Issue #69  3/19/2004
Christie's February Auction Makes $1.5 Million

The Christie's post-AIPAD auction did relatively well, selling 85% by lot and bringing in almost $1.5 million. Not bad, considering that this was Christie's version of "cleaning out the attic." The sell rate was helped considerably by the fact that 108 of the lots in this auction were sold without reserves. Nearly all the "big" action came from phone or order bidders and not from the small contingent in the auction room.

The 170-lot Alexander Rodchenko portion of the sale was apparently owned by Christie's itself, which somehow wound up with this selection from Gary Tatintsian, who had in turn gotten it from Nikolai Sokolov, a member of the caricaturist group "Kurkryniksy". This group's work on "Old Moscow" was intended to accompany Rodchenko's photographs from the book "The New Moscow" to make another publication entitled "Two Moscows". Reportedly, Sokolov received the photographs from Rodchenko, but Christie's did not explain how this all came about. The prints were all annotated 'Two Moscows--final version' in Russian, and Rodchenko stamped most of these prints.

Of course, it was the Rodchenkos that made the biggest splash here, even though some were reportedly in only fair condition. Besides the condition variation, the prices actually realized also reflected the fact that the group had been "shopped around" by Tatintsian--some images even showing up in a previous auction and being bought in.

The prices below all include Christie's buyer's premium.

The top lot of the sale was nearly at the end of the sale, lot 358, which was of the Metro during May Day illuminations. It lit up the auction tote board at a hefty $35,850 and was bought by an American museum. The estimate had been $30,000-40,000.

One of the few other lots outside of the Rodchenkos to break through into the top echelon was a late-printed Paul Strand of Wall Street (lot 37), which had been estimated at $12,000-18,000, but sold for an astounding $33,460. I wonder if the buyer (a persistent phone bidder) and underbidder (an order bidder) had focused on the fact that this was not a vintage print, but a print made 1976-1977. It was bought by an American collector and took home second place in this sale. More on this one below.

What is in a name and what is in an image and print quality? Unfortunately too many collectors (and even some curators) do not spend the necessary time to educate themselves as to the differences and nuances of condition and image interest and focus instead on a "name". I see this very often, especially with unsophisticated bidders on eBay, where a very poor image by Walker Evans will often outperform a very fine and important 19th-century salt print. For a more complete examination of this topic go to my article, "On Connoisseurship and Print Values: A Discussion" which can be found by clicking: http://www.iphotocentral.com/collecting/article_view.php/11/11/1 .

Why do I bring all of this up here? Because the market did a very good job on distinguishing by connoisseurship instead of just by name on lots 25, 26 and 27--all salt prints by J.B. Greene, an American calotypist who has achieved some strong prices and name recognition by 19th-century collectors. Lot 25 was a marvelously rich print of an interestingly abstraction of jumbled ruins. Three phone bidders went after this one with a passion. Estimated at a mere $3,000-5,000, it sold for what might seem like a very high $28,680, but the image and print quality more than justified the price, which was actually a great bargain, in my opinion. The price was good enough to place the print into a tie for fourth highest price of the sale. Likewise, lot 26, was a weaker image with fading or exposure problems on the right side of the image. It actually failed to find a buyer at the same low estimate. It probably deserved its fate. Lot 27, a very good print of a decent, if unremarkable image, sold to a West Coast dealer for a very reasonable $6,573--again a bargain proportionate to the photograph. The market did very well distinguishing between the photographs, I think, in this instance.

Lot 33, a tiny but cute Frederick Evans image of his wife and children, sold for the ridiculously low sum of $299, which had to be the best buy of the sale. It made me wish that I had not fled New York City in the face of what turned out to be an imaginary snowstorm that had been predicted by weather forecasters.

Lot 37, Paul Strand's New York, 1916 (often referred to as "Wall Street") was an instance of the market going totally the opposite direction compared to my J.B. Greene example above. Paul Strand is admittedly a "hot" name, but this image was a late printed image, not printed by Strand himself, unsigned and in a very large edition size of 100 prints (and you have to ask yourself: What is to prevent others from being made?). Estimated correctly at $12,000-18,000 (although not worth even close to this amount, in my opinion), the image soared to $33,460. Come on people! You can still buy excellent signed vintage pieces by Strand for this price (see Swann story below for an example of one that actually bought in briefly). I apologize in advance to the "winner", but education is important to all of us.

