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Record $38M Photo Sales Showcase Market Strength

Photography auctions featuring choice works from esteemed collections, 20th-century masters and postwar photographers alike soared to record results at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York from April 7-11.

Weston Image Dominates Choice Offerings

NEW YORK—Photography auctions featuring choice works from esteemed collections, 20th-century masters and postwar photographers alike soared to record results at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York from April 7-11. At Phillips, de Pury & Company, however, a lawsuit led to the cancellation of the much-anticipated auction of 27 recently discovered early photos by Diane Arbus (1923-71).

In overall sales, Christie’s edged out Sotheby’s $17.3 million with a $17.6 million total of its own—which Christie’s declared was the highest auction result ever for photographs. Phillips realized $3.3 million. All told, the three houses generated $38.2 million in sales.

The most expensive picture of the week was a gelatin-silver vintage print by Edward Weston (1886-1958), Nude, 1925, which the Pace/MacGill Gallery acquired at Sotheby’s for $1.6 million (estimate: $600,000/900,000).

The image, which set an auction record for Weston, appeared in Sotheby’s April 7 evening sale of works from the Quillan Collection, a corporate trove assembled by private photo dealer Jill Quasha. That sale saw all but five of 68 lots selling through, for an $8.9 million total. Auction records were set for Paul Strand ($645,800), August Sander ($493,000), Richard Avedon ($457,000), Hans Bellmer ($325,000) and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy ($301,000).

A second specialized sale at Sotheby’s on April 8, of images given by Weston to his sister and other relatives, found takers for all but three of 49 lots, for a $1.53 million total.

The top lot was a 1936 print of Weston’s Nude on Sand, Oceano, a celebrated image of his lover Charis Wilson, which fetched $325,000 (estimate: $120,000/180,000).

An Auction Record for Arbus

The Sotheby’s general sale of photographs, on April 8, was 90 percent sold through by lot, for a $6.9 million total—and 22 individual artists’ records were set, the house reported. The top lot fell to San Francisco dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel, who gave a record $553,000 for a signed early Arbus print, A Family on the Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, N.Y., 1968.

Consigned by owners who had bought the picture through the art-lending service of New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1969, the picture carried an estimate of $200,000/300,000. Pronouncing the overall Sotheby’s total a record for the house, Denise Bethel, head of Sotheby’s photography department, said that “the fine-art photographs market has never been more vibrant.” And Christie’s spokeswoman Milena Sales noted that the “unrivaled success of the sales has demonstrated unprecedented strength and maturity in a market that continues to inspire growth.”

At Christie’s the April 11 general sale was 67 percent sold through by lot for a $4.7 million total. The highest figure went for a record-setting, 191⁄8-by-19-inch platinum-palladium print made in 1971 of Irving Penn’s Cuzco Children, 1948 (estimate: $250,000/350,000). A similarly large-scale, 1970s print of Penn’s Black and White Vogue Cover, 1950, in palladium silver, proved the second-highest lot in the Christie’s general sale, achieving $481,000 against an estimate of $200,000/300,000. Two of Penn’s dye-transfer prints also made the top ten.

A portfolio of ten color landscapes from 1981 by William Eggleston, “Southern Suite,” more than doubled its $120,000 high estimate at Christie’s when it made $289,000, an auction record for the artist. A vintage print of an early photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Hyéres, France, 1932, depicting a bicyclist on a cobbled street from above, also set an auction record when it went to an American collector for $265,000 (estimate: $60,000/90,000).

Two 1988 Robert Mapplethorpe still lifes of a calla lily—one a platinum print and the other in gelatin-silver—also figured in the top ten. The platinum print soared over its $150,000 high estimate, selling to a European dealer for $265,000; and the gelatin-silver print sold for $85,000 to a European collector, within its $60,000/90,000 estimate.

Christie’s First Photobooks Sale

Christie’s also held four single-owner sales on April 10-11, including its first sale of photo- books—which attained $2.6 million, with 183 of 199 lots selling through. Among the highest-selling lots was a complete set of artist’s books, 1963-78, of Ed Ruscha. Estimated at $60,000/90,000, the set sold for $121,000 to a U.S. dealer.

The house’s second sale of pictures, consigned by photography collector Gert Elfering, was 84 percent sold through, for a total of $4.3 million. Works by Richard Avedon, Horst P. Horst, Helmut Newton and Penn made up the top ten lots—all exceeding their estimates. Among the curiosities in the Elfering sale was a 1993 standing nude portrait by Michel Comte of Carla Bruni, the former supermodel who is now the first lady of France. Estimated at $3,000/4,000, it won $91,000 after attracting worldwide media attention.

On April 10, Christie’s auction of Arbus pictures consigned by California collectors Bruce and Nancy Berman saw all 51 lots sold for a $1.4 million total. The top lot was an early image, Child Selling Plastic Orchids at Night, N.Y.C., 1963, which had been included in the “Revelations” retrospective of Arbus work. It sold to an American dealer for $115,000 (estimate: $30,000/50,000).

Christie’s also held a sale of 122 Ansel Adams images, from an unnamed California collection, that was 89 percent sold through and realized $4.7 million. The top lot was a 1970s large-scale,

gelatin-silver print, Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite Valley, 1944, which took $481,000 (estimate: $250,000/350,000).

Beard and Sander Standouts at Phillips

At Phillips after the withdrawn Arbus sale, two auctions were held on April 9. A selection of 206 lots, from a collection assembled by European dealer Gerd Sander, was 50 percent sold through for a $1.5 million total. The top lot was a portrait of the painter Heinrich Hoerle by August Sander, the dealer’s father, which sold for $157,000, just above its $150,000 low estimate. A Phillips general sale attained $1.7 million and was 63 percent sold through. Peter Beard’s large-scale, painted-over gelatin-silver print Giraffes in Mirage on the Taru Desert, Kenya, 1960, led that sale at $325,000 (estimate: $80,000/120,000).

The withdrawn sale featured pictures taken between 1958-63 in Herbert’s Dime Museum, a Times Square freak-show gallery where Arbus developed her eye for the bizarre. The collection had been assembled and authenticated by Bob Langmuir, a Philadelphia book dealer who is now being sued by the dealer from whom he attained all the pictures, for about $3,500, in 2003.

Langmuir bought the photographs from Bayo Ogunsanya, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who located them among the contents of two trunks he bought in a sale of unclaimed items at a Bronx storage warehouse. In March, Ogunsanya filed suit in U.S. District Court, Eastern District, claiming that by the second of his two sales to Langmuir, the Philadelphia dealer had identified the work as being by Diane Arbus and had hidden its true value from the seller.

In announcing the withdrawal of the auction, Phillips said only that it hoped to arrange a private sale that would keep the collection together. Estimates for the 27 pictures combined run to several hundred thousand dollars.

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