E-Photo
Issue #5  9/1/1999
 
Southworth & Hawes Auction Revisited: Taking The Pulse Of The After-Market On This Extraordinary Sale

By Alex Novak


The sale of the David Feigenbaum Collection of Southworth & Hawes material by Sotheby's last April 27 in New York was a landmark from many perspectives. It was the most successful single collector photography sale to date at $3.3 million with only one lot out of 112 failing to sell. The Jammes London sale at the end of October may threaten its high-water mark for total dollars or--as the case may be-- pounds sterling, but it is doubtful Jammes will match the Feigenbaum collection for lots sold against buy-ins.

But this sale was also distinguished by two other developments that bear more attention than perhaps they have initially received.

Unusual Research Effort

The first of these was the major and unusual effort put on by Sotheby's to provide an extensive research background to this sale and to use the occasion as a genuine teaching opportunity with an evening round table held before the sale.

Certainly one can be blasé about this and simply note that it was Sotheby's attempt to build up the hype that helped ultimately to sell these lots, and there is, of course, truth to that. But it was the degree of research provided in the catalogue and the in-depth public symposium on the collection with world experts that set this auction effort apart from just the self-serving hoopla that usually accompanies these events.

Credit must certainly fall to Denise Bethel and her staff (particularly Chris Mahoney, who wrote much of the catalogue), who solicited the aid of a virtual small army of daguerreian researchers in putting together the catalogue. This unusual effort has made a considerable impact on the education of hundreds of new and old dag collectors and has left behind a legacy of research material that can be found within the catalogue itself.

Probably as no photo auction catalogue before it, this catalogue will become an integral part of every daguerreian collector and institution's research library. As Mahoney notes, "Anyone researching Southworth & Hawes is going to find their way to this catalogue. I think it will stand beside the Spirit of Fact on people's bookshelves."

Mahoney credited Charles Leroy Moore's dissertation on S&H as being a primary source of information. According to Mahoney, Moore's "research is magnificent". Mahoney indicated that the Daguerreian Society was considering publishing Moore's work.

Both Mahoney and Bethel credit numerous other people, especially Grant Romer, Matt Isenburg, John Cira and Sally Pierce, as well as a cast of many others, for their contributions to the catalogue research.

There are still copies of the catalogue available through Sotheby's subscription department at 1-800-444-3709 or, if you are calling internationally, at (001) 203-847-0465. The catalogue is referred to as Sale 7295 "Tremont".

In addition to the catalogue, the Daguerreian Society has just devoted a major portion of its newly issued 1998 Annual (delayed to include further material from the auction) to the sale. Additional images unpublished in the catalogue itself, comments from the symposium and additional research are included. Copies may be ordered at $45 each/paperback and $75/hardbound for non-members from the Daguerreian Society at (412) 343-5525, or you can get more information and order forms from the Society's web site at: http://www.daguerre.org/society/annual.html .

Better yet, take the opportunity to join the Society itself and get a member rate of $35.

I asked Bethel about the motivations behind this extensive effort. She told me, "It was important to put the collection into context and reproduce as much as we could to 'keep it together' in the catalogue, knowing it would be split up." She and Mahoney were both pleased with the fact that the Dag Society had published additional images, offering further documentation of this important collection.

Some of the Background to the Auction

What was one of the most successful photographic auctions ever did not begin so auspiciously. Sotheby's had been contacted by John Cira, an antiques dealer who did the early research and was ably assisting the family in their efforts to sell the plates, to appraise the collection. Bethel jumped at the chance to see such an amazing hoard of material. It was stored up in Cira's store up in Cape Cod. Could they come up to look it over? "Sure" was the immediate response.

But that meant a small propeller prop plane ride to the Cape from LaGuardia, a la John F. Kennedy Jr. And when Denise Bethel woke up the morning of the flight she "was sick as a dog." Coming down with a case of the flu and a sore throat to boot, Bethel along with her assistant Chris Mahoney still made the noisy flight to see the plates of silver and copper that were to eventually revise what we know about one of the great daguerreian partnerships. Mahoney recalls that the propellers made conversation impossible in the tiny plane and he could tell that Denise was in "serious misery." But they both knew "it was now or never."

Then there was their two-day encounter with over a hundred daguerreotypes. Mahoney--still sounding a little stunned--told me, "It was a dazing experience. Once you see an image like the Clouds--which was one of the great ones we saw early on--well, that image is enough to shake up your concept of what daguerreotypes are all about. It was enough to overload my circuits."

