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Photograph sale breaks world record!

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NYC February 2006,

A photograph of a pond taken by Edward Steichen sold for more than US$2.9 million, easily setting a world record for the highest-priced photograph ever auctioned, Sotheby’s said.
“The Pond-Moonlight,” taken on long island in 1904, sold for $2,928,000, including the buyer’s premium, Sotheby’s spokesman Matthew Weigman said. The buyer’s identity was not immediately disclosed.
The photograph shows a pond in a wooded area with light coming through the trees and reflected in the water. Pre-sales estimates priced the photo, which is slightly bigger than 16 inches by 19 inches, at up to $1 million. The only other two prints are in museum collections.
The previous record for highest price for a photograph at auction, $1,248,000 was set in November by Richard Prince’s “Untitled (Cowboy)”.
Also surpassing that record last week were two photographs of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe taken by Alfred Stieglitz, her husband. A photograph of her hands sold for $1,472,000, and a portrait of her nude sold for $1,360,000, Weigman said.
All three photographs were among a group of close to 140 scheduled to be auctioned by Sotheby’s on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. – Associated Press

Reprinted with permission granted by Newsletter in which it appeared on March 1.

“The following “reviews” of the recent record-breaking auction were written by two of our consultants, the veteran appraiser, author and former auction house expert, Nancy Lieberman and the newest member of our team, Laura Humphrey, formerly of Howard Greenberg Gallery, now a freelance collection manager. In addition, we have included an erudite email received from the well-known collector, Michael Mattis (with his permission, of course).

Sotheby’s Sale of Important Photographs from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Including Works from the Gilman Paper Company Collection, February 2006.

On February 14 and 15, 2006, Sotheby’s held what is sure to be remembered as a landmark event in the photography market—the “white glove” sale entitled “Important Photographs from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The 113 lots in the sale were selected after the Museum acquired The Gilman Paper Company Collection in 2005 and identified images that overlapped with photographs that they already possessed. They made carefully considered decisions and chose to sell some photographs from the Gilman Collection and some from their own collection, presenting potential buyers with an unprecedented opportunity to purchase works that would otherwise never be offered for sale.

The term “white glove” refers to the fact that every lot in the sale was sold—unusual in itself. But what was even more noteworthy was the sale total: $14,982,900, a record for an individual sale of photographs. As we saw in the 2005 sales of the Schieszler, Elfering and Berri Collections, there is no underestimating the importance the market places on provenance and the exuberant way it reacts to a single owner sale. This sale was exceptional in that it possessed dual provenance-- two world-class collections seamlessly melded into a spectacularly enticing presentation. With Denise Bethel, specialist par excellence, at the helm and the Sotheby’s marketing department working in full force, the sale was destined to succeed.

The highlight of the sale was one that many in the market had speculated about for weeks. Bets were wagered on what the selling price would be. The lot in question, lot # 6 entitled, “The Pond-Moonlight” by Eduard Steichen, is a gorgeous, 1904 gum-bichromate over platinum print, one of three prints of the image known to exist. The Metropolitan owns a print and then acquired this second one from Gilman; the third belongs to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The large scale and extremely painterly quality of this work suggested that the piece could easily have found its way into the hands of a painting collector for whom the estimate of $700,000 to $1,000,000 would seem low in contrast to an amount they wouldn’t think twice about paying for a comparable work by an important painter. (think Monet’s “Waterlilies” for example). But a fortunate few in the photography market had the means to bid on the piece and after a prolonged bidding war, Peter MacGill of Pace MacGill Gallery, NY purchased the masterpiece for a private client for $2,928,000, by far and away a record for a photograph sold at auction. The previous record of $1,248,000, had been paid for a Richard Prince1989 untitled color photograph of a cowboy at Christies in a Contemporary Art Sale on November 2005. The previous record (and really, a closer and more relevant comparison) for a twentieth century photograph was set and then tied at Sotheby's in New York in October 2005. Dorothea Lange's 1933 "White Angel Bread Line" sold for $822,400, tying Edward Weston's 1921 "The Breast."

But the Steichen wasn’t the only sale to elicit an applause from the audience. A few minutes later lot #11 entitled “Georgia O’Keefe (Hands),” a warm, rich 1919palladium print by Alfred Stieglitz, sold to Jeffrey Fraenkel of Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco for $1,472,000. And just two lots later, $1,360,000 was paid, again by Jeffrey Fraenkel, for “Georgia O’Keefe (Nude),” another 1919 palladium print by Alfred Stieglitz. In total, there were thirty-three lots in the sale that sold for prices in excess of $100,000. The average price paid for the 113 lots in the sale was a staggering$132,592.

