Photography auctions in Germany are fairly modest compared to similar sales in New York or London. Consequently, the German photo market is more accessible. American collectors have been quick to realize this, and were important players in the latest photo auctions in Germany, at Villa Grisebach, Berlin on Nov. 27, 1998, and at Lempertz, Cologne, on Nov. 7, 1998.
In the end, what counted was the instinct for beauty and quality, not the name of the photographer or his or her supposed market value. And, of course, the buyer's greed, courage or passion for the object of desire on the auction block.
Villa Grisebach, Berlin, Nov. 27, 1998
At Villa Grisebach's sale, 234 of 303 sold, about 77 percent, for a total of $506,550. The total was a record high for a German photography sale. According to Villa Grisebach photography expert Isabel Diehl, the success of the auction was anticipated because the catalogue was in great demand, especially in New York.
The majority of inquiries were about the Berlin photographer Heinz Hajek-Halke (1898-1983), whose works went for over $40,000. The repeated question, "Who in the world is Halke?" did not stop the Americans. The energy with which the collectors bid for an artist unknown to them was amazing. Two American telephone bidders dueled for Torso, a 1932 nude photomontage, pushing up its value to $44,490, 21 times higher than its presale estimate of $2,100. Akt im Spiegel, a nude by Hajek-Halke from the 1930s, went for $10,950 (est. $1,800-$2,100).
The sale's second highest price, $41,000, (est. $14,800-$17,800) was paid by an anonymous bidder for a 1904 album by the Jugendstil photographer Jacob Hilsdorf. The album contained several portraits of a small man with sideburns -- the painter Adolph von Menzel. The subject, one of the most subtle observers of Prussian society, confronts the camera without a hint of affectation. It reveals an exciting moment: the eye of the painter meets that of the camera. And indeed, Menzel, as a 19th-century man confronting the 20th, seems cautious.
The majority of photos offered at the auction were made by established photographers from the 1920s and 1930s whose work usually sells well. Two works by Otto Umbehr (known as Umbo) went to America: the 1926/27 portrait of Madame D. sold for $13,000 (est. $9,000-$11,000) and Margo Lion (1928), with the same estimate, for $10,270. Germaine Krull's elegant and tender portrait of Florence Henri from the 1920s went to a bidder in the house for $6,160 (est. $1,200-$1,500).
The work of Surrealist-inspired photographer Herbert List is becoming more and more attractive to German collectors. Of his works, Picnic at the East Sea -- a beautiful photo from 1930, in which the ocean, the beach and a bather are molded into a tranquil still life -- brought the highest price. The photo went to a bidder in the hall for $8,900 (est. $2,900-$3,100).
The work of Albert Renger-Patzsch has been well researched and documented, including an exhibition this year that toured to several German cities. As a result, the prices for his photos have been going up. Weinberg, an image of a vineyard in Patzsch's typically vast perspective, fetched the highest price, $6,845.
Contemporary art also did well. American photographer Harry Callahan's 1950s Cape Cod was auctioned off for the record price of $15,060 (est. $1,500-$1,700) to Berlin dealer Heiner Bastian.
No work by fashion photographer Arthur Elgort has ever been offered at an auction in Germany. His famous Shawn Dancing was sold for $1,711 (est. $700-$900). Much of the attraction could be that the object of the viewer's imagination remains hidden behind a veil of sheer black nothingness.
Lempertz, Cologne, Nov. 7, 1998
Lempertz's tenth photo auction in Cologne was held on the opening day of Art Cologne, the famous contemporary art fair, which helped to attract collectors and dealers to the sale. According to Lempertz photography expert Simone Klein, it was the house's most successful photography auction. Of 374 lots nearly 90 percent were sold, for a total of $424,400. The modest prices achieved at Lempertz were perhaps due to the presence of so many professionals, whose bidding is less emotional. An additional factor might have been the emphasis on early and contemporary photography.
Private German collectors paid the highest prices for works by Robert Mapplethorpe: Easter Lilies (1979) sold for $17,800 (est. $ 10,715); a portrait of Lucy Ferry from 1986 sold for $11,640 (est. $8,330) and a portrait of Grace Jones from 1988 sold for $10,270 for (est. $5,655). Veiled in a scarf, Jones looks surprisingly vulnerable with her glassy eyes.
Of the American photos, the work of Nan Goldin also generated much interest. The presale estimates were very low, between $600 and $900, and the works sold to American collectors at bargain prices -- between $1,370 and $2,190. Dan Graham's Ziggurat Skyscraper Building, New York/General Motors Factory, Highland PK, Michigan (1967) was sold for $3,560 (est. $ 1,785). Cindy Sherman's Untitled color photo from 1986, which had a relatively large edition (71/200), went for only $1,370 -- though still above the amazingly modest estimate of $600.
As testified by the sale, the photo documentation of German industrial buildings by Bernd and Hilla Becher are now internationally in demand. Their vintage prints of blast furnaces were sold to United States and Australia for $2,380-$4,450 ( est. $2,380).
Prices given here include a buyer's premium of 15 percent. The conversion rate is roughly $1 =DM 1.68.
SUSANNE NUSSER is an art historian who works at Arnoldi-Livie in Munich.