NEW YORK—Christie’s sale on March 14, “Photographic Masterworks by William Eggleston,” realized a total of $5.9 million, well above the $2.7 million presale estimate, with proceeds earmarked for the Eggleston Artistic Trust. All 36 of the lots offered found buyers.
The top lot was an untitled, 1970 color photograph of a tricycle, which sold for $578,000, on an estimate of $200,000/300,000, and set a new auction record for a single print by the artist. A previous auction high for Eggleston, of $1 million (estimate: $350,000/550,000), realized at Christie’s in 2008, was for a portfolio of 75 prints created between 1965 and 1974.
“There is clearly a great interest in the work of William Eggleston and a strong desire on the part of collectors to acquire his work,” said Josh Holdeman, Christie’s international director of 20th-century art. Howard Read, co-owner of New York’s Cheim & Read gallery, which has represented the artist since 1984, said “this sale raises the bar for Eggleston overall.”
All of the lots in the sale were digitally remastered from Eggleston’s old negatives and are technically called “pigment prints,” produced by inkjet printers, using computer files created when the original images were scanned. The new large-scale photographs, which measure 60 by 44 inches, were created within the past nine months, according to Read. This was the first sale of these new pigment prints. “First time seen and sold,” Read said.
Among the other prints that were sold at the Christie’s sale: a 1973 image of a grocery store roof top with signs advertising Coca-Cola and “Peaches!” fetched $422,500 (estimate: $100,000/150,000); an untitled, ca. 1971–74 color image of a cocktail on an airline seat tray earned $386,500 (estimate: $80,000/120,000); and a 1973 photograph of an exposed solitary light bulb against a red ceiling also brought $386,500 (estimate: $150,000/250,000).
An untitled photograph, ca. 1971–74, of a parked Cadillac at the beach brought $362,500 (estimate $50,000/70,000), and a 1970 image of a rail-thin elderly woman sitting on a cushioned metal swinging sofa earned $314,500 (estimate: $100,000/150,000). Nearly every lot was sold above estimates, which some observers said were bullish to begin with.
A number of the images in this sale are “iconic,” noted Holdeman, such as the photograph of the tricycle, which was first published as a limited edition, in 1980, jointly by dealers Harry Lunn and Leo Castelli. That edition of 20 copies was at the then customary dye-transfer-paper size of 20 by 16 inches, and, according to Read, they originally sold for $1,500.
All of the prints in this sale, including the tricycle, were parts of brand new, editions of two in the new format size of 60 by 44 inches, which were created by the Eggleston Artistic Trust. Read noted that improved technology and a larger format produced new versions of these images that the artist said he liked better.
The only remaining question was how the collecting public would see these new versions. “I didn’t know how to estimate these prints,” Holdeman said, “so I just estimated them as though they were the old dye transfers. In the entire history of Christie’s, we had only sold 21 photographic prints over $100,000. In this sale, we sold 24 prints at $100,000 or more. That’s two-thirds of the sale.”
Howard Read said that “for some people,” printing new editions of images that had been in older editions “has been an issue,” but he noted that with the prices realized at Christie’s for these new prints, “the stature and value of the older pictures have increased.”
According to Read, the artist plans to continue making print editions of much earlier work. An exhibition of 40 works in this larger format is planned for the Tate in London in 2014, Read said.
The Eggleston Artistic Trust was founded in 1992 with the aim of representing and preserving the work of the artist. The Christie’s auction was aimed at increasing the trust’s endowment, in part to pay for the cost of producing these new and larger editions. “They are very expensive to create,” Read said. The trust also seeks to conserve the 35,000 images, including film, negatives and slides, that are part of its holdings. Additional funds will likely be needed should the City of Memphis approve plans for the construction of a planned William Eggleston Museum in the city’s downtown area.