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Dell Private Fund Acquires Historic Trove of Magnum Archive Photos

On Feb. 2, Magnum Photos and MSD Capital, the private investment firm of computer mogul Michael Dell, announced an unprecedented deal for the sale of the Magnum archive.

NEW YORK—On Feb. 2, Magnum Photos and MSD Capital, the private investment firm of computer mogul Michael Dell, announced an unprecedented deal for the sale of the Magnum archive. The price paid for the collection was not disclosed, but a source familiar with the transaction told ARTnewsletter that the archive of 185,000 photos is valued at more than $100million.

The photographs range from iconic images of Pablo Picasso, Marilyn Monroe and The Beatles to photojournalism documenting such historic events as the D-Day landings, the Spanish Civil War, the U.S. civil rights movement and the genocide in Rwanda. Among the 101 artists whose work is included in the trove are Magnum co­founders Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, as well such artists as Eve Arnold, Rene Burri, Elliott Erwitt and Leonard Freed.

MSD Capital, which is co-managed by Glenn Fuhrman and John Phelan (who are both also ­contemporary-art collectors), has acquired the physical prints, but Magnum’s member photographers or their estates will retain the copyright and licensing rights to all of the images in the collection. MSD Capital will loan the prints for five years to the Harry Ransom Center, a research library and museum at the University of Texas, Austin, which Dell attended before eventually dropping out. According to a statement from Magnum and MSD Capital, the Ransom Center will encourage interest in the collection through “scholarly research, fellowships, lectures and exhibitions,” as well as visits from and programs with Magnum photographers.

Mark Lubell, the New York–based managing director of Magnum, said housing the collection at the Ransom Center “not only allows this archive to be studied by photographers, but also helps satisfy the huge interest in it among historians, anthropologists, curators, journalists and the public at large.” On the back of each photo in the archive are various stamps and written notations detailing its publication history, which provide an important historical record of how and when the images were used in the years since they were taken. The arrangement will “acknowledge, celebrate and preserve Magnum’s historic past,” Lubell said, while “developing new platforms to distribute our work.”

Obtaining permission to sell the archive involved tracking down all of the member photographers and gaining their consent, whether they “were in Siberia or in Chile and receive their mail by donkey,” Lubell said. In a statement, Phelan, a managing partner of MSD Capital, said “we immediately recognized the unique opportunity to own this extraordinary collection of prints by the world’s finest photojournalists.” The images “capture the events and spirit of the 20th century in a way that only Magnum photojournalists can.” Fuhrman added that “given the technical changes that have taken place in the world of photography, including the digitization of images, a collection of prints like this will never exist again.”

Last November, Magnum opened its second Paris gallery, in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district (the first Magnum Gallery opened in Montmartre in 2007), where it will host commercial exhibitions, lectures and events. Its first show, “demain/hier” (Tomorrow/Yesterday), which closed on Jan. 2, was curated by Robert Delpire, a publisher and former head of the National Center of Photog­raphy, Paris, who previously owned the space the gallery now occupies. The exhibition featured work by a “new generation” of Magnum photographers who joined the collective after 2000, such as Alec Soth, Trent Parke and Cristina García Rodero.

The agency was founded in 1947, when Capa, Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David Seymour decided to create a photographers’ cooperative that would allow members to work outside the formulas of magazine journalism and focus on projects that inspired them, even if they weren’t official assignments. Magnum, which has offices in London and Tokyo as well as New York and Paris, is still owned and directed by its members.