Both Bethel and Mahoney said they were soon overwhelmed and virtually burned out by the sheer volume and overall quality of these largely uncased images. "We both went into shock," said Bethel.

Mahoney continued, "You have to understand that there were so many that were relatively minor pieces in the catalogue, but would have been major pieces on their own."

After two solid days of looking through image after uncased image and with sore throat and fever haunting Bethel, the pair attempted their long trek back to NYC, only to find that the small airport was socked in with rain and fog-- a common occurrence at the Cape. They had to be driven to Boston where they literally caught the last flight out to New York.

Negotiations went into high gear and what was just an appraisal quickly turned into a full-scale single-collection sale. The time pressures were extraordinary. Chris Mahoney quickly went back up to Cape Cod and supervised the packing of the material. Denise waited in NYC until the trucks arrived on Tuesday night, February 2 and were unpacked.

Bethel told me how she and Mahoney could only attend the Thursday night reception at AIPAD, the art photography world's biggest event of the year: "People were asking where we had disappeared."

Conservator Grant Romer from the George Eastman House and his staff were called in and arrived on Friday, February 5, AIPAD weekend. Soon a loose assembly line was set up to air clean the plates and put together the new sandwich of backing board, spacer mat, plate and glass. As each dag was finished, it was handed off to Mahoney for cataloguing. Romer, as he was working on the daguerreotypes, would give Mahoney information about each image and leads to other research and people. The plates would then be passed off to the photographer. Four days were spent in the process of properly housing the images. Time was quickly running out.

Mahoney then visited Matt Isenburg, who has the largest collection of S&H dags now in private hands. As Mahoney noted, "A lot of the information in the catalogue either had its genesis or confirmation during the meeting with Matt." Particularly crucial was Isenburg's large trove of ephemera about the S&H partnership.

Finally, both the New York Metropolitan Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Art gave the Sotheby's staff access to their fine S&H collections. And most of the research was finally coming together.

The Interest and the Anxiety Build

While Mahoney was running down leads, the mountain was coming to Mohammed, as Sotheby's had a flock of people previewing the auction, perhaps the largest amount of pre-sale interest since the photo department began. The stampede was on right after Romer cased the dags. And Bethel began to get an inkling of what was to occur. But still the doubts plagued her: "You have an enormous responsibility to do the best that you can. What if you can't sell them?"

Isenburg told Bethel, "Well you really stuck your neck out this time." He was referring to what he thought at the time were too aggressive estimates on some of the higher priced daguerreotypes in the sale.

To add to Bethel's auction night butterflies, most of the Feigenbaum family decided to show up for the auction and sat prominently in the first two rows to Bethel's right. Bethel set her jaw and said to herself: "Either it's going to work or it's not."

Along the way the jitters got to her, as she jumped a lot from $98,000 to $200,000. As she told me later, "I've never made a mistake like that before." But it cracked up the audience, relieved the tensions and continued the auction on its way to record levels. Appraiser and former auctioneer Dale Stulz later told Bethel he thought she did it on purpose.

But how would the family react? As a member was later to tell Denise: "It's not only the money; but to see all those people so committed to photography was an experience we'll never forget. This has forever changed our lives."

One other relative joked about how he was now the "photography expert" in his hometown in North Carolina. People were apparently bringing him their snapshots for his consideration and appraisal.

Mahoney summed it up: "Now that our work is over, I still look through the catalogue and am amazed by the quality of the material. And I'm pleased that the market rose to the occasion. This is the kind of material that is never going to come around ever again."

Frantic Pre- and Post-Auction Action

The second factor that set this sale off from many others was the frantic activity pre- and post-auction by dealers, institutions and collectors positioning themselves for "a piece of history and artistry from the acknowledged masters of the daguerreotype."

As Daguerreian Society member and collector Wm. B. Becker noted in discussing one (lot 72) of the intricate deals that was spawned just prior to and just after the auction, "although arrangements were often very complicated, everyone involved was extremely cooperative." He felt that the reason for this extraordinary level of harmony among normally competitive people was a simple one, echoing Mahoney's earlier comment: "When are you ever going to have an opportunity like this again? I don't expect to ever see this again in my lifetime." See Bill's own review of the auction on his web site at: http://www.photographymuseum.com/reportSH.html .

The fear of being left out of the action caused many to leave their egos behind and made these deals a lot easier to put together. Most were formed around large multi-image lots.

