Two weeks remain to purchase a piece of photographic history. "Our motivation for selling is that we don't want to stop collecting," said Museum of Modern Art chief photography curator Peter Galassi, in reference to the current deaccession of 1,000 photographic prints by Eugène Atget. The vintage prints, valued at $20 million total, are duplicates of other works in the museum's collection, and have remained in storage boxes for 34 years. Galassi plans to use funds to acquire other important images from the first half of the 20th century.
"People often complain about deaccessioning," Galassi said, "selling a Rembrandt to buy a Richter. One of the ways to avoid that kind of mistake is to sell pictures that are roughly from the same time period as those that will be acquired." Last April, MoMA put 250 photos from its collection on the auction block, also from the first half of the 20th century. The sale, titled "Photographs from the Museum of Modern Art," was held Sotheby's. Some 224 lots found buyers, bringing $4,015,230 for the MoMA acquisition coffers.
Even after the Atget sale, MoMA will retain over 5,000 Atget prints, purchased in 1968 from photographer Bernice Abbott and dealer Julien Levy. Abbott, an early champion of Atget, bought half his estate -- Les Monuments Historiques got the other half -- in June 1928, ten months after Atget's death. Levy helped finance the purchase. Over the years, Abbott promoted Atget's work, lending images for exhibition and publishing books. She lovingly preserved the Atget archive at her home in Maine.
In addition to the pristine provenance, the importance of the artist qualifies the sale as historic. "Atget proved, in his work, how extraordinarily plastic and descriptive the photographic medium is," Galassi said, "Very quickly after his death, he became the central figure for the explosion of photography as art, influencing people like Walker Evans and Bill Brandt. His goal was to capture the identity of French culture, and that's what he did, personifying the passage of photography from documentation into an art."
So how to sell 1,000 prints by a single artist, without causing a glut on the market? MoMA tapped dealer David Tunick for the job. Tunick, 58, who could be the central casting version of the elegant art dealer in his tailored navy pinstripe suit, salt and pepper coif and translucent specs, works from a spacious townhouse on East 65th Street. Under 15-foot ceilings and architectural molding, he directs a staff of five.
The lower level is filled with prints, from Old Master to modern. Upstairs, Tunick's office is so richly appointed that a visitor feels affluent by osmosis. Oriental carpets cover the floors, the walls are lined with cherry bookcases and filled with thousands of hardcover art books. A photo of Tunick's yawl, Night Watch, and membership directories for the New York Yacht Club are displayed on a shelf behind a bulky wooden desk.
"Photography is not our expertise," Tunick admitted. MoMA chose a dealer outside the photo sphere to avoid any potential conflicts of interest. In the business for 36 years, Tunick is known for handling works on paper, but not the photo-sensitive variety. He has sold multimillion-dollar collections before, including the John Nicholas Brown collection of drawings ("Brown" as in J. Carter Brown and Brown University). Tunick is taking a five percent commission on sales.
Tunick grouped the Atget prints into nine price categories ($3,000, $6,000, $9,000 and so on up to $150,000) and contacted a select group of museums and top photography dealers. The intent was to sell large blocks of pictures to buyers spending in the high six and seven figures. The first round of photo dealers reportedly included New Yorkers Peter Macgill, Edwynn Houk, Howard Greenberg, Hans Kraus and San Francisco dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel. Interested parties were sent copies of photos for review and condition reports. High-level collectors, dealers and museums also visited a small storage room at MoMA, where they examined boxes filled with prints of Parisian street scenes from the 1920s.
New York photography dealer Howard Greenberg visited MoMA several times. He plans to buy for clients, not inventory. "The general belief among dealers is that prices will set a new plateau for Atget." Even still, Greenberg said, "This is a unique opportunity to buy a great Atget. If I have to pay a big price, I will."
On March 11, Celestine Bohlen of the New York Times reported the sale and Tunick's phone started ringing. Since word got out, Tunick decided on a new selling strategy. Ads begin running in the Times' Arts and Leisure section on April 12. To help manage the process, Tunick created a list of rules. Buyers have until April 29 to submit their wish lists. If the same print appears on multiple lists, he will contact potential buyers and take bids. Next MoMA and Tunick will create a master spreadsheet and divvy up the goods.
For the old-time print and drawings dealer, selling photography has been refreshing. "When I tell museum directors we've handling Atget, the reaction is stunning. They'll say 'Omigod, we're excited.' I get so much less response when I call about a new Mantegna print. They ask 'how are the margins? How's the watermark?' and say they'll come by on their next visit to New York. My son is a junior at Yale. I'm going to suggest he start up a photography department for us after he graduates."
LINDSAY POLLOCK is a freelance writer based in New York City.