Sotheby's and Christie's photography sales, among the first art auctions scheduled in New York since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, took place on Oct. 3 and Oct. 4, respectively. The sales were tensely anticipated as significant barometers of what might be ahead as the fall auction season begins.
In the end, paddles flew in the air whenever rare and important photographs came on the block, and several records were set. Sotheby's sale totaled $2,782,280 as 245 of 367 lots sold (67 percent). Christie's tally was $2,133,595 for 172 lots sold of 290 offered (59 percent).
The overall sentiment was relief. New York dealer Howard Greenberg summed it up when he said "We expected the results to be somewhere between bad and a disaster, but all in all, it was okay." Some buyers focused on the bright side. Dealer James Danziger of Artland.com said, "This is an opportunity for dealers to buy inventory at favorable prices. Dealers can absolutely get bargains."
Sotheby's, Oct. 3, 2001
At 10 a.m. on Wednesday morning, the sunlight on the East River behind Sotheby's York Avenue headquarters sparkled like a field of Swarovski crystals. President George Bush's helicopter was reported to be approaching Manhattan for his second visit to New York since the World Trade Center attacks. Newsstands carried tabloid papers with large-type headlines: "Bioterror and the City" screamed one, while another eloquently proclaimed "Ash-holes" (don't ask). Tiny American flag decals dotted Sotheby's windows.
The large 7th-floor salesroom was more than three-quarters full by 10:15 a.m. The crowd was primarily dealers, with a sprinkling of private collectors. Most of the dealers were from the U.S., casually dressed men in khakis and blue blazers.
Denise Bethel, longtime head of Sotheby's photo department, was in place at the rostrum, black spectacles perched on the bridge of her nose. Bethel is a smooth and commanding auctioneer. She knows her audience well.
Sotheby's top brass, including president and CEO William F. Ruprecht, surveyed the scene from behind the bank of phone bidders. Bill, as he is known, does not usually attend the start of photography sales. His presence underscored the significance of the results of this first auction. Who knew what might happen?
Many of the key players were present. The large West Coast contingent included the San Francisco cluster, Jeffrey Fraenkel, Bob Koch, Michael Shapiro and Paul Hertzmann, and from Los Angeles, dealer Paul Kopeikin and Weston Naef, curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum (according to sources, the Getty successfully bid on a number of lots at Christie's, see below). Carol Ehlers, curator of the prestigious La Salle Bank Collection, was in from the Southwest, while New York dealers included Edwynn Houk, Peter MacGill and Howard Greenberg. Several international dealers also braved air travel to attend, including Michael Hoppin from England, Gerd Sander (photographer August Sander's grandson) from France, Hendrik Berinson from Germany and Lorraine Davis from London.
After the sale, Bethel expressed gratitude at the number of clients who came in person to support the auction. "One might have expected more phone bidding and absentee bids and an emptier salesroom, but we had as big a crowd as at any various owner sale."
Private collectors Sid and Faye Morse traveled from Tuscon to attend. The Morse's photography collection includes works by Man Ray, Ansel Adams and Edward S. Curtis. Mr. Morse said, "We were initially reticent to travel, but we felt patriotic in following up with our plans to attend." In addition to patriotism, their interest in one of the sale's top lots, Tina Modotti's 1926 Worker's Parade, lured the Morses to New York. The Modotti was estimated to bring $90,000-$120,000, and Mr. Morse acknowledged that he planned to bid up to $125,000 for it. He predicted the work would fetch upwards of $180,000, though, and conceded that "if I can get it for $125,000, that means the market is not too hot." But, he chuckled "I love a deal!" Overall, Morse concluded, "the good stuff is doing remarkably well."
So did the Morses get their coveted Modotti? Probably not -- though he called it well. The picture soared past its presale estimate, selling for $187,250 (all reported prices include the buyer's commission) to a private collector. This almost broke the record for the artist's work at auction, which still stands at $189,500.
Modotti's lush Worker's Parade shows a crowd of Mexican men, viewed from above so that the dozens of elegant cream sombreros make an abstract geometric pattern. This photo was executed three years after Modotti and her lover and mentor, Edward Weston, had moved to Mexico City.
Two other Modottis were also up for sale, part of a trio consigned by the descendents of Alexandra Kollantay, a radical feminist who was Soviet foreign minister to Mexico, and who befriended Modotti and Weston. An Intriguing character in her own right, Kollantay posed nude for Weston, hosted public screenings of Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and wrote numerous books, including The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Woman and Love of the Worker Bees. The three photos were a parting gift from Modotti to Kollantay when she left Mexico in 1927. The other two images sold within the presale estimates. A 1924 portrait, Elisa Kneeling (est. $30,000-$50,000) sold for $35,250, and a 1925 still-life entitled Calla Lily (est. $100,000-$150,000) brought $118,750 from dealer Spencer Throckmorton of Throckmorton Fine Art, New York.
A rare suite of three black and white portraits by Harry Callahan from 1947 titled Eleanor (est. $90,000-$120,000) achieved a record for the artist at auction, selling for $137,750 to a private collector. The small, erotic images -- they show the photographer's wife's mid-section, artfully covered by a black cloth -- are each about the size of a European calling card. These photos were included in Callahan's first solo exhibition of photographs held at the Seven Fifty Studio gallery in Chicago in 1947.
The first lot from the Collection of Paul F. Walter, a prominent American collector whose European photos were sold at Sotheby's London in May 2001, went for ten times its high estimate. The lot, catalogued as Selected Civil War Studies at Cairo, Illinois (est. $5,000-$8,000), by an anonymous photographer, sold for $78,950 to dealer William L. Schaeffer from Chester, Conn. The lot was comprised of 12 photographs believed to have been made during the first year of the Civil War.
