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Art Market Watch


by Jessica Mizrachi
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Like the AIPAD photography show in New York earlier last week, the accompanying photo sales held at New York auction houses large and small were dominated by household names like Irving Penn, Ansel Adams and William Eggleston. The exception was Phillips de Pury & Company’s pair of photo sales, where the top 10 lots featured a far greater proportion of post-1970s material and where the auction house did what it does best -- introduce new artists to the market.

Sotheby’s started on Apr. 3 with a 203-lot sale that totaled $3.7 million for 140 lots sold, or 69 percent. The two top spots were taken by landscapes from the 1940s by Ansel Adams ($266,500 and $122,500), both of which sold to the Alinder Gallery in California, which specializes in work by Adams. A suite of ten of Diane Arbus’ most famous pictures, printed by the photographer Neil Selkirk, carried the highest estimate of the sale (est. $400,000-$600,000) but did not find a buyer at auction. Sotheby’s did announce that the set was sold privately immediately afterwards “for one of the highest prices ever paid for this portfolio.”

The Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City paid a record price for a Ray Metzker photograph, buying Composites: Tall Grove of Nudes -- a near-abstraction of black and white stripes that is actually 140 identical photographs of a female nude in silhouette mounted together -- for $122,500, rather more than double the $50,000 high estimate. Similarly, the Park Avenue gallery Hans P. Kraus, Jr. paid several times the high estimate for a fairly fragmentary “photogenic drawing camera negative” of a view through a latticed by William Henry Fox Talbot ($122,500), and also went above the estimate to win a “photogenic drawing” attributed to his valet-turned-collaborator Nicolaas Henneman ($116,500).

April 4 was a day for the smaller houses. The Swann Galleries photographs and photobooks sale totaled $1.2 million with 304 of 435 lots sold, and included property from the estate of the late filmmaker Gary Winick (mostly vintage Alfred Hitchcock movie posters), who died at age 49 in February of last year. The surprise was an album of some 90 photographs of an unidentified German dignitary’s travels throughout Asia and the United States in the 1930s that sold for $24,000, well above the high estimate of $3,500 (or about $260 a photograph) and set the record for a portfolio of vernacular photography.

Swann’s top lot was an Eggleston photo of dolls on the hood of a Cadillac from his “Los Alamos” series, which went for $60,000, well above the $40,000 high estimate. Coincidentally, Eggleston was sued the same day by Jonathan Sobel, one of his biggest collectors, for printing and selling enlarged versions of some of his best-known photographs during a sale at Christie’s in March to benefit the Eggleston Artistic Trust, which raised $5.9 million and set a new artist’s auction record at $578,500. Sobel claims the new editions (of two) have devalued Eggleston’s earlier work, and seeks to bar Eggleston from re-issuing prints he produced as limited editions.

Phillips de Pury launched its Apr. 4 auction with 28 lots, largely of the social documentary variety, in a kind of mini-sale dubbed “The Face of Modernism: A Private West Coast Collection.” The auction set new records for Brassai ($86,500), Carl Van Vechten ($9,000) and Eleanor Parke Custis ($7,500), all for photos taken in the ‘30s. A painter as well as a photographer, Parke Custis (1897-1983) was a descendant of Martha Washington who had an active career in the mid-20th century.

All told, Phillips offered 239 photos, selling 81 percent for a total of $6.1 million, not much below Christie’s total or $6.9 million (see below). More records were set in the Phillips mixed-owner photo sale: Sally Mann ($266,500), Francesca Woodman ($170,500), the advertising and fashion photographer Melvin Sokolsky ($92,500) and Philip-Lorca diCorcia ($80,500). The record-setting Woodman photo, which shows the artist hanging crucifixion-style from a doorpost, was only printed twice during her short lifetime, and the other is included in the Francesca Woodman exhibition currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum. Its presale estimate was only $20,000, though small Woodman prints are typically priced at $45,000 in galleries. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #49 by was the top lot at $626,500.