Bill Becker makes note of some of these group lots in his own article on the sale, "A group of seven post-mortem and death-related images tripled the high estimate of $5,000 (selling to dealer Michael Lehr for $17,250 with premium). Gallery owner Janos Novemeszky took home the much-discussed lot 12, containing portraits of people with plants and an astonishing study of a frost pattern on a window. The hammer price was $27,000, against a top estimate of $6,000."

Lehr was to pick up a number of other group lots, including 77 and 83. Many if not most in lot 77-- although "attributed" by a cautious Sotheby's to Hawes alone--appeared to be by the full partnership of S&H. Lehr used eBay to sell or at least spotlight some of the images from these lots.

Lehr could not be more enthusiastic about the auction: "There could not be enough hype about this sale. The consistent quality of the portraits surpasses any other artist's work. They could be considered among the 19th century's greatest portrait artists in any medium." A pretty heady comment, but one often echoed in my conversations with many collectors and dealers.

Other lucky group purchasers included Joe Dasta, who bought lot 44, the huge lot of 40 dags of Gentlemen; John Delph who in partnership took home some of the non S&H or attributed lots; and Yann Maillet, who bought lot 36, a group of 18 plates of children. Dasta, Delph and Maillet have also been using eBay to "recycle" some of their material.

If there is a negative with images from some of the larger group lots, it is that some of the ones being resold have condition problems and/or unclear attribution.

High-Level Images and Prices to Match

Malvern, PA-based dealer Charles Isaacs, who bought heavily at the sale and was a player on many of the top lots, said that he's "very pleased with the response we've had to major pieces, both privately and institutionally." He noted "some people couldn't get themselves prepared for the sale or were unnerved at the level of prices and didn't bid, but in retrospect everyone realizes it was the single greatest opportunity in decades to buy important daguerreotypes. Some people couldn't come to terms with all of this in time for the auction itself, but they seem to be doing it now."

While Isaacs declined to name buyers, I can reveal a least one: me. I purchased the Young Sisters (lot 29) for resale. At least one institutional observer felt that this piece was the most beautiful of the sale. It was only one of 15 images treated to full-page full color status in the catalogue by Sotheby's and was only one of four images used in ads to promote the auction. You can see the image here: http://www.iphotocentral.com/search/detail.php/32/2279/0/2279/1 .

The Young Sisters
The Young Sisters

I had been the underbidder to the Isaacs/Hershkowitz team at the auction, but as Isaacs notes above, I too was caught a shade short on dollars at the point of the sale itself. But I'm not sure this was necessarily a bad thing. If I and others had bid more aggressively at the sale, there is no guarantee that the ultimate price would have been any less dear, given the prices on top pieces throughout the sale, such as the cover shot of the Two Women Posed with Chair ($387,500), and the determination of the bidders. Many of the buyers noted they would have gone up considerably higher on many lots had they been pushed.

Denise Bethel felt that the lateness of the cover lot in the sale might have kept some money on the sidelines waiting for this image. An institution, which was the underbidder on this piece, had apparently picked it to focus on and was caught short when the price skyrocketed. They found themselves out of the money on any Southworth & Hawes, because the cover lot was the last of the great full plates to come up in the auction. Had the lot come up earlier, they may have gone after other key lots, and prices might have gone up even higher on those. They were not alone.

It was very hard for bidders to attack aggressively early on, as caution toyed with enthusiasm. Note the two vastly different prices on the Edward Hawes, Asleep images. The first was, in most observers' opinion, a superior plate and went for a $60,000 hammer price; the second was, to most who viewed it, a superior pose and went for $195,000 hammer.

Clearly the differential wasn't warranted. In quick retrospect the first image is the one out of place and will probably now command a price in six instead of five figures. Robert Klein, the bidder on the first image for a client, was pleased with how things worked out. Klein spoke of his bid: "That was the highest price at that point. You're filled with some trepidation. You don't really want to be the first one to bid so high."
Klein went on to characterize the auction as "startling, exciting, and all so sudden. This new knowledge of the value of daguerreotypes took everyone by surprise."

NY gallery owner Howard Greenberg, who was bidding for the Amon Carter Museum (not a "Canadian collector" as some sources inaccurately reported), took the second sleeping child and the cover lot--each in turn setting new daguerreotype record prices. Greenberg pointed out "the only real excitement at auction will now come from private collections fresh to the market."

