ARTnewsletter Archive

Fall Photography Sales Dip Amid Selective Buying

Fall photography auctions mirrored the broader art market, with buyers becoming more discriminating and overall sale volume falling to considerably lower than year-ago levels.

NEW YORK—Fall photography auctions mirrored the broader art market, with buyers becoming more discriminating and overall sale volume falling to considerably lower than year-ago levels. New York auction houses Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips, de Pury & Company took in $15.5 million in sales held Oct. 13–16, compared with $29 million last year.

One observer described the current photography market as being “in something of a holding pattern. People are being cautious and I think the middle of the market may suffer.”

Christie’s held three separate sales, which took a total of $7.4 million: A ­contemporary-photography sale on Oct. 13, featuring work by such artists as Adam Fuss, Louise Lawler and Alec Soth, brought $1 million. An auction devoted solely to work by William Eggleston from the collection of Bruce and Nancy Berman featured 60 lots and fetched $2.99 million that same day. A general photographs sale on Oct. 14 realized $3.4 million.

In evening and day auctions Oct. 14–15, Sotheby’s realized $5.7 million dollars. Out of 247 lots offered, 170, or 69 percent, were sold. Phillips’s auction on Oct. 16 brought in a $2.3 million total. Of 225 lots offered, 156, or 69 percent, were sold.

Although sell-through rates were as low as 53 percent at Christie’s, the general sale generated strong prices for a range of artists, and buyers included collectors from the U.S., Europe and Asia. The top price of the week was $1.02 million, paid by a European collector for Eggleston’s Los Alamos, 1965–74, a set of 75 ­dye-transfer prints. The portfolio was estimated at $350,000/550,000. In all, 54 of the 60 Eggleston lots sold.

The top lot at Christie’s after the Eggleston was a 1984 17¼-by-15¼-inch gelatin silver print of Irving Penn’s Black and White Vogue Cover (Jean Patchett), 1950, which was bought by an Asian collector for $266,500 (estimate: $150,000/250,000). Two other later prints by Penn were also among the top lots of the sale.

Other highlights at Christie’s included a 1927 self-portrait by Surrealist poet Claude Cahun, which sold for $110,500 against an estimate of $30,000/50,000, and a hand-colored daguerre­otype print of flowers, circa 1852, made by Albert Southworth and Josiah Hawes that sold to an Asian collector within estimate for $110,500. The Cahun and the Eggleston portfolio both set auction records for work by those artists.

The highest price at Sotheby’s was for a negative portrait of Jacqueline Goddard by Man Ray, which sold near its high estimate for $374,500 to the private family Bluff Collection, which focuses on photography and contemporary art, according to Andrew Ruth, a consultant for the collection.

A print of Ansel Adams’s famous 1941 image Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, sold to an American collector for $362,500 (estimate: $200,000/300,000). Sotheby’s catalogue dated this print to circa 1946; Adams refixed the negative of his famous image in late 1948, altering its tonal qualities, and prints from the original fixing of the negative are believed to be extremely rare. In October 2006, Sotheby’s sold a 1948 print of the image for $609,000 (ANL, 11/14/06).

“I think both prices reflect not so much that they were both great prints, but they reflect the moment,” New York dealer Howard Greenberg told ARTnewsletter. “In 2006, new record prices were being created every other moment, but I think we were all a bit shocked when the other one sold for over $600,000,” he said. Of current market conditions, the dealer adds: “At times like this people have always been and will always be more discriminating.”

Also at Sotheby’s, Tina on the Azotea, 1924, a nude photograph of Tina Modotti by Edward Weston, sold within estimates for $302,500. The work is believed to be the only known print in existence.

A few photographs significantly beat expectations at Sotheby’s, including a 4½-by-3¼-inch platinum print by Paul Outerbridge Jr., Still Life of Eggs in a Pie Tin, 1923, which went for $188,500 (estimate: $50,000/70,000); a print of Dorothea Lange’s White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1932, which was included in the 1955 “Family of Man” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and which a U.S. collector bought here for $134,500; and a mammoth plate albumen print by Carleton Watkins, Multnomah Falls, Columbia River, 1867, which also sold for $134,500. Both the Lange and the Watkins were estimated at $70,000/100,000.

“Given the current uncertainty in financial markets,” Sotheby’s photographs department head Denise Bethel commented after the sale, “we are more than gratified by these results.”

Phillips’s sale featured a series of 14 photographs of the bodybuilder Lisa Lyon made in the early 1980s by Robert Mapplethorpe. These were offered as separate lots, and all 14 found buyers, realizing a total of $225,000.

The highest price for an individual print at Phillips was a within-estimate $86,500 for Peter Beard’s Lolindo Lion Charge, 1964. Henry Wessel’s series of color coupler prints Forty Real Estate Photographs, 1990–91, sold within estimate for $37,500, an auction record for the artist. Contemporary photographer Mitch Epstein’s Flag, 2000, also set an artist auction record, selling for $20,625, more than double its estimate of $6,000/8,000.