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Photography auction report: Americana and fashion photography in vogue

Market gains ground as annual auctions bring in new collectors

The annual photography auctions boasted a $2m increase on last year’s totals, indicating that the market continues to gain pace. The sales made a combined total of $19.5m, with fashion and Americana prints accounting for the bulk of material—and revenue—across the four-day auctions (6-9 April).

Christie’s won the most consignments, holding two more auctions than its rivals, and was rewarded with the highest totals: $8.1m. Phillips de Pury raised $5.8m, while Sotheby’s came in last with $5.6m.

Christie’s

Christie’s total went $3m over its $5m pre-sale low estimate (est $4.9m-$7.3m). Two single-owner auctions were held on 7 April, and met with mixed receptions. “The Feminine Ideal” opened to a sleepy and sparsely filled room (total est $600,000-$880,000). The sale brought in $942,125 despite presenting “the worst set of photos I’ve ever seen at auction,” according to Pennsylvania-based photography dealer Alex Novak, who thought there were issues with the condition of works. A sale dedicated to works from the Consolidated Freightways collection fared better, earning $1.8m in total, though still failed to electrify would-be buyers (est $970,000-$1.4m).

A mixed-owner sale brought in $5.3m on 8 April (est $3.4m-$5m), selling 80% by lot over two sessions. While the highest estimated lot, Irving Penn’s Cuzco Children, 1948 (est $250,000-$350,000), failed to find a buyer (see right), Richard Avedon’s Marilyn Monroe, New York City, May 6, 1957, 1980, flew over its high estimate to sell for $482,500 (est $200,000-$300,000) to a telephone bidder, indicating that the famed American photographer remains desirable following the “white-glove” (100% sold by lot) auction of his work in a dedicated sale at Christie’s Paris in 2010, when 65 prints fetched $7.5m (est $3.67m-$6m).

Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s lagged behind Christie’s and Phillips de Pury, but still managed to exceed last year’s total by $500,000. The 6 April auction earned the house $5.6m over two sessions, with 81.5% sold by lot, double the $2.8m low estimate. New buyers are making their mark felt, said Chris Mahoney, a senior specialist in Sotheby’s photographs department. “We’re seeing new people coming into our field from other collecting areas. The borders are beginning to dissolve,” he added.

The top lot was Man Ray’s Untitled (Photomontage with Nude and Studio Lamp), 1933 (est $100,00-$150,000), which sold for nearly three times its high estimate, going for $410,500 to an anonymous bidder in the room. The photo is one of four extant prints of the image and is the only iteration that is signed and dated.

The dark horse of the sale was Mathew Brady’s 1849 daguerreotype of 19th-century politico John Calhoun (est $30,000-$50,000). A bidding war between physicist-turned-full-time collector Michael Mattis and New York-based dealer Stephan Loewentheil upped the price to six times the high estimate. The rare work went to Loewentheil, who described the piece as “a historic legacy of one of America’s great leaders,” for $338,500, a record for the artist at auction. Czech photographer Jaromír Funke and US-born Timothy O’Sullivan also saw record-breaking prices.

Phillips de Pury

The week’s events drew to a close with Phillips’ sale on Saturday 9 April: by far the best attended auction. It totalled $5.8m (est $3.4m-$4.8m), with the 260 photographs offered selling 90.4% by lot. Several artists achieved new auction records, including the Israeli Barry Frydlender, US-born Steve McCurry and the UK’s Gavin Bond.

Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #278, 1993, took the top spot, fetching $242,500 (est $200,000-$300,000). Tsavo Natl Park 1970s, by Peter Beard sold for $35,000 (excluding premium), four times its $8,000 high estimate, and his Tsavo North on the Athi Tiva, circa 150 lbs-160 lbs Side Bull Elephant, February, 1965, came fifth on the top ten lots list ($120,000; est $50,000-$70,000). “There’s great interest for Beard,” said chairman and auctioneer Simon de Pury. “New collectors are discovering him.”

Highs and lows

Irving Penn, Cuzco Children, 1948, est $250,000-$350,000, failed to meet the reserve

Christie’s 8 April

Telephones silenced when Christie’s top lot came on the block. An earlier edition of the Penn print sold at Christie’s in 2008 for $529,000, including premium, but here it failed to meet the reserve. “There’s a saturation of the market,” explained Philippe Garner, Christie’s international head of photographs. “Everyone who wants one has got one.”

Eugène Atget, La Villette, Rue Asselin, 1921, est $40,000-$60,000, sold for $242,500

Christie’s 8 April

Prior to the auction, US photography dealer Alex Novak predicted that the price for this photo would skyrocket, citing good condition and composition. He was proved right: the print, which was once owned by American photographer Berenice Abbott, sold for four times the high estimate to a US private collector.

Jaromír Funke, Composition (from Abstraktní Foto), 1929, est $50,000-$70,000, sold for $350,500

Sotheby’s 6 April

Setting a record for the artist at auction, this print fetched more than $250,000 above the high estimate. “Great vintage prints by him don’t come up,” explained Sotheby’s photography specialist Chris Mahoney. According to the catalogue, no other print of this image has ever come to auction, which perhaps explains its price.