the weekly newspaper L'Illustration. The barricaded streets before and the soldiers and cannon without barricades afterward were two images that have been republished in recent years. Sotheby's said that the images were sold by an anonymous Frenchman to raise money for the World Animal Handicap Foundation, but the images have been in the collection of Count Geoffroy de Beaufort for many years, and it is likely that he was the consignor. Likewise the anonymous phone bidder materialized later as the Musee d'Orsay, who is preparing a major exhibit in 2003 on French daguerreotypes. The museum bid against the reserve to get the pair for a total of 182,650 pounds, or about $274,000. The pre-auction estimate range was 170,000-200,000 pounds. You could almost see the relief on the usually cool Philippe Garner's face when the lot did sell. Everything else was anti-climatic. After the sale, Garner said: "I am particularly gratified with the results for the top lot in today's sale, the highly important pair of daguerreotypes that were purchased by the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. These important images...will enjoy pride of place in a great national collection."

A small architectural study, which was termed a Dessin-Fumee, by Daguerre sold next for 13,145 pounds to a private collector. It was a process reportedly used by Daguerre to try to trick Niepce into believing he was on the same track as the earlier pioneer. The drawing sold to the phone.

A very interesting and strong group of Louis Robert/Victor Regnault paper negatives brought prices five and six times low estimates. Hans Kraus, bidding for an American collector, and I joined battle. He got two (48 and 50) and I got one (lot 49).

The Gustave Le Grays did not have their best day. The marines were mostly unmounted prints--some with condition problems--and most of the images were not particularly rare ones. The ones without problems or with lesser problems did sell (or at least did after the sale), but not for big bucks or pounds and were very good bargains. Lack of competition at the sale helped buyers here.

Lot 54 sold for only 11,352 pounds to French consultant Sam Stourdze. Lot 55 bought in but reportedly sold after the auction. Lots 56, 57, and 58 all bought in. While they were not top prints or images, most would have normally sold, although I thought that 58 was very overestimated at 50,000-70,000 pounds, especially since the print was not exactly perfect and the image was not one of the strongest Le Gray marines.

Lot 59 did sell for its low estimate--a total of 17,925 pounds (about $27,000) including buyer's premium. Canadian collectors Harry and Ann Malcolmson were the buyers.

Lot 60 continued the Le Gray buy-ins, but the print had a very large area of whitish discoloration. Lots 61 and 62 also bought in. Besides being slightly overpriced, both prints had physical problems. The last of the Le Grays, lot 63 had a dark spot that matched the color of the sky surrounding it, so it still presented well. Le Gray author Ken Jacobson bought it for 31,070 pounds (about $47,000)--the highest price for any Le Gray in this auction, and the second highest price in the sale.

While not exactly a test of the Le Gray market, the results indicate that the inflated numbers from the first Jammes sale and the Craven sale need to be put into perspective. There has been and probably always will be a strong market for this 19th century photographer. Besides being an acknowledged master by virtually every art institution, he is one of the 19th-century equivalents to Ansel Adams. His images are very safe material. Any owner of a decorator-done house or office would be happy to have one of his beautiful seascapes on a prominent wall, and I do not say that in a derogatory way. He was also a very powerful image-maker. Only American landscape photographers such as Carleton Watkins and William H. Jackson have similar 19th-century cachet in this broad market. Hence, there will be a ready market for most reasonably priced Le Grays of quality.

Likewise, there is a high-end to this market for the rarest images or rarer print qualities of less rare images (that are dramatic images). Le Grays certainly will continue to command and get six figures, but it is clear that not every Le Gray will make it into this rarified atmosphere.

However, more and more attention on this artist will certainly result in more demand. For instance the Bibliotheque Nationale's fine Le Gray show moves on next to the J.Paul Getty Museum, and two new books have been published on his work: not only Ken Jacobson's recent and very well researched book available through Carl Mautz cmautz@nccn.net in the U.S. and Ken Jacobson ken@jacobsonphoto.com in Europe and elsewhere, but also the new book by the Bibliotheque Nationale, which accompanied its show. Rarity may not be a factor in this demand. Witness the recent record prices for Adams' Moonrise, perhaps the most printed art photograph of the 20th century. Even Le Gray's less rare images, such as the Brig on the Water, the Said Leaving Cette Harbor, the Breaking Wave, or even the record-setting Great Wave, will normally command strong prices with top prints, although the latter's $800,000-plus record at Jammes was clearly an aberration. Many of these prints were printed in the hundreds according to available records. How many survive in marketable prints is, of course, another story.

After the less than sterling results on the Le Gray lots, Sotheby's placed their bets on a French horse: Vicomte Joseph Vigier. But this nag was dead at the starting gates. The prints were in poor condition, uninteresting and overestimated. On top of all of these problems, several knowledgeable French observers felt that these images might not even be by Vigier. Except for one very poor and yellow lot purchased by Hans Kraus for a whopping 538 pounds (and that included the buyer's premium), the string of 12 lots went down to ignominious defeat. Adding insult to injury, Sotheby's had to retract some of its wording in the catalog that these and some other lots had originally been in the November 2001 Tajan sale in Paris. They had not.

