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Art Market Watch
Oct. 14, 2005 

The fall photography auctions have come and gone, and the results are so staggering that the New York photo world still hasn't recovered. Prices soared at all three houses. Sotheby's set a new world record for a 20th-century photo -- $720,000 at the hammer, $822,400 with the auction-house premium -- not once but twice. As for Christie's, it claimed a new record for a photographic lot, when a set of portfolios of The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis sold for $1.4 million (though of course the 20 volumes include some 1,500 works).

Sotheby's New York totaled $10,313,200 in its photo sales. Its Oct. 10, 2005, evening sale of photos from the collection of rail services magnate Joseph Schieszler totaled $4,743,200, coming in at the high end of the collection's presale estimate of $3.2 million-$4.8 million. All but one of the 34 lots found buyers. The new record for a 20th-century photo at auction was set when Edward Weston's 1921 The Breast (est. $300,000-$400,000), a warm-toned platinum print of a shadow-draped female torso, signed and inscribed by the artist, sold for $822,400. Pace McGill gallery was listed as the buyer.

New auction records were also set for Andre Kertesz, whose Chez Mondrian (1926), the most famous spiral staircase in photo history, sold for $464,000 (est. $400,000-$600,000), and Harry Callahan, whose 1947 suite of three images, Eleanor, renders the photographer's wife and favorite model as an abstract but nevertheless suggestive black-and-white pattern, sold for $168,000 (est. $120,000-$180,000).

More superlatives describe Sotheby's Oct. 11 mixed-owner sale of photographs, which totaled $5,570,000 with buyers snapping up 167 of 201 lots, or 83 percent. And, of course, Sotheby's once again broke the record for a 20th-century photograph at auction, this time with a Depression-era image of a breadline. Dorothea Lange's White Angel Breadline, a dignified image of men crowding for food, sold for $822,400 (est. $200,000-$300,000). Once again the buyer was Pace McGill.

Among the other top lots were Diane Arbus' 1962 Exasperated boy with toy hand grenade, N.Y., which sold for $374,400 (est. $350,000-$500,000), and a portfolio of several more Dorothea Lange Depression photos, which quadrupled its presale high estimate of $70,000 to sell for $296,000. These images of economic despair helped lead Sotheby's to a two-day photo sale total of $10,313,200.

At Christie's New York's two-catalogue sale on Oct. 10, featuring selections from the collection of German photographer Gert Elfering and a special sale of flower photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, the total was an impressive $8.7 million. With its Oct. 11 mixed-owner sale of photographs added in, Christie's totaled $14.5 million, the top result for the week.

The Elfering Collection totaled $7,158,080, well above the presale high estimate of $4 million, with 88 percent of the 162 lots finding buyers. The Elfering sale set 12 new world auction records in all, including the top lot, a group of four 1990 prints of Richard Avedon's unabashedly psychedelic The Beatles, London, England, 1967, which attracted a hallucinatory $464,000 (est. $200,000-$300,000). The sale's number two lot, also a new record for the artist in question, was a 1983 print by Irving Penn titled Woman in Moroccan Palace (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Marrakech, 1951, a black-and-white image of the photographer's model wife lounging in a richly textured robe, which sold for $307,200, almost triple its presale high estimate of $120,000.

The Robert Mapplethorpe "Flowers" sale totaled $1,530,400, with 90 percent of the lots sold. The auction set a new high for Mapplethorpe, as his Poppy, 1988 was bought for $251,200 (est. $30,000-$50,000) (the floral image was singled out in the accompanying literature for its psychosexual undertones). The new Mapplethorpe record lasted exactly two days, until Oct. 12, when it was broken by a lot at Christie's Wednesday mixed-owner sale. Mapplethorpe's Flag, 1987, the second highest lot of the day, was bought for $352,000 (est. $140,000-$180,000). Even Mapplethorpe fans, it seems, love a patriotic image.

The top lot here was, of course, the Curtis portfolio. Overall, the Christie's photo sale on Oct. 12 totaled $5,841,880.

Philips de Pury & Co. launched the week on Oct. 6-7 with sales that totaled a comparatively modest $4,363,948. Among the top lots were Andreas Gursky's money-green image of a soccer field, EM, Arena I (2000), which sold for $291,520 (est. $150,000-$200,000), and Nicholas Nixon's portfolio of the Brown sisters, which sold for $180,000 (est. $150,000-$200,000). Karl Blossfeldt's photograph of a gothic plant specimen, Equisetum hyemale (Rough horsetail), sold for $120,000 (est. $100,000-$150,000), as did Gary Winogrand's portfolio, "Women Are Beautiful" (est. $45,000-$65,000).

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet's signature Fine Art Auctions Report.


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