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Spring Photo Sales Reflect Vitality of Art Market

Consolidating recent strength in the market, photography sales at three New York auction houses, held from April 26-28, achieved a total of $15 million (down from $16.7 million last April), with an overall sell-through rate of 78 percent. Sotheby’s realized $5.75 million; Christie’s, $5 million; and Phillips, de Pury & Company, $4.3 million.

NEW YORK—Consolidating recent strength in the market, photography sales at three New York auction houses, held from April 26-28, achieved a total of $15 million (down from $16.7 million last April), with an overall sell-through rate of 78 percent. Sotheby’s realized $5.75 million; Christie’s, $5 million; and Phillips, de Pury & Company, $4.3 million.

The highest prices went for iconic works by Diane Arbus (1923-1971), who is the subject of a retrospective exhibit now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, through May 30. At Sotheby’s on April 27,

“A Box of Ten Photographs” by the artist fetched $553,600, well above the high estimate of $350,000 and an auction record for Arbus. The portfolio, which was printed by Neil Selkirk after her death in 1971, contains a set of her best-known images.

The top lot at Christie’s on April 26 was also a work by Arbus—a single image called Child with a Toy Hand Grenade, Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962, which fell to a European collector for $408,000, above its high estimate of $400,000. A posthumous print of the same image was sold at Sotheby’s for $144,000, more than twice the high estimate of $70,000.

“What impressed me was how easily that price was absorbed into the room, into the market,” says New York dealer Laurence Miller of the figure paid for the Arbus picture Child with a Toy Hand Grenade. Miller told ARTnewsletter that buying by dealers was a hallmark of the week: “Everyone I know was buying for stock. That’s what supported the market.”

Photography dealer Robert Mann takes a different stance. Observing that he bought some works for clients, he says, “I didn’t find a lot of opportunities to buy for inventory” at current prices. He singles out a late print of a celebrated image by Walker Evans (1903-1975): At Sotheby’s a circa 1971 print of the photographer’s 1930s Penny Picture Display, Savannah, was sold for $91,200, about three times its high estimate. “With Evans it is increasingly more difficult to find vintage prints of signature images,” Mann says. “It has taken a long time, but now the later ones do seem to be appreciating.”

The Arbus pictures offered were among her best-known works. Comments Mann: “There is a very broad interest in Arbus works, but the images that were published in her lifetime are what come up more frequently at auction. There are fewer of the more obscure images that are privately held.”

The Sotheby’s $5.75 million total included 176 lots that were sold in the main sale, along with seven photograms by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946). The latter were grouped together by the auction house (and listed in a separate catalogue); they fetched a record total for a photo auction, reports Denise Bethel, director of photography at Sotheby’s. Two other Moholy-Nagy photograms that had failed to sell at auction found buyers immediately afterward, Bethel says.

Peter MacGill, director of Pace/MacGill Gallery, bought the third -most- expensive Moholy-Nagy photogram for considerably less than the figures commanded by the top two lots. An exposure of type on photographic paper that was meant as a title page for the 1920s art magazine Broom, the picture was estimated at $150,000/250,000 but took $96,000. The complete set of nine photograms came from the collection of Eugene and Dorothy Prakapas. The two top lots realized more than $220,000 each, which Bethel says is among the highest prices paid for Moholy-Nagy’s photographic work at auction.

The main sale at Sotheby’s saw an auction record set for Clarence H. White (1871-1925), whose 1903 platinum print Drops of Rain was bought by a European collector for $105,600 (estimate: $25,000/35,000). Collectors Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg paid $96,000, more than double the high estimate, for a 7-by-9-inch print of Ansel Adams’ Storm, Yosemite Valley, California, 1938. (The image previously had been thought to date from the 1940s.)

Camera Work Set Doubles Expectations

Among the highlights at Christie’s was a complete set, comprising 24 issues, of the quarterly magazine Camera Work . . ., 1903-17, co-edited by Alfred Stieglitz and featuring work by such top-notch photographers as Edward Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier and White. An institutional buyer paid $284,800 for the lot, more than double the high estimate of $120,000.

Two William Eggleston works figured in the top ten at Christie’s, including the well-known picture Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973, which was sold within its $100,000/150,000 estimate to a European collector for $120,000; and a 1986 print of another image, Sumner, Mississippi . . ., circa 1972, which had been in the photographer’s reputation-making 1976 show at the Museum of Modern Art. It brought $108,700 (estimate: $40,000/60,000).

Man Ray’s Surrealistic nude Érotique voilée, 1933, from the estate of artist Louis Marcoussis, was acquired by a European collector for $284,800, about $100,000 more than the high estimate of $180,000 and the third-highest price in the Christie’s sale.

The Phillips, de Pury & Company sale on April 27-28 totaled $4.3 million for 248 lots sold. Rick Wester, worldwide head of the auction house’s photography department, said that records had been achieved for “over one dozen” artists, including Richard Avedon ($96,000), Lee Friedlander ($78,000), Vik Muniz ($102,000) and Albert Renger-Patzsch ($114,000).

The top lot at Phillips was an oversize 1960s print of Adams’ Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941. It was sold, within its estimate of $100,000/150,000, for $120,000. All the other works in the top ten at Phillips equaled or exceeded their high estimates.

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