Looks are deceiving. The lacklustre appearance of the autumn photography auction season belies the fundamental strength of the current market for nineteenth-century, modern and contemporary photography.
The recent auctions at Swann Galleries, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, held in New York over 7, 8, and 9 October, respectively, offer the clearest evidence of the state of the market. While none of the houses hammered down photograph for more than $100,000, all three had successful sales. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s sold at least 80% by dollar, and Swann’s achieved their highest total ever. Rick Wester, head of Christie’s department of photographs, commented “In the spring we sold the most number of pictures for over $100,000 and this season we had none, but we still extended our string of successful auctions.” Mr Wester’s counterpart at Sotheby’s Denise Bethal, was even more enthusiastic: “What’s very important is that you don’t have to have six figure photographs to make good sales. Most people who attended the auctions don’t buy $100,000 photographs. However, the average price of all photographs is going up, and the strength of the photography market in the future lies with the collectors who can buy $100,000 photographs. In the next years we could get 200 new buyers who can spend $10,000 at a pop, and eventually they’ll graduate to even more expensive pieces. We had really tight results in these sales. If we can keep this up,” she says, “we’ve got good days ahead.”
Swann Galleries led off the auction season. Five hundred and sixty lots were offered and 386 found buyers, for a total value of $946,162, including the premium. One of Eugene Smith’s vintage prints from his 1972 Minimata series, estimated at $10,000-$15,000, went for $23,000. An Edward Curtis orotone print of Canon de Chelly, made in 1904-1905, was sold for $20,700. A Josef Sudek pigment print from 1954 brought $12,650, while one of Edward Weston’s dune landscapes reached $11,500. Swann’s traditional strength has always been in its offerings of nineteenth century material, and several anonymous lots found willing buyers. A group of fifty photographs of Mayan sites, taken around 1897-1900, was hammered down for $20,700, substantially more than the pre-sale estimate of $4,000-$5,000. An album of ninety-nine Far Eastern scenes, which Daile Kaplan, Swann’s expert, appraised conservatively at $6,000-$9,000, fetched $17,250. All told, Swann topped last October’s previous total by 7% and observers expect that they will soon have their first $1 million sale.
While other dealers dominated Sotheby’s session, Ms Bethel was prompted to note the presence of many new collectors who had never purchased work at the auctions before. Commenting on all the new faces in the salesroom, she said, “They’ve got to be new buyers who are knowledgeable about the medium but not about the market.” Simon Lowinsky, one of the senior dealers in the field, paid top dollar—$66,300—for a nineteenth-century British album of botanical studies, outbidding Michael Shapiro of the eponymous San Francisco gallery. The result elicited murmurs of surprise as the lot had been valued at $12,000-$18,000.
Less startling was the $40,250 paid for a vintage Manuel Alvarez Bravo print from 1935. The buyer, a private American collector bidding on the telephone, was paying a record price for the Mexican artist, but his work has been selling for rapidly increasing prices since his retrospective exhibition earlier this year at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Spencer Throckmorton, a New York dealer specialising in Latin American photographers, purchased one of Bravo’s earliest abstraction experiments, done in 1926-27, for $29,900.
August Sander’s work is also in greater demand; vintage prints are rare and collectors and critics have awoken to the importance of the artist to the history of the medium. Gerd Sander, the artists grandson, buying on behalf of the Cultural Foundation of Cologne, was able to flag down The Waitress, of 1928, for $34,500, against the prior appraisal of $10,000-$15,000. Henry Buhl, a New York based collector who focuses solely on photographs of hands, purchased Sander advertising photogram from 1932 for $32,200. Bidding for this unique piece, believed to be the only photogram ever made by August Sander, was particularly fierce, attracting Gerd Sander and Willie Schaeffer, a private dealer from Connecticut . Marianne Couville, Mr Buhl’s curator, commented, “We were thrilled to get this piece. Mr Henry generally isn’t buying work by artists who are already in the collection, but this was one we really wanted. It’s perfect for this collection.”
Sander was also the star of the Christie’s sale. Lee Marks, reportedly bidding on behalf of Howard Stein, the former CEO of the Dreyfuss Fund, bought the cover lot, a Sander 1927 portrait of the painter Anton Räderscheidt, from the Michael Glicker Collection. The print, estimated at $20,000-$30,000, set a new auction record for the artist—$90,500. Gerd Sander was the successful bidder over Shapiro for an August Sander image of two hands, paying $40,250 for the photograph. Ms Marks, a private dealer in Shelbyville, Indiana and co-curator of Stein’s collections, also bought the third and fourth top lots at Christie’s for her client, She paid an equal amount for recently discovered 1925 photogram by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and $85,000 for a 1926 Andre Kertesz over-head study of a Parisian string quartet.
The Kertesz piece was among the lots offered at Christie’s from the Glicker Collection, twenty lots acquired during the mid-to-late 1970s by the Chicago-based lawyer, with the guidance of the dealers Edwynn Houk and Carol Ehlers. The Glicker consignment set the pace for Christie’s sale, totalling $535,000, more than 30% over the high pre-sale estimate. According to Mr Wester, “The Glicker Collection contained all the ingredients for success in today’s market: dynamic images by the most renowned photographers from between the two wars, reasonable estimates, and a freshness to the market.” Mr Houk bought back a number of the pieces from the Glicker group, including a Weston dunes study for $63,000 and Kertesz’s famous Mondrian’s Pipe and Glasses, Paris 1926. The latter cost Houk $57,500, a bargain considering that last spring Jane Jackson of Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta, reportedly bidding on behalf of Elton John, set a new record for Kertesz at auction—$376,500—when she was the successful buyer of a carte postale print of the same image.