DAVID COHEN, Editor           
       October 2004  

 

THE FALL PHOTOGRAPHY AUCTIONS AT SOTHEBY'S, CHRISTIE'S AND PHILLIPS DE PURY & COMPANY

By BRIAN APPEL

William Eggleston Memphis c1970 (printed 1980)
dye transfer print, 11-7/8 x 17-3/8 inches
Courtesy Christies
Hammer Price, October 15, 2004: $220,000

I just love the transparency and the drama of the auction room. Surrounded by collectors and dealers, critics and artists and historians and journalists, the cognoscente and the free market interacting with the sound of the gavel. Value is established and art history is given its due. This is especially true in the photography market where there are multiple examples of the same works of art floating around on different sized papers, printed by different people at different points on the time line. The most important function of these enterprises is to establish clarity and scholarship as well as estimate value. The auction specialist is a rare bird. Part connoisseur, part detective, part clairvoyant - these brave souls are the unsung heroes of the art world.

Denise Bethel and Christopher Mahoney at Sotheby's are the last remaining stable team in the ever-shifting auction personnel landscape. They exude scholarship and integrity and their catalogue entries are the industry's best. The two have been working side by side since 1995 and in their nine years together their discriminating and responsible handling of material has given them the industry's highest quality per lot value. It reached an astounding $23,242 during the October 14-16th, '04 fall auction period. Christie's and Phillips are both in a totally different league with $9,252 and $7,520 per lot average with Christie's the work horse of the big three taking on the redistribution and brokering of the largest range of images and Phillips specializing in younger, less expensive more challenging works. With the brilliant duo of Joshua Holdeman and Philippe Garner jumping over to Christie's and Rick Wester heading up the smart young team under the prescient eye of Simon de Pury at Phillips, it'll be interesting to see how these personnel changes impact the houses' pull of clients and what art works they can champion over.

Christie's had by far the greatest volume of lots this season with the combination of 80 pieces with the Sir Elton John auction and the mammoth 416 piece lot in their "Photographs" sale at Rockefeller Centre bringing in $4,749,784 over the two days. Sotheby's, at York and 72nd Street, brought in almost exactly the same amount but with only 203 lots totaling $4,718,160. Phillips had 225 lots including their exciting 118 Kunne Collection which highlighted the Dusseldorf school of photography with the work of students of Bernd and Hilla Becher, and came in a distant third with $1,917,600. Phillips's presence on the photography scene is influential and growing, however, attracting a younger, hipper downtown crowd into its gorgeous show space on 15th Street on the west side in the heart of the Chelsea/Art district.

Let's take a look at the ten top sellers this season and see where we are and where we seem to be headed.

TOP 10 PHOTOGRAPHS
[final figure includes buyer's premium - October, 2004]:

1] Diane Arbus, "Eddie Carmel, A Jewish Giant With His Parents In The Living Room Of Their Home, Bronx, N.Y.", 1970, gelatin silver print, 14 7/8 x 14 5/8", signed and inscribed by the photographer on the reverse. A gift from the artist to the founding editor of ARTFORUM magazine, Philip Leider. {Sotheby's, October 16, '04, Lot #186, *Estimate: $250,000-350,000* /$388,800}.

2] William Eggleston, "Memphis", circa 1970, dye-transfer print [printed 1980], 11 7/8 x 17 3/8", signed by the artist in an unknown hand on the reverse numbered '20/20'. {Christie's, October 15, '04, Lot #113, *Estimate: $90,000-120,000* /$253,900}.

3] Robert Mapplethorpe, "Calla Lily", 1986, platinum print, 19 7/8 x 19 3/4", signed, titled, numbered '1/1' and copyright insignia by Michael Ward Stout, Executor, in pencil on the reverse. {Christie's, October 15, '04, Lot #203, *Estimate: $45,000-55,000* /$242,700}.

