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$2.9M Sale Takes Vintage Photos to New Peaks

The combined appeal of a major private collection and the prestigious provenance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art translated into soaring prices for photographs at Sotheby’s on Feb. 14-15. The sales realized a number of record prices and raised the auction market for vintage photography to a new level.

NEW YORK—The combined appeal of a major private collection and the prestigious provenance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art translated into soaring prices for photographs at Sotheby’s on Feb. 14-15. The sales realized a number of record prices and raised the auction market for vintage photography to a new level.

“The auction is going to bring much more respect to the great vintage photographs, which have been doing fine but have been in second place to contemporary photos,” New York photography dealer Howard Greenberg told ARTnewsletter. “The sale is important in the history of photography. It’s a giant step forward.”

A rare platinum print by Edward Steichen (1879-1973), The Pond-Moonlight, 1904, climbed to $2.9 million, setting a record for a photograph at auction and far surpassing the previous high of $1.2 million—paid at Christie’s contemporary art sale last November for Richard Prince’s Untitled (Cowboy), 1989 (see ANL, 11/22/05). The Steichen photograph—a multiple-process print—was bought by Peter MacGill, president of New York’s Pace/MacGill Gallery, for a private collector he declined to identify.

The sale was comprised of works being deaccessioned by the Met, with many coming from the Gilman Paper Company Collection. It had been formed over the course of two decades, roughly spanning the years 1977-97, by company chairman Howard Gilman, who died in 1998, and his curator Pierre Apraxine.

In all, 113 lots fetched a total of $14.98 million, with each sale averaging $132,592—a record for a New York photo auction. Three lots sold for more than $1 million each.

In 1993 the Met exhibited the Gilman works in an influential show entitled “The Waking Dream.” Last year the museum acquired the collection in a combination gift-purchase arrangement with the Howard Gilman Foundation.

“Everybody expected the sales to do extremely well,” New York dealer Robert Mann told ARTnewsletter. “But I’m not sure that anyone expected $2.6 million (the hammer price) for a single photograph.” That figure was given for The Pond—Moonlight, an image that is known to exist in only two other prints, one also at the Met and the other in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The final price nearly tripled the high estimate.

Some, however, were not surprised by the prices achieved. “The sale was reflective of the quality of the photographs, and how scarce such pictures are,” Jeffrey Fraenkel, president of Fraenkel Galleries, San Francisco, told ARTnewsletter. “Most of us involved thought there would be three photographs that would fetch more than $1 million each. It says a lot that the top ten lots at the sale were acquired by people who have been involved in the field for a long time. I don’t believe there were any new collectors involved at the top.” Fraenkel acquired four works at the sale, including several top lots. He declined to comment on whether they had been purchased for inventory or for private clients.

The auction included a set of images of Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). Among them: Georgia O’Keeffe (Hands), a 1919 palladium print that set a record for Stieglitz when it took nearly $1.5 million (estimate: $300,000/500,000) from Fraenkel.

Swiss private dealer Kaspar Fleischmann told ARTnewsletter his purchase of Stieglitz’s 1933 Georgia O’Keeffe (by Car) for $329,600 (estimate: $80,000/120,000) was made on behalf of a Swiss collector. Fleischmann acknowledges that he was also the underbidder on Georgia O’Keeffe (in Front of Charcoal Drawing), a 1918 platinum-palladium print that MacGill acquired for $531,200, more than twice the high estimate.

MacGill says he expected prices at the sale to be in this range, adding that some vintage photographs have been trading privately for prices ranging from $500,000/1 million during the last five years. “It’s probably a good thing to have a public arena” for those levels as well, he remarked. “There were lots of new faces, new bidders, but it was heartening to see the top lots sold to people who have collected photography for years.” In all, MacGill purchased nine lots at the sale.

Among Fraenkel’s acquisitions was a famous 1919 Stieglitz image of O’Keeffe’s nude torso, Georgia O’Keeffe (Nude), which he bought for $1.36 million, more than twice the $500,000 high estimate. He further won a 1936 Alabama Tenant Farmer (Floyd Burroughs) by Walker Evans (1903-75); estimated at $30,000/50,000, the image set an auction record for Evans at $307,200. It was first circulated widely in the plates accompanying James Agee’s book depicting the lives of three tenant farmers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, published in 1941.

Other record prices achieved: $374,400 for Marmon Crankshaft, 1923, by Paul Outerbridge Jr. (1896-1958); and $352,000 for Gargoyle, Chrysler Building, New York, 1929-30, by Margaret Bourke-White (1904-71). Both images had been estimated at $100,000/150,000 apiece.

“This auction will be remembered as a defining moment in the annals of the photography market,” says Denise Bethel, Sotheby’s director of photography. Several dealers emphasize that the double imprimatur of the Gilman Paper Company and the Met stimulated enthusiasm and prices. “Each new record goes to the greater good of the art world and the photography market because it increases awareness,” Mann told ARTnewsletter, “but will it translate into similar amounts for equivalent images where you don’t have that provenance?”

Says Latin American photography specialist Spencer Throckmorton: “Everything I wanted went for four times the estimate”—including a picture by Evans from Havana that Throckmorton says he lost to a “major museum.” He adds, “It does raise the bar, but you won’t see this condition or this quality for rare prints very often.”

Penn Print Scores at Christie’s

Among other photography sales, Christie’s held a 277-lot auction, on Feb. 14, of lower-priced works intended to interest new collectors. It was 86 percent sold by lot for a total of $1.96 million. Highlights included: Irving Penn’s 1991 print Vogue Beauty Head with Eyes Closed (Front View), New York, 1984, which sold for $66,000 (estimate: $10,000/15,000); a 1975 print of the Ansel Adams image Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941, which also reached $66,000 (estimate: $30,000/50,000); and a set of 1960s-70s Peter Beard portraits that were printed circa 1990—Portraits, London/Paris/Nairobi, Collected at Hog Ranch—which fell within estimates for $48,000.

On Feb. 16 Swann Auction Galleries held a sale of 104 photographs that realized $1.1 million and was 86 percent sold by lot. The top image was Frantisek Drtikol’s pigment print Nude (Yo-Hay-Tang), 1929, which took $48,300, comfortably above the high estimate of $45,000.

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