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Market Rebound Continues at Spring Photo Sales

Spring photography auctions at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury & Company rose 36 percent from last April, when volume and individual prices rebounded sharply from the market doldrums of 2009 (ANL, 4/20/10).

NEW YORK—Spring photography auctions at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury & Company rose 36 percent from last April, when volume and individual prices rebounded sharply from the market doldrums of 2009 (ANL, 4/20/10). The total for the latest series was $19.6 million, compared with $14.4 million last year and nearly five times the $4 million overall volume achieved in 2009.

Sotheby’s April 6 sale realized $5.6 million, surpassing the high estimate of $4.3 million, and up from the $5.1 million reported last year. Christie’s took in a total of $8.1 million for three sales including photographs on April 8 ($5.4 million), preceded by two smaller sales on April 7, “Photographs From The Consolidated Freightways Collection” ($1.8 million) and “The Feminine Ideal: An Important Private Collection of Photographs” which realized $942,126. Phillips had one of its most successful photo sales to date, posting a total of $5.8 million in a sale held April 9.

There were “a lot of pictures selling for good prices,” said New York dealer Tom Gitterman, who added that “the amount of material sold was proportionally excellent. That is, there were few buy-ins.” Gitterman bought two photographs from the Sotheby’s sale, adding: “I wasn’t able to get things I wanted at Christie’s and Phillips.”

Peter MacGill, president of New York’s Pace/MacGill gallery, told ARTnewsletter he purchased “a number of things” at all three auctions, including Robert Frank’s Café-Beaufort at Phillips, which sold for $182,500 on a $40,000/60,000 estimate.

MacGill says the auctions reflected growth in the photography market that dealers have been seeing of late. “There is a growing, wide audience for photography. We’re seeing more buyers.” Some of those buyers have typically collected other types of artwork, such as paintings and sculpture, and are now “diversifying their assets,” he says. “The discriminating lines between collectors are breaking down.”

Several New Records at Sotheby’s

At Sotheby’s, 141, or 82 percent, of the173 lots found buyers. By value the auction was 93 percent sold. The top end of the sale saw new records for Jaromír Funke, Mathew Brady, Peter Beard and Timothy O’Sullivan. The sale was led by Man Ray’s Untitled (Photomontage with Nude and Studio Lamp), 1933, a layered montage made with two separate negatives. Estimated at $100,000/150,000, it sold for $410,500 to a private collector.

Denise Bethel, head of Sotheby’s photography department, said the works by Man Ray, Funke and O’Sullivan were “rare, not very well known or iconic works by these artists.” The auction house highlighted the rarity of the Man Ray with a catalogue essay noting that only four copies of this photograph exist, and the other three are in The Getty, the Museum of Modern Art and the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris.

The second-highest lot was Funke’s Composition, 1929, from his “Abstraktní Foto” series, which sold for a record $350,500, far higher than the estimate of $50,000/70,000. Brady’s whole-plate daguerreotype portrait of John C. Calhoun, 1849, sold for $338,500 to New York-based photography collector and rare book and manuscript dealer Stephan Loewentheil, also setting a new artist record and far surpassing the house’s $120,000/180,000 estimate. Noting both the importance of Calhoun’s political career and Brady’s significance as a portrait artist, Loewentheil told ARTnewsletter: “to combine those two facts—to me—make this one of the most important portrait photos in existence. To find a full-plate daguerrotype of this striking subject by Brady is amazing.”

Also an artist record was the $134,500 paid for an albumen print by Timothy O’Sullivan (1840-82), Ancient Ruins In The Cañon De Chelle, N.M., 1873, far higher than the modest $15,000/25,000 estimate. And a new auction record was seen for Peter Beard, when Maureen Gallagher and a Night Feeder at Hog Ranch, 1987, a mural-sized work of a nude woman feeding a giraffe, sold for $326,500, far higher than the estimated $120,000/180,000.

Sotheby’s specialist Christopher Mahoney said “the wide range of photographers represented in our top-ten list says it all,” with respect to the breadth of the market.

Christie’s offered 211 lots in its main photograph sale, of which 170, or 81 percent, found buyers. By value, the auction was 92 percent sold.

The top lot was Richard Avedon’s print, Marilyn Monroe, New York City, May 6, 1957, which was estimated at $200,000/300,000, and sold for $482,500. It was followed by William Eggleston’s Memphis (Tricycle), ca. 1969-1970, the artist’s renowned side-view of a tricycle on a street that appears to have been taken from a position close to or on the ground. Bearing the same estimate, of $200,000/300,000, it sold for $266,500.

And Robert Frank’s Peru, 1948, a group of 39 gelatin silver prints mounted back to back with a spiral binding, sold for $242,500, compared with an estimate of $100,000/150,000.

Leading the sale of “The Feminine Ideal,” was Irving Penn’s Balenciaga Mantle Coat (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Paris, 1950, which sold above expectations for $80,500 (estimate: $40,000/60,000). The three highest lots were by Penn, including Woman in Feather Hat, New York, November 1991, which sold for $68,500 (estimate: $20,000/30,000), and Woman with Umbrella (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), New York 1950 (printed 1984), which sold for $60,000 (estimate: $30,000/50,000).

A print by Robert Mapplethorpe, Flag, 1987, topped the “Crossing America” sale, realizing $158,500 against an estimate of $70,000/90,000. Other top-selling works included Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, 1936, which more than doubled the high $50,000 estimate to sell for $134,500, to a U.S. dealer. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #55, 1980, also went to a U.S. dealer, for $134,500, far higher than the $20,000/30,000 estimate. Christie’s specialists said all three of the photo sales surpassed their estimates.

At Phillips, 235, or 90 percent, of 260 lots on offer were sold and the total surpassed the $3.4 million/4.8 million estimate. Vanessa Kramer, worldwide director of the auctioneer’s photography department, noted “buyers’ confidence in aggressively pursuing” works by both “emerging and established photographers.”

The auction had no shortage of solid six figure lots, including Sherman’s Untitled 1993 color coupler print, depicting the artist slouched in a chair, heavily made up in garish, Japanese-style makeup. Estimated at $200,000/300,000, it sold for $242,500.

Also among the top-sellers was the catalogue-cover lot, Desiree Dolron’s haunting portrait, Xteriors VI, 2003, which soared past its $40,000/60,000 estimate to realize $182,500.

A 1965 work by Beard, Tsavo North on the Athi Tiva, ca. 150 lbs.160 lbs. side Bull Elephant, sold for $120,100 (estimate: $50,000/70,000), noteworthy price that marked a considerable jump in value since the work was last offered at auction (Sotheby’s April 2008 sale) where it fetched $58,600 on a $30,000/50,000 estimate.

New York gallery owner Robert Mann believes the strong showing at the auctions to be reflective of the auction houses setting low estimates. “I think it was a deliberate strategy because of the concerns about market recovery, and it certainly encourages active bidding.” He viewed the recent auctions as indicative of the photographymarket in general. “The market has come back.”

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