 

Diane Arbus A Family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, NY 1968
15-3/4 x 15 inches
Courtesy Sotheby's
Hammer price, October 16, 2004: $200,000

4] Diane Arbus, "A Family On Their Lawn One Sunday In Westchester, N.Y.", 1968, gelatin silver print, 15 3/4 x 15", signed, titled and dated by the photographer in pencil and inscribed on the reverse. Gift of the artist to the psychotherapist, Dr. Klein. {Sotheby's, October 16, '04, Lot #185, *Estimate: $200,000-300,000* /$232,000}.

5] Imogen Cunningham, "Mills College Amphitheatre", 1920s', matte-surface gelatin silver print, 8 3/8 x 12 3/4", signed, titled, and annotated by the photographer in pencil in the margin. {Sotheby's, October 16, '04, Lot #85, *Estimate: $70,000-100,000* /$209,600}.

6] Robert Frank, "Hoboken", 1955 [printed no later than 1966], gelatin silver print, 8 x 12 1/4", signed, titled, and dated by the photographer in ink on the mount. {Sotheby's, October 16, '04, Lot #156, *Estimate: $80,000-120,000* /$198,400}.

7] Paul Strand, "Portrait, Rebecca", 1921, platinum or palladium print, 9 5/8 x 7 3/4", titled, credited to the photographer, and initialed by Anne Kennedy in pencil in an unidentified hand on the reverse. {Sotheby's, October 16, '04, Lot #95, *Estimate: $50,000-70,000* / $176,000}.

8] Peter Lindbergh, "Keith Richards, Man Of The Year, New York", 1999, gelatin silver print, 70 7/8 x 47 1/4", flush-mounted on board, editioned '1/3' and titled in ink on verso of mount. {Phillips de Pury & Company, October 14, '04, Lot #243, *Estimate: $30,000-50,000* /$120,000}.

9] Irving Penn, "Harlequin Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), New York", 1950, [printed 1980], gelatin silver print, 22 1/8 x 18 3/4", one of an edition of 10. {Christie's, October 15, '04, Lot #100, *Estimate: $20,000-30,000* /$101,575}.

10] William Eggleston, "Untitled", 1971, dye-transfer print [printed circa 1981], 20 x 30 1/4", signed and numbered '3 of 6' in ink on the verso. {Christie's, October 15, '04, Lot #112, *Estimate: $50,000-70,000* /$95,600}.

Looking at this rich gathering of imagery, it's hard to miss that we are looking at the American scene in all its sadness and coolness - from freaks to flags to rock stars to suburbia. It's the search for identity with the camera - a window, perhaps a mirror into the "American-ness" of our spirit. In addition to the brilliance of the subject matter all these images are extraordinary examples of the finest in vintage, provenance, rarity and condition. The market embraces these "iconic" signposts and we are well advised to interpret what all this desire is pointed toward. It is not a stretch to look at these images as being wholly culturally woven into the very history of America itself.

As Peter Galassi, the chief photography curator at The Museum of Modern Art has said before, when referring to the medium of photography as the medium of the moment, "... photography is the fine art medium that really is pushing forward society's image of themselves." In response to my query to Joshua Holdeman (worldwide head of photography at Christie's Auction House) as to when this perception of value toward photography's unique, one-of-a-kind works began, he stated, "I think it's been a gradual migration of the public's perception that photographers aren't photographers, but are, in fact, artists. When you think about how conventional photographers have been sold in the photography galleries and how photography collectors have been collecting, you start to notice that contemporary portrait artists are starting to take note of the work of say Diane Arbus and William Eggleston, and you can see that their works are being included in their collections.

You realize the shift in perception of their works... the importance of the role that they'll play in terms of art history. I think that that's when you start to see the prices really jump... this shift of perception whereby these images go into the mainstream as opposed to being relegated into... a photography ghetto".

Auction houses are looked upon as being these numbers kinds of environments, where there's no sensibility to the works at all and yet, on the other hand, the auction house and its free market and its transparent quoting and publication of the hammer prices are a wonderful guide in a way to the state of the state.

 

 

 

 

Send comments for publication on this article to the editor