Greenberg himself had bid on another two-piece lot in partnership with a collector, who then convinced Greenberg to part with his image in this joint purchase. Already regretting the decision, Greenberg said, "I'm really sad about this. I went to the sale wanting to buy at least one piece for myself. The sale was incredibly exciting and electric, but getting one of the dags for my own collection was a goal."

Greenberg may have a long wait or have to spend more than he did on the one that got away. Many of the images affected in this quick resale market have already jumped up to higher levels than at the auction, and sales in the more distant future will probably reflect these new "bases" rather than the lower auction prices.

As Becker noted: "I've been collecting for more than 30 years and can tell you fine photographs and good daguerreotypes have doubled in value every three to five years." The question then becomes, as Becker poses it: "Do you start the clock on prices from where they were at the auction, or where they are right now?"

Becker continued: "Was I shocked to see prices go up so much after the auction? Who would think that everyone would be looking back only three or four months later and saying 'I wish I had bought more'?"

The last statement was a sentiment shared by virtually every dealer that I talked to for this story. Most of the dealers contacted said that they had either gotten their initial investment or more out of images purchased at the auction, or were at least very close. Some had bought as agents for specific clients and not for stock. Many were intent on hanging on to at least one image for their own collections.

What this all translates to is that most dealers with S&H material are not in any hurry to sell their remaining stock.

Those collectors and institutions that bought at the sale or slightly after are overjoyed with their purchases and intent on keeping them. Major collectors, who have not sought out many dags in the past, were very much in the hunt. They included savvy and sophisticated mega collector Michael Mattis, who bought five single-plate lots by phone, including the lovely full-plate lot 52 of the woman posed with chair, and major player Thomas Walther, who bought two spectacular and important lots, the stunning modernist Clouds Study and lot 28 the Woman with Floor-Length Tresses. One dealer colleague admired this latter image and deemed it S&H's 'Julia Margaret Cameron' image.

And those collectors and institutions that have not yet purchased are more anxious than sellers. Prices should therefore remain firm, barring another major cache coming on to the market in the near future--something that was rumored but appears to be wishful thinking rather than actuality.

Price markups that I've heard and seen ran from an admittedly very low 25% to well over 400% from the auction prices. The higher mark was seen primarily on lower priced items from multiple image lots where the markup could be masked somewhat, although what was a "lower priced item", is now no longer one. Those 400%-margin images may not sell so readily as some of the more commonly priced ones. But with pieces now starting to trade hands a second or even third time, prices for available pieces will not have much relation to the original hammer prices. Most daguerreotypes from this auction are now being offered at double or triple auction totals--100-200% markups.

When you are dealing with unique objects, price is only determined by how much a willing buyer is willing to spend. And so far there are more buyers than pieces currently for sale at each quality level.

As Sotheby's Chris Mahoney noted: "[This auction] is important to the development of the photography market and a turning point for daguerreotypes."

Did anyone have concerns about the auction? Certainly many did prior to and some even after the auction. As noted above, S&H collector Matt Isenburg thought some of the price levels were ambitious in the extreme. While it may have been a reflection of his recent heart surgery (all of us wish you a continued strong recovery, Matt), I thought Isenburg still looked unusually pale and thoughtful coming out of the evening's auction session, perhaps contemplating new insurance values on his own extensive holdings.

But even Robert Klein, a successful bidder as noted above on one of the sleeping Edward Hawes and some early paper half stereos of Boston in the latter part of the auction, had some concerns--even after the sale: "The odd thing about this sale is that you were dealing with largely anonymous sitters and buying the material that was only the second or third picks, instead of the best examples of the sitting." He was referring to the fact that the first choice of image would go to the sitters themselves and would not have normally remained in Southworth & Hawes' possession.

Perhaps 19th century sensibilities would have prompted sitters to make choices we might not have made today. Or perhaps the differences were inconsequential, as they were among many of the near duplicates in the auction. Or perhaps sitters failed to come back and pay for their image. Whatever the case, those alternatives are largely not known to us and may, in fact, not have survived the years' ravages.

One last editorial comment: while I am glad quality 19th century images--and daguerreotypes in particular--have now received the attention that they have long deserved, I still sense that the speed at which this attention arrived isn't necessarily good for the market long term. But one saving grace, in a way, is that the price inflation hitting Southworth & Hawes hasn't yet affected the lower end of the market, which is how photography attracts its newest collectors. Unlike the 1996 Stransky sale, also at Sotheby's, this auction seems to have its effects limited to Southworth & Hawes' material, but stay tuned because we haven't heard the end of the impact of this important event.