Big prices were also realized for a classic Irving Penn portrait Cuzco Children (est. $50,000-$75,000), sold on behalf of Condé Nast, which went for $58,250, and Man Ray's Solarized Nude (est. $40,000-$0,000), which sold to Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, for $46,750.
About 60 lots were consigned by Condé Nast Publications from its archive of vintage prints intended for reproduction in Vanity Fair and Vogue -- photographs by Imogen Cunningham, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Edward Weston and August Sander. Many of the images are portraits and the results were mixed.
Portraits of glamorous artists by glamorous artists fared well. Man Ray's 1929 Salvador Dali (est. $7,000-$10,000), of a young Dali wearing a seductive expression and lit like a movie star, sold for $18,000. A reflective portrait of Pablo Picasso from 1932, also by Man Ray (est. $15,000-$25,000) sold for $34,100. But poor old Albert Einstein, photographed by Ernst Haas in 1953 (est. $3,000-$5,000) failed to find a buyer. Genius? Yes. Glamorous? No.
And Edward Steichen's 1929 portrait of gossip columnist Walter Winchell (est. $3,000-$5,000) generated little bidding interest. Bethel believes portraits are a unique category of photography. She explained that a collector needs to be interested in both the photographer and the sitter.
Of the contemporary photos on offer, three poetic compositions by Richard Misrach fared the best relative to their presale estimates. Stone #6 (Stonehenge #3), a black and white study from 1979 (est. $5,000-$7,000) sold for $10,800. Steering Wheel, Salton Sea (est. $3,000-$5,000) from 1985 brought $9,600 and Comfort Stations, Edwards Air Force Base, 1983 (est. $4,000-$6,000) -- the most elegant photograph of port-o-potties ever made -- sold for a whopping $15,500.
Christie's Oct. 4, 2001
Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic from 57th Street to South of Rockefeller Center, where Christie's has had its New York headquarters since 1999. At St. Patrick's Cathedral nearby, a funeral for a fire lieutenant killed in the Trade Center attack was about to begin. American flags billowed above, mounted on the façades of the Rolex and Ferragamo buildings. The street was eerily quiet. Fire trucks were double-parked, and on the stone steps of the Cathedral, groups of men in blue uniforms with white hats stood awkwardly, waiting.
Just blocks away, Christie's mahogany-paneled salesroom was filling up with many of the same people who had attended the Sotheby's sale the day before. Francis Wahlgren, head of Christie's book department, was the auctioneer. Christie's photo chief Leila Buckjune sat at the bank of phones. When a specialist does not conduct the auction, the house is at a disadvantage. The auctioneer is not as familiar with the buyers, which affords fewer opportunities for coaxing bids from the audience. But Wahlgren plunged right ahead, with his dulcet tone and methodical tempo, and got the job done.
Christie's top lot, a remarkable group portrait by Paul Strand from 1953, The Family, Luzzara, Italy (est. $140,000-$180,000), was snagged effortlessly by dealer Lee Marks from Shelbyville Ind. When the bidding stopped at $130,000, Marks stuck her paddle up high in the air just once and was the new owner for $160,000.
Another highlight, also selling at the low end of its estimate, was Man Ray's Untitled (Rayograph), 1926 (est. $150,000-$200,000). It sold for $160,000 to an American private collector.
Like the previous day's sale, there appeared to be lots of action from phone bidders. Christie's head of client advisory, Carl Adams, was busy working the phones with top clients. Some collectors got good deals, like a prominent Boston collector who was successful in her bid for Ansel Adams' Japanese influenced Grass and Pool (est. $30,000-40,000), a three panel folding screen that sold for $28,200.
Several of Christie's top lots did shoot past their high estimates, including a 1945 Self-Portrait (est. $80,000-$100,000) by Diane Arbus. This ca. 4 by 4 inch image captures a dreamy Arbus and her large format camera in the bathroom mirror of her parents' Park Avenue apartment. This rare early work sold for $127,000 to Art Advisory Services.
The auction really took off during the sale of the Jackie Napolean Wilson Collection of 44 African American cased images. The total, $261,902, was more than double the presale estimate. Wilson, the grandson of a South Carolina slave, began collecting images documenting the African American experience in the late 1970s. His collection has been exhibited at the Detroit Institute of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Slave and Child (ca. 1845) (est. $6,000-8,000), a daguerreotype by R.G. Montgomery, sold for $19,995. Two phone bidders and the private dealer and collector David Raymond bid fiercely for William A. Pratt's daguerreotype Freemen of Color (ca. 1850) (est. $5,000-$7,000). A phone bidder emerged victorious for $26,000.
Sources have confirmed that Raymond was bidding on behalf of the Getty. The Getty was also the underbidder for a tintype, Portrait of a mother and child (Madonna) (est. $4,000-6,000), by an unknown photographer ca. 1860. The work sold for $55,225 to an American private collector. The Getty was successful on seven other lesser-priced lots, including a magnificent daguerreotype portrait called A Zouave Tribesman (est. $6,000-$8,000) by an unknown maker, acquired for $14,100.
Ironically, both Sotheby's and Christie's sales included haunting images of the World Trade Center. At Sotheby's, World Trade Towers, a 1997 work by Hiroshi Sugimoto (est. $12,000-18,000) set a record for the artist, selling to a private collector for $45,600. In the image, two ghostly images of the towers emerge from an atmospheric background. It is a somber and suggestive composition, now an elegiac tribute. At Christie's, Tseng Kwong Chi's 1970 New York (est. $3,000-$4,000) sold for $17,625. Christie's donated the net proceeds from the sale to the Twin Towers Fund.
LINDSAY POLLOCK is a freelance writer based in New York City.