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Dec. 22, 2008 

Can Erotica Save the Art Market?
Girls, girls, girls. Can erotica save the art market? The answer would seem to be "yes" based on the results of the three-session sale at Christie’s New York of the Constantiner Collection of photographs, Dec. 16-17, 2008. Assembled by New York art patrons Leon and Michaela Constantiner, the collection focuses on glamour, and includes photographs of high fashion models, often in states of undress, as well as a large selection of images of Marilyn Monroe and an assortment of erotic fashion shots by Helmut Newton. Other photographers in the collection include Richard Avedon, Guy Bourdin, Irving Penn and Herb Ritts.

The sale of more than 300 lots was expected to achieve $7.5 million-$11 million. It sold for $7.7 million, at the low end of the estimate but a smashing success nevertheless, considering the jittery state of the art market. The total is the highest ever for a single-owner sale of photos at Christie’s.

In all, 281 of 318 lots found buyers, or 88 percent -- a sell-through rate that compares favorably to that of recent auctions of 20th-century design (78 percent sold at Christie’s New York), Asian contemporary art (56 percent sold at Christie’s Hong Kong) and Old Masters (61.5 percent at Sotheby’s London).

"The superb results," according to Christie’s photo expert Philippe Garner, "demonstrate the potential of works bought with true passion and considerable connoisseurship to perform magnificently even in the present uncertain economic climate." Here, presumably, "passion" does not mean the erotic kind. Or does it?

Garner went on to note that Helmut Newton has now been accorded a "central position" in 20th-century photography, and that "Marilyn Monroe’s magical appeal has proven to be truly timeless." The more than 100 Marilyn pictures in the collection carried a total presale estimate of about $800,000-$1,100,000; their sold total was over $800,000. Selections from the Constantiner Collection of photographs of Marilyn Monroe had recently toured museums, appearing at the Brooklyn Museum in 2004-05.

Newton is now a top art-market player, if there was any doubt before. The top lot was a mural-sized pair of prints of his Naked and Dressed, Paris (1981), an emblematic diptych showing four pneumatic fashion models, clothed in one shot and naked in the other, save for Newton’s signature high-heeled pumps. It sold for $662,500, just above the presale high estimate of $600,000, to an anonymous European buyer. The price is a new auction record for Newton.

Three other Newton "Big Nudes" made the top ten, including the estimable Henrietta (1980), which sold for $482,500 (est. $400,000-$600,000). Born and raised in the southern U.S., the model is Henrietta Allais, who is half French and part Cherokee. Newton’s "Big Nudes" were actually inspired by full-length photos of the members of the Bader-Meinhof gang -- clothed, of course -- which Newton saw in press photographs of the offices of the German police who were tracking down the terrorist group.

The top price paid for a photograph of Marilyn Monroe was $56,250 (est. $25,000-$35,000), paid for a print from a 1980 edition of 25 of a 1957 photograph of the actress, looking both glamorous and remarkably vulnerable, by Richard Avedon.

A high price was also paid for Avedon’s sexy 1992 image of Stephanie Seymour in a see-through body suit, provocatively lifting up the hem to show her geometrically trimmed pubic hair. It sold for $182,500 (est. $120,000-$180,000), from an edition of five prints. Christie’s listed the anonymous buyer as a European, so presumably the photo didn’t go to her husband, art collector (and Art in America magazine owner) Peter Brant.

Though erotica brought many of the top prices, in truth the Constantiners owned non-sexual glamour photographs as well as classic images of New York City. A later, editioned print of Irving Penn’s famous 1950 Black and White Vogue Cover (made in 1976, in an edition of 34) sold for $194,500 (est. $200,000-$300,000), Hiroshi Sugimoto’s blurry gray photo of the Guggenheim Museum (1997) sold for $110,500 (est. $150,000-$200,000) and Karl Struss’ platinum print of the Empire State Building from 1910-12, seen through a slanting grid of cables, sold for $80,500 (est. $80,000-$120,000).

Prices given here include the auction house premium of 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of any amount up to $1 million, and 12 percent on anything above that.

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

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