Photography – New York / London / Paris

[19 Apr 2011]


A few days after the close of the AIPAD Photography Show New York, the city was preparing for another week of photo events including no less than five dedicated photography auctions between 6 and 9 April. Sotheby’s kicked off the sessions generating the best revenue total of the week at $4.5m (and the second-best sales total of the year in the photography segment), several new records and a sales rate of 82%.
Its competitor Christie’s organised no less than three Photography sessions at the Rockefeller Plaza on 7 and 8 April: Photographs from the consolidated Freightways Collection ($1.8m including fees); The Feminine Ideal: An Important Private Collection of Photographs ($942,000 including fees) and Photographs ($5.3m including fees, 83% of lots sold). Phillips de Pury & Company held the last sale on 9 April with a mammoth catalogue containing 259 lots, 90% of which found buyers (total sales revenue: $4.6 m)

Prices rising for the recognised masterpieces
Demand is intensifying for the strong, historical pieces in good condition as seen with one of Mathew B. BRADY’s daguerreotypes. This austere portrait of John C. Calhoun taken in 1849 tripled its pre-sale estimate, setting a new personal record for the artist at $280,000 (Sotheby’s).
In the non-historical segments, the traditional pillars of the market were generously represented. Henri CARTIER-BRESSON, André KERTÉSZ, Robert MAPPLETHORPE, William KLEIN and BRASSAÏ were all there with prints from $5,000 to several tens of thousands of dollars.

The most expensive artists fetched prices above $100,000 like Ansel Easton ADAMS, twenty-nine of whose photos were offered over 3 days by the three auctioneers. Sotheby’s managed to sell the best print – his dune landscape entitled Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California – for $150,000 at the top end of its estimated range. In total, Sotheby’s sold sixteen of the seventeen Adams prints offered on 6 April. With Adams collectors’ appetites somewhat sated, they showed less interest for the prints offered by Christie’s over the two following days. Ansel Easton Adams’s record is still recent; it was set in June 2010 at Sotheby’s by his Clearing winter storm, Yosemite national park, (1938) that fetched $600,000, twice its low estimate.

The best results of the week’s sales were generated by the surrealist MAN RAY. His Untitled (Photomontage with Nude and Studio Light) signed the best result of the Sotheby’s sale at $340 000. At Christie’s, the big winner was Richard AVEDON whose Marilyn Monroe, New York City, May 6, generated $400,000, a new record for the photo. In effect, the artist’s price index has been boosted by the recent record (20 November 2010) at Christie’s Paris branch which organised a major sale of Richard Avedon’s photographs. His mythical Dovima with elephants, Evening dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris set a new world record close to a million dollars.

Behind Avedon, the winning quartet was William EGGLESTON (Memphis (Tricycle), $220,000, the artist’s third best result), Eugène ATGET (La Villette, rue Asselin, $200,000, also the artist’s third best result), Robert FRANK (Peru, $200,000) and Irving PENN (Bee on Lips, New York, September 22, $150,000 vs. a low estimate of $50,000). Christie’s offer of works by Irvin Penn met very strong demand: his twenty-four shots offered over two days nearly all found buyers (three remained unsold). In fact the artist’s price index has never before been so high: it rose 223% over the decade.

Eastern European photography has the wind in its sales
We also noted a visible recovery in interest for certain Eastern European photographers. The Czechoslovakian photographer Jaromír FUNKE (1896-1945), a major figure of 1920s and 1930s photography, a teacher and theoretician influenced by surrealism, picked up a new record at quadruple the work’s pre-sale estimate. The piece entitled Composition (From « Abstraktnl Foto ») and estimated $50,000 – $70,000 by Sotheby’s, finally went under the hammer at $290,000.
In addition, Christie’s generated a new record for Josef KOUDELKA who is known throughout the world for his work with gypsies. His Romania, a superb silver print taken in 1968, fetched $35,000 despite its provenance from a later 1980s print. Other poetic works by the artist, including his Ireland (Waves) and Switzerland (Falling Snow) were offered at Sotheby’s on 6 April, but generated less enthusiasm selling for $6,000 and $8,500 respectively.
The recent focus on Central Europe has given a substantial value lift to its artists. The art fair, Paris Photo 2010 (17 – 21 November), gave pride of place to Central Europe, with galleries and artists from Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The success of the April sales is a good sign for the upcoming May sales. Sotheby’s traditional May Photography sale is being held in Paris (10 May) this year rather than London, followed by Christie’s on 17 May and Phillips on 19 May in London. The French capital has in fact become the nerve centre of Sotheby’s photography sales in Europe. The heart of the photography market is returning to its historical centre and Christie’s – the principal rival to the US auction firm Sotheby’s, was not mistaken in choosing Paris for its sale of photographs from the Richard Avedon Foundation. With more than $6m in sales revenue and a zero unsold rate, the English firm generated the artist’s new record equivalent to $945,420 (Dovima with elephants, €700,000 – 20 November 2010) and above all, the best total revenue for a Photography sale in 2010.