Making their auction debuts at Phillips were two Israeli artists, Yuval Yairi ($12,500) and Lee Yanor ($8,750) as well as Yulia Lebedeva ($7,500) Sergey Shestakov ($6,000) and Chris Heads. Photos by these artists sold within or above presale estimates, but Heads’ work -- the British photographer shares a decadent and lush esthetic with Marilyn Minter -- seemed to generate the most buzz. Heads’ black-and-white photo of an emerald-cut gem between a woman’s lips sold for $18,750, well above the presale high estimate of $12,000.

Christie’s capped off the week on Apr. 5 with a 344-lot sale, with 283 lots selling for a total of $6.9 million. One big seller was the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which deaccessioned 71 lots, contributing $775,750 to the final tally.

The sale’s top lot was an Irving Penn photograph that was featured on the cover of the Apr. 1, 1950, issue of Vogue magazine ($434,500).

Christie’s also had a William Eggleston lot that can be considered complicating evidence in the aforementioned Jonathan Sobel lawsuit. An untitled Eggleston photo from 1973, produced in an edition of 20 -- a picture of a roadside sign for peaches -- sold at Christie’s for $242,500, considerably above its $90,000 presale high estimate. The same image, newly done in a larger format, went for $422,500 in March, which was one of an edition of two. Does this result show that the vintage prints have been devalued, or is the new record pulling up the prices for the old prints as well?  

The lone record set at Christie’s was for a photogram by the German painter Christian Schad from 1919. Tristan Tzara, the first owner of the work, called Schad’s collaged experiments with photography “Schadographs” and published them in the magazine Dadaphone in 1920. About 30 Schadographs are known to exist, and the one on offer on Thursday fetched $218,000 against a low estimate of $200,000. The record for a painting by Schad was also set at Christie’s, back in 2007, for $1.3 million.

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The spring photography sales in New York were small potatoes compared to the action in Hong Kong last week. Sotheby’s sold $316 million worth of property over five days of auctions that included everything from watches, wine and jewelry to ceramics and paintings. The results come just weeks before Sotheby’s opens a new branch in Hong Kong that should allow the auction house to have a year-round presence in the Chinese market. Currently, Sotheby’s hosts its twice-yearly sales in a rented convention center. Last year, the spring edition of the Hong Kong sales fetched $337 million, so the total is more or less flat from 2011 to 2012.

The headlining record was the $26.7 million paid for a rather unassuming “lobed brush washer” -- a delicate ceramic bowl -- from the Ru Kilns, which produced imperial ceramics during the Song dynasty (960-1279). The vessel was the single lot in a sale titled “Ru -- From a Japanese Collection.” According to the catalogue, it is one of only six pieces of Ru official ware in private collections, with about 70 examples in museums. The demand for Ru ware is nothing new -- as early as the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) the literature refers to these ceramics as “unobtainable.” Bidders chased this piece well over the high $10 million estimate.

Records were also set for the Vietnamese artist Le Pho ($373,000), whose works might be compared to Marie Laurencin; Indonesian abstract expressionist-style painter Ay Tjoe Christine ($309,000); and Indonesian Bandung School artists Ahmad Sadali ($373,500), an abstract painter, and But Mochtar ($322,000), whose sculptures can suggest Henry Moore.

Christie’s holds its sales of Asian art in Hong Kong at the end of May, but in the meantime the auction house has partnered with the Pennsylvania bank BNY Mellon, Bloomberg and the Economist to bring a two-year-long touring Andy Warhol retrospective to Asia. The exhibition, titled “15 Minutes Eternal,” is organized by the Andy Warhol Museum and makes stops in Singapore (where it is now through August), Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Tokyo. While the market’s focus in Asia is on Asian works of art, with this exhibition Christie’s is looking to cultivate more interest in Western art.

Prices given here include the auction-house commission of 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the next $50,000-$1,000,000, and 12 percent of the rest.

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

JESSICA MIZRACHI is a decorative arts specialist who writes on the art market.