One interesting pass was on lot 111, the Atget of Porte de Choisy Zoniers, which got bought in at a mere 10,000 pounds after being estimated at 20,000-30,000 pounds. The same image sold last year (in a slightly better print, although this one was quite decent) to dealer Lee Marks for a whopping 29,250 pounds. That is what competition in the room will do for you. Despite this lot failing to make the grade, Atgets have been selling at auction and privately very well overall. I myself have sold 20 Atget prints in the last year, many to fellow dealers. Even the recent MOMA private sale did much better than expected, considering its sometimes-inflated prices and bizarre deal structuring.

After a period of mixed bidding with quite a few buy-ins interspersed, we came to the Herbert Pontings that were in the sale. I had hoped to snag a bargain here, considering what I thought was a lack of competition. If this sale and the Exploration sale at Christie's are any indication, Ponting's photographs are doing very well on the market. Everything sold in or well over the range at both sales. Lot 125 may have set a new world's record for a single print by Ponting at 13,145 pounds, or nearly $20,000. London dealer Hamiltons Galleries was the winning bidder. The famous Grotto in an Iceberg with the Terra Nova in the Distance was a huge print at 730 x 528 mm, plus frame. Although the print had some scratches and surface blemishes, it was still lovely and dramatic. The penguin images (there were three in this sale) were the only "bargains" at 1,673, 1,912, and 2,629 pounds respectively. Christie's Exploration sale was an even worse opportunity as several of us dealers smelling a chance to sneak into a non-photographic sale found out to our chagrin. It seems that this is not only a photography market item but appeals to a broader audience interested in exploration ephemera.

After lot 126, an image by Ferdinand Schmutzer of Einstein, was bought in at 4,400 pounds, another of Freud promptly sold in the room for 9,560 pounds.

Here is another auction aberration for you: lot 134, a set of Man Ray's Electricite sold here at Sotheby's for 20,315 pounds. While this was by no means a record, considering the prints (large spots on two of the key prints, including the iconic Torso), it was a wonder that the set sold at all here. Meanwhile at Christie's a superior set could not find a buyer even at virtually the same amount.

An Andre Kertesz of a couple embracing on the Eiffel Tower from "before 1929" went to a commission bidder at 15,535 pounds. It was a good print but had a light crease, which will be easily restorable. It seemed to be a reasonable value. The next lot, a Kertesz landscape from 1928, was bought in at 17,000 pounds.

Likewise a Paul Outerbridge Draped Nude with weird discoloration was bought in at 7,500 pounds.

A very bad portfolio of Sasha Stone's nudes got bought in at 15,000 pounds--more reflective of the quality in this particular portfolio rather than of Stone's work in general.

Another bet that Sotheby's had made--Raul Hausmann--did not pan out very well. Hausmann's work is more respected in Europe than here, so it was not much of a surprise to me that 21 out of the 30 prints bought in. Even those lots purchased had little competition, selling for below low estimates for the most part. I do, however, greatly respect this artist and expect that the buy-ins here may be looked on as a missed opportunity later.

A number of the American dealers who actually showed for these auctions had come to view the groups of vintage (or not so vintage) prints by the likes of Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson and others here and at Christie's. Lot 204, a group of 16 studies by Cartier-Bresson of 1950s London, sold to a man in the room for 10,755 pounds.

Several Man Ray fashion studies also did well. Lot 209 was bid up to 8,962 pounds by a phone bidder. Lot 210, a double image, became a battleground between NYC dealer Keith de Lellis and first one phone bidder and then another. Finally the phone did get it for 14,340 pounds.

Probably the surprise lot of the sale was lot 234, the Study of Three Models, 1958, from Norman Parkinson. Estimated at a reasonable 1,500-2,000 pounds, the lot soared when a phone bidder took the room up to 12,548 pounds. Perhaps it was actress Uma Thurman bidding up her mother's image. Her mother Nena von Schlebrugge, a model that Parkinson found in Sweden, was to first marry Timothy Leary (yes, THAT Timothy Leary) and then Professor Thurman. I swear this is all true, or at least that is what the Sotheby's catalogue says.

In any case, the fashion material did ok, and Sotheby's London got out alive, but just barely. It was unfortunately Philippe Garner's last photo auction for Sotheby's. The material was not quite so impressive as his recent Jammes sale, so it was tough going, although he did get an ovation when he came up to the podium. Garner will be leaving Sotheby's at the end of the month. He steadfastly refuses to say where he is heading until then (stay tuned), but several sources say it will be to Phillips auction house. That seems very possible to me. Garner has a special relationship, not only with Andre Jammes, but also with the Roger Therond family. If he goes to Phillips, it is possible that these sources for future major auctions will follow him. The Therond collection has already been rumored to be in Phillips' Paris corner for the last year. In any case, the Americans took Garner and the rest of Sotheby's Photography Department (Lydia Cresswell-Jones and Dr. Juliet Hacking) out to dinner the night after the sale, plied him with wine, and asked him repeatedly for details to no avail. It was, however, a pleasant night.

Philippe has always been my personal favorite as an auctioneer. His suave and knowledgeable stance at the podium is unique in the field. If he goes to Phillips, at least we will not lose this very special person to the photography market, although it would remain to be seen what could be done with an auction house that has not exactly had a super track record so far. But a few important photography sales could certainly help their situation.