DAVID COHEN, Editor           
       July 2006  





John Baldessari Beach Scene / Nuns / Nurse (with Choices) 1991
five panels - acrylic on color coupler prints in an edition of one
overall: 92 by 144 3/4 inches
Courtesy Christies

A new world record for Ansel Adams opened the spring season at the Sotheby’s “Photographs” sale on April 22. “Surf Sequence San Mateo County Coast, California” (1940), comprising five gelatin silver prints believed to be the first full set of images of the rocky coastline to appear at auction went for $352K easily topping its high presale estimate by $100K.  Adams also captured the house’s number two top seller with “The Grand Tetons and Snake River, Grand Telons National Park, Wyoming” (1942) with a mural-sized print – the  largest image ever offered at auction by the artist.  It sold for one and one half times its presale estimate landing at $251,200.  

John Thompson’s complete set of 80 mounted carbon prints from the volume “Foochow and the River Min” (1873) – an extensive pictorial record of China’s Fukien province and one of only five copies believed to be located at the time of the sale – took the number three spot at $180K.

All three of Sotheby’s top lots were from the collection of 7-Eleven, Inc., one of the first corporations to actively acquire photographs as fine art beginning in the early 1980s.  

At Christie’s on April 24, Irving Penn’s “Harlequin Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn)” from 1950 reset the house’s own world auction record for the artist at $352K.  “The Family”, a 20 print early incarnation of Richard Avedon’s picture story for “Rolling Stone” magazine in 1976 on the political leadership of America went for 3 and one half times over its presale high estimate at $228K.  Robert Mapplethorpe’s unique wood room divider with 8 gelatin silver prints, entitled “Photo Screen” (1986) landed third with $204K.  Irving Penn’s 4-part platinum print “Cigarette #69” (1972), William Klein’s personal world auction breaker “Smoke and Veil, Paris, 1958” and a complete set of Alfred Stieglitz’s “Camera Work” (1903-1917) all went for $144K.   

Two images from Robert Frank’s “The Americans” (’55-’56) and an Andy Warhol stitched quartet of gelatin silver prints also did well at the sale.

On April 25 the first selection of images from the bankrupted Refco corporation’s collection were sold without reserve bringing out a crowd looking for bargains.  The Refco Collection of Contemporary Photography had been put together by Francis Dimmer, former wife of ex-Refco chairman Thomas Dimmer, together with the curator Adam Brooks over a thirty year period.  Vik Muniz, Setdou Keita, Guy Bourdin, Zoe Leonard, Jan Dibbets, Carrie Mae Weems, Yasumasa Morimura, Irving Penn, Thomas Struth, Joel Sternfeld and Robert Adams did particularly well above their high estimates.  The afternoon session had the usual secret reserve (a confidential agreed-upon minimum amount below which the lot will not be sold) with Martin Schoeller, Horst P. Horst, Roni Horn, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Helmut Newton performing well.  Refco’s initial offering brought in over $1.9M of the total $7.47M Christie’s “Photographs” auction.  This comfortably surpassed its $6.7 presale high estimate with 365 lots of 413 sold giving the house a per lot average of a shade under $20,500.

Phillips de Pury & Company surpassed their last October sales total by $1.8M with their largest offering to date of 417 photographs and a $6.16M payout.  Man Ray’s “Rayograph” from 1926, a unique gelatin silver print exploring the maker’s own narrative using a spiraling rope was the house’s #1 image of the season taking in $296K.  Tina Modotti’s politically poignant “Hands of the Puppeteer” from 1929 took the second spot at $216K.  A fotogram by Laszio Moholy-Nagy from 1925-26 at $114K, an albumen portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron of Sir John Herschel (1867) and “The Piano” by Paul Outerbridge (1926) brought $108K and a surreal 1932 portrait by Dora Maar of Nusch Eluard with a superimposed spider in its web at $102K took the third through sixth top spots for the house. 

American flags seemed to resonate with buyers this spring.  Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Flag” from 1987, #8 in an edition of 10 with a presale estimate of $40K-$60K went for $100,800.  Robert Frank’s “Hoboken, N.J.”, (1955), printed circa ‘70s from “The Americans”, landed at $96K.  Lewis Hine’s iconic “Girl Working in a Carolina Cotton Mill” circa 1908 reached $90K ($50K-$70K est.) and Helmut Newton’s five “Big Nudes” from 1993 ($84K) rounded out the top ten. 

The top three photographs of this spring season however, were from Part Two of the Refco sale, on May 5. John Baldessari’s polyptych acrylic on color coupler print arrangement entitled “Beach Scene / Nuns / Nurse (with Choices)”, from 1991, investigating the post-pop L.A. culture was the season’s top lot.  Drawing from a wide lexicon of appropriated and altered stills from B-movies in concert with painted dots sold for more than triple its high estimate at $744,000 and set a new world auction record for the artist.  Sigmar Polke’s hand colored gelatin silver print “Interior” (1984) exploring the blurring of technical methods of photographic processes with paint application recalling Abstract Expressionism realized $464,000.  And Andreas Gursky’s re-ordering of the world with a digitally altered, mammoth color coupler print of a skyscraper at night, “Avenue of the Americas”, (2001), went for $374,400. 

All three works employ theatrical scale, explore the pure descriptive neutrality of the camera with the emotion and opinion of the artist’s hand and utilize new technologies that play with the aura of the original – all traits that attest to the dissolving boundaries between the photograph and its more upscale neighbor, contemporary art. 

The collection totaled $9.7M over three sessions (part 3 realized $2.4M and was placed in the daytime Post-War & Contemporary Art category) and brought out the more art-historically informed, technologically savvy and more self-consciously aware collector.  The Refco sale added $7.3M to the Christie’s photography offerings this spring making this the third biggest single-owner sale event after February’s Met/Gilman deaccession and Phillips de Pury’s handling of the Baroness Lambert of Belgium’s “Veronica’s Revenge” from November 2004.   

In all, compared with sales of $16.30 million from the same time last year, New York photography auctions brought in over $42 million this spring.  Six figure lots went from 25 a year ago to 85 this season.  









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