The unprecedented deaccession of some 350 photographs by the Museum of Modern Art at Sotheby's New York on Apr. 24, 2001, was a qualified success, with the sales total hitting a $4 million, a record for a single-owner photo sale.
Sotheby's seventh-floor salesroom in its elegant new headquarters building on York Avenue in Manhattan was filled with collectors and top photo dealers -- Edwynn Houk, Spencer Throckmorton, Hans Kraus, Howard Greenberg, Jeffrey Fraenkel from San Francisco, Jane Corkin from Toronto.
The lineup of photographs in the sale echoed MoMA's storied romance with 20th-century photography -- among the offerings were six Atgets, nine Berenice Abbotts, 15 Edward Steichens, seven Alfred Stieglitzes, 15 Man Rays, 19 Walker Evanses, 13 Edward Westons.
In all, 201 of the 225 lots were sold -- 89 percent by lot -- for a total of $4,015,230 (including commission). New auction records were set for works by Walker Evans, Man Ray and Berenice Abbott.
The top lot was an early print of Evans' Penny Picture Display, Savannah (1936), selling for $181,750 (presale est. $150,000-$250,000). The second highest price came for an oversize 1928 Man Ray, Untitled (Rayograph with Statuette and Geometric Shapes), which went for $176,250 (est. $100,000-$150,000).
Edward Steichen's proto-minimalist 1898 Self Portrait, Milwaukee sold for $170,750 (est. $150,000-$250,000). A platinum print with black border, up on the auction turntable it resembled a yellowed news clipping. The catalogue cover lot, a warm-toned print of Steichen's Heavy Roses, Voulangis, France, made in 1914 and later called by the photographer an omen of the war to come, sold for $154,250 (est. $150,000-$250,000).
A version of Charles Sheeler's 1927 photo, Slag Buggy, Ford Plant, Detroit, printed a decade or so after it was taken, sold for $88,150 (est. $70,000-$100,000). A serene 1922 print of Eggs and Bowl by Paul Outerbridge, Jr., sold for $81,250 (est. $40,000-$60,000). Berenice Abbott's sparkling New York at Night sold for a record $69,750 (est. $30,000-$50,000).
Not at all bad in economic terms. Still, the sale "could have had more oomph," noted one observer. "If it had been 18 months ago, the proceeds would have been 50 percent higher." MoMA photo chief Peter Galassi is a brilliant curator, but one could complain that the museum missed the top of the market.
In any case, the sale at auction of so many works from the esteemed collection of the Museum of Modern Art, which only a few decades ago declined to prune its collection anywhere save through discrete private deals, was a historic occasion.
The auction catalogue itself is a unique document. Here and there are thumbnail images of museum exhibitions including the photos offered for sale, emphasizing the impression that the lots were wrenched from the museum walls.
Delicious scraps of MoMA history hide in the catalogue entries. Lots date from legendary exhibitions, like the wartime "Art in Progress" (1944), Edward Steichen's celebrated "Family of Man" (1955) and the first MoMA show to include photographs, "Murals by American Painters and Photographs (1932).
Provenance listings include many MoMA staff members. James Thrall Soby, a museum curator and trustee who was a member of MoMA's photo committee from 1940 to '67, gave the museum several of the sale's Man Rays.
Monroe Wheeler, MoMA director of exhibitions from 1941 to '68, donated another Man Ray, the imposing portrait of Gertrude Stein that sold for $14,400 (est. $7,000-$10,000). It was originally in the collection of his lover and companion, George Platt Lynes.
Even Wheeler's assistant, Frances Keech, bequeathed MoMA two tiny studies of grasses by Harry Callahan that she'd bought from the photographer after his 1948-49 exhibition. They sold for $8,400 (est. $4,000-$6,000).
Though the auction had its gems, many of the lots could hardly have been brought to sale without MoMA's imprimatur. The museum's "nearly decade-long systematic review" swept up much that can be termed odds and ends from the archives -- copy prints, press photos, exhibition prints and study copies.
Call it spring cleaning.
The auction was also instructive in the ways of the photo market, which delicately mints rare collectibles from an inherently mass-production medium. It's not easy. After all, for many viewers, a 50-year-old vintage print doesn't look that different than a page torn from the catalogue (which, as it happens, presents several of the lots at "actual size").
A special catalogue foreword explains that from the 1930s through the '50s, photographers would often custom-make new prints for MoMA exhibitions, and while they were at it knock off a few extra for use by the press or publications office. The museum itself would also produce exhibition prints from original negatives, notably between 1947 and '62, when Edward Steichen headed the MoMA photo department.
For instance, a print of one of André Kertész' most famous images, Chez Mondrian, which dates from 1926, was made from the original negative in 1963 by Rolf Petersen, in the museum darkroom for the museum's 1964 Kertész retrospective. It sold for $10,800, well above a presale estimate of $4,000-$6,000. (The price for a vintage print of the photo, set at Christie's New York in 1997, is $299,500.)
Two images from Brassaï's 1931 series of photos of graffiti, printed in 1956 for publicity purposes for Brassaï's exhibition "Graffiti" at MoMA that year, failed to find buyers. They were estimated to sell for $10,000-$20,000.
Late in the sale, a 1957 print of Weegee's Coney Island (1940), the fabulous black-and-white image of the New York beach densely packed with people looking up at the photographer on the pier, marked for cropping with orange and black crayon for the printer of some brochure or poster for the 1957 show, "70 Photographers Look at New York," sold for $$6,000 (est. $3,000-$5,000).
Though measuring a mere ca. 11 by 14 inches, it is as packed with people as any oversized crowd picture by Andreas Gursky currently on view at MoMA today, some 50 years later. As has been the practice in MoMA photo shows all along, Gursky made a new set of exhibition prints for his retrospective (thus accounting for the absence of any provenance info on the wall labels). Perhaps in another 50 years these too will turn up on the auction block.