Another similar case in point: Christie's must be getting hard up to have put the ubiquitous Kaloma (supposedly, but not Mrs. Wyatt Earp) in this sale. There are hundreds and, I believe, thousands of these prints. This is the junk of the market, and it is a shame that the otherwise prestigious Christie's Rockefeller Center put this in an otherwise decent off-season sale. The auction houses stopped putting this image up for a while after I had pointed out that the image was neither rare nor of Mrs. Earp (see my past newsletters for details). I guess collectors and the auction houses need a reminder note.

It was not until lot 191, that another image of consequence came up for bid, a late printed Dorothea Lange of a Funeral Cortege. Made in the 1960s, the image still brought $16,730 versus an estimate of $6,000-8,000.

Another example of an image that took off well above its estimates and current market price was a late print of Bill Brandt's Bent Elbow, here entitled London, 1952, which sold to NY dealer Deborah Bell, obviously bidding for a determined client. Estimated at about current retail ($9,000-12,000), the print soared to $20,315. I sold one about seven years ago for under $4,500. There are a number of these images around, although this auction record will now raise the price and, I expect, the length of time it sits in a dealer's stock because of that price increase.

The only photographs in the higher-price category left were the Rodchenkos; however, in my opinion, these images were not really very exciting and, in fact, were rather pedestrian for the most part. Again, the name game seems to have been the major draw here, besides the enticement of no reserves. This lack of really interesting material and, in some cases, the poor condition of the prints did not stop the auction house from selling these photographs off, although often at prices considerable below the rather inflated estimates. In fact, the total hammer price of the Rodchenkos added up to less than 47% of the low estimate.

I think that Constructionist images can either be exciting or pretty boring. Unfortunately, most of these lots fell into the latter category. The prices, in the end, seemed to be rather steep considering this and the lack of freshness to the material. Perhaps the high estimates convinced some collectors and curators that the images were actually worth this kind of money, and they were getting a "deal" by paying less than the estimates--in some cases as little as 10% of these estimates. In my view, many of the lots still seemed to have sold at high retail (or more) for this difficult material, so I feel that Christie's did quite well on these. We will have to see how the market treats the buyers of this material later. The one positive is that the prints appeared to be truly vintage with good provenance; so much of the later printed Russian material is being passed off as vintage and is on papers that make it difficult, if not impossible, to tell the date it was printed.

After selling off the first two lots for less than a third of the lower estimate, Christie's did a little better with a slanted image of a sport parade on Red Square (lot 292), selling it for $17,925 versus an estimate of $20,000-30,000.

Lot 294, a shot of firemen and their ladders on a slant, managed to get to $15,535 with the premium against an estimate of $25,000-35,000.

Rounding off the top three lots of the sale was another Rodchenko, lot 296, a two-print diptych of a "Morning Exercise, Lefortovo Student Campus", which a European collector bought for $29,875, versus an estimate of $60,000-80,000.

Two lots (301 and 302) of the Dynamo Sport Society members marching towards Red Square, which were companion pieces to lot 292, sold for $17,925 and $16,730 respectively.

Lot 305 an interesting study of a group of men diving sold for $16,730 against its estimate of $25,000-35,000. A slanted Izvestiia Building (lot 313) actually got into the mid-range with a $22,705 bid; as did lot 330, Radio Listener selling for $23,900.

Another slanted urbanscape of Pushkin Square (lot 334) sold well below estimate at $15,535; then a diptych of the Planetarium building and a projector made by Zeiss sold for about a third of the low estimate at $19,120.

Lot 352, an interesting view of Arbat Street Traffic, was one of the very few images to break over its high estimate, bringing $19,120 versus a range of $10,000-15,000. The next lot 353, a diptych of student campus buildings and a "new" building, only manage to eke out the same $19,120 against an estimate of $50,000-70,000. Where exactly DID Christie's staff get these estimates?

The auction moved quickly to a finale. Lot 358, we detailed at the beginning of this article. It took first place for Christie's auction. Lot 359, another diptych of holiday illuminations at the Bolshoi Theater at Night, managed to get a bid at $19,120, versus the overly steep estimate of $60,000-80,000. And the last lot of the sale (360), one more diptych--this time of Pushkin Square and May Day Illuminations, Tverskaia--brought in $28,680 for Christie's, putting it in a tie for fourth place on the day.

The garage sale of Rodchenkos had netted Christie's a total of $609,201--nearly half the total for the day and all going to the house. Without its Rodchenkos, Christie's would have totaled less than $1 million for the day. Don't you wish you had something like this stashed away for a rainy day?