Even though a dizzying amount of money was spent in a short period of time on a select group of very high quality photographs, it was hard to ignore the fact that the majority of the lots were bought by a very small number of people. Even if you include phone bidders (of which there were several but, again, a few of them bought multiple lots) there were many more people sitting on their hands than there were people raising their paddles. There were many bidders who got shut out early on in the process, with only a few who successfully purchased virtually every lot they bid on. This suggests that certain aspects of the market has reached levels that are unattainable to the majority of collectors and dealers, and that the highest end of the market is accessible to only a few. In this respect, the auction market has really become closer to the retail market than it traditionally has been. Photography auctions used to be a place for dealers to buy at “wholesale” prices and replenish their inventory. Not true anymore and, as a result, there were a number of disgruntled dealers and collectors in the room. Dealers were overheard saying things like, “I own a better print of that image and couldn’t sell it for half that price.” Or “That’s way too much for that photograph.”

In conclusion, the auction market is robust, the retail market is increasingly segmented and, like so much else in our society today, the greatest amount of wealth is held by a small number of people. On a lighter note: Never Underestimate the Power of Provenance.
- Nancy Lieberman

To the delight of auction houses and many in the photo world, it has become accepted that each season sees auction records broken for the highest amount paid for a photograph. The previous record was set just a few months ago by Richard Prince’s Untitled “Cowboy,” 1989, which sold for $1,248,00 at Christie’s in November of 2005.

The sale of photographs from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum earlier this week at Sotheby’s broke this record three times. Two important and rare Stieglitz photographs of Georgia O’Keefe, the “heroic” nude and a portrait of the artist’s hands, sold for 1.2 million and 1.3 million respectively without buyer’s premiums. This alone was cause for celebration, clapped hands, and raised eyebrows, but seemed almost lackluster when compared to the evening’s sale of Edward Steichen’s The Pond – Moonlight, 1904. This piece, at just over 16 x 19 inches, sold for 2.6 million – essentially the total of the last three auction records added together. It was purchased by Peter MacGill of Pace/MacGill Gallery on behalf of a private client. The estimate, which Sotheby’s sets in accordance to current trends in the retail and auction markets, was $700,000 – 1,000,000.

Unlike the Prince photograph, there probably won’t be much debate over the high value given the Steichen and Stieglitz photographs. Each is a rare print by a landmark artist. It can be argued that the Steichen photograph is unique, given the painstaking process he undertook to create the soft light and layered colors of the night scene. On top of that, it would be hard to match the glowing dual provenance of these photographs having come from the Met out of its Gilman Paper Company acquisition.

While it was expected that the Steichen would break the previous auction record, more of a surprise was the exorbitant prices paid for many of the lesser works of the sale. Most notably, a group of three relatively unremarkable Funkes went for 18 times the top of the estimate given by Sotheby’s. The battle on the auction floor lead to a buyer’s price far and away above the typical values for top works by Funke on the retail market. The estimate was reasonably set at $5,000 -$7,000 but was bought for $130,000, without buyer’s premiums, by Parker Stephenson on behalf of a private client.

This means good things for Sotheby’s but may be mixed for private dealers and galleries. In this sale it practically became standard for each lot to sell for at least double its estimate. Yet comparable pieces for many of these expensive lots can be found on the retail market for prices much closer to the estimates (even though the general consensus was that the estimates were low). The main difference is that the photographs in this sale all came with such sterling provenance. But, as with the Funke lot, is provenance worth $123,000? Perhaps the most interesting result of this sale will be to see how galleries and dealers adjust the values of their wares, if at all.

Another aspect to consider is the role of the actual artists in the rapidly escalating auction market. Photographers tend to be more closely involved with the galleries that represent them than with auctions. Auction houses do receive works from artist’s estates, but more often auction consignments come from people other than the artist or estate. Case in point, the record breaking Richard Prince photograph was put up for sale at Christie’s by an anonymous consignor. Prince himself was so uninvolved in the process that he was “at home wrestling with [his] eight year old daughter in [his] bed watching the World Series of Poker, eating the last of [their] Halloween candy” [1] while his photograph made auction history.

This week witnessed a truly historical event for the esteem of photographs in the larger art market. While this record may not be broken for some time, it is clear that the photography market is on the rise. This will always be a good thing for collectors. But for many in the photo world, the question now is, who will be able to cash in?
-Laura Humphrey

People who only learned of the Sotheby's sales results after the fact from the Sotheby's website or from press reports would naturally assume a boisterous bidding atmosphere. Quite the contrary, it seemed that the room was preternaturally subdued. Much of the serious action was from anonymous bidders on the phone, or from art advisors whispering to their clients on cell phones ("his master's voice"). In deference to the doubly impeccable provenance of Gilman and the Met, the atmosphere was solemn, even reverential. We all knew we were witnessing a sea-change in the photography world; though whether the magic dust that was sprinkled over this sale's offerings (even the more mundane lots) carries over to the April auctions, or partially blows off by then, remains to be seen. The new price levels are definitely a double-edged sword. On the one hand, