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Vintage Works Send Photography Sales Soaring

Strength in the photography market carried through to record prices in the New York fall auctions at Phillips, de Pury & Company, Christie’s and Sotheby’s from Oct. 6-12. Totals were up across the board. Phillips realized $4.4 million in evening and day sales held on Oct. 6 and 7, surpassing last year’s $1.9 million;

NEW YORK—Strength in the photography market carried through to record prices in the New York fall auctions at Phillips, de Pury & Company, Christie’s and Sotheby’s from Oct. 6-12.

Totals were up across the board. Phillips realized $4.4 million in evening and day sales held on Oct. 6 and 7, surpassing last year’s $1.9 million; the house sold 75 percent of 358 lots on offer. Christie’s posted a total of $14.5 million in sales held Oct. 10 and 12, up sharply from $4.75 million a year ago. The sold-by-lot rate was 85 percent. Sotheby’s took in $10.3 million at auctions on Oct. 10 and 11, compared with $4.7 million last year, also with an 85 percent sell-through rate (see ANL, 10/26/04).

The auction houses said they had carefully winnowed out their offerings, and market observers concurred. “I know that I had a very hard time getting some good pictures into the auctions,” New York dealer Howard Greenberg told ARTnewsletter. “They turned away pictures they would normally have taken.”

A complete set of large-format photogravure portfolios by Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), The North American Indian, 1907-1925, fell to an American collector in the Christie’s general sale, on Oct. 12, for $1.4 million; the auction house says it is the first photographic lot to break $1 million in the United States. Estimated at $400,000/600,000, the photographs were being deaccessioned by the Texas Memorial Museum, the University of Texas at Austin.

On Oct. 11 Sotheby’s scored a record with a vintage 1930s print of the documentary photographer Dorothea Lange’s iconic image White Angel Breadline, 1933. Estimated at $200,000/300,000, it was chased by multiple bidders to a final sale of $822,400.

The price was an auction record for Lange and tied a record for any 20th-century photograph—established just one day earlier, also at Sotheby’s, for a 1923 print of Edward Weston’s 1921 platinum print The Breast; it too fetched $822,400 (estimate: $300,000/400,000).

Both photographs came from well-provenanced collections—the Lange from the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, which was selling off images from a 1930s collection, and the Weston from the trove of Joseph and LaVerne Schieszler, an Illinois couple who had spent two decades amassing their photographic collection.

Greenberg says the strength of last spring’s sales may have helped the auction houses draw exceptional work into the market. Notes New York dealer Laurence Miller: “As prices go higher and higher, we’re seeing new sources of fine vintage photographs, and there are enough dealers and collectors to respond to that fresh supply.”

At Phillips, the top price of $291,520 was given for Andreas Gursky’s EM, Arena I, 2000 (estimate: $150,000/200,000). This was followed by $180,000 (estimate: $150,000/200,000), for a complete set of 30 gelatin silver prints of Nicholas Nixon’s The Brown Sisters, 1975-2004 (28 prints of the sisters later sold at Sotheby’s for $192,000, above the high estimate of $120,000); and $120,000 each for Garry Winogrand’s Women Are Beautiful, 1981 (85 prints), estimated at $45,000/65,000, and for Karl Blossfeldt’s Equisetum hyemale (Rough Horsetale), 1920-1925, an oversize gelatin silver print that had been estimated at $100,000/150,000.

At the Sotheby’s sale of the Schieszler collection on Oct. 10, all but one of 34 lots were sold, for a total of $4.7 million. The sale included a record $464,000 for a 1926 print of André Kertész’s Chez Mondrian. A larger 1979 print of the same image of a hall and stairway in the painter Piet Mondrian’s Paris home had been sold earlier at Phillips for $20,400 (estimate: $6,000/8,000).

Also from the Schieszler collection, Harry Callahan’s triptych of abstract images of his wife, Eleanor, 1947, sold within its $120,000/180,000 estimate for an auction record of $168,000. (The same set of prints had earlier set a record at Sotheby’s in October 2001, when it made $137,750, comfortably above the high estimate of $120,000; see ANL, 10/16/01.)

New Records at Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s general sale set additional records for: a rare print by Pierre Dubreuil, The First Round, circa 1932, which was sold from the Museum of Science and Industry’s collection for $216,000 (estimate: $100,000/150,000); and for Nixon’s multiyear sequence The Brown Sisters.

San Francisco photography dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel told ARTnewsletter that he had purchased the Brown Sisters portfolios at Phillips and at Sotheby’s, one for a client and one for his gallery’s inventory.

He added that despite the strength in the market, there were “some bargains to be had,” including William Eggleston’s Greenwood, Mississippi, 1972, which he purchased for his inventory, within estimates, at the Phillips sale for $114,000.

At Christie’s the offerings were part of a general auction, a selection of flower images by Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) and a sale of 20th-century photographs from the collection of magazine photographer Gert Elfering. The Mapplethorpe flowers auction as a whole totaled $1.5 million and was 90 percent sold through. The top lot, Poppy, 1988, realized more than four times its high estimate of $60,000 when it was acquired by an American collector for $251,200. This was a short-lived auction record for Mapplethorpe—one that was broken two days later in Christie’s general sale, when the artist’s platinum-on-linen landscape American Flag, 1987, took $352,000 from a European collector, nearly double the $180,000 high estimate. Twelve more auction records were set at Christie’s, including proceeds from the Curtis portfolios.

Elfering Collection: Iconic Images

In the top lots of the Christie’s Elfering collection sale, auction records were set for a quartet of photographers celebrated for their commercial work in the fashion industry: Richard Avedon’s 1990 print of a set of four psychedelic Look magazine portraits, The Beatles, London, England, 1967, sold as the top lot for $464,000 (estimate: $200,0000/300,000); Irving Penn’s Woman in Moroccan Palace (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Marrakech, 1951, brought $307,200, far above the high estimate of $120,000; Horst P. Horst’s master print of the Vogue magazine image Mainbocher Corset, 1939, achieved $216,000, surpassing the high $180,000 estimate; and Peter Beard’s large-scale collage Self Portrait for Centre Nationale de la Photographie, Paris, 1996, sold for $192,000, again above the high estimate of $120,000. All these record-setting works went to a mix of private and trade buyers from the U.S. and Europe.

Commenting on the Elfering sale, Fraenkel says the high results for Avedon and Penn were “not simply for their most iconic images. It seems as if they have truly become the Old Masters of the current generation, and their importance to succeeding generations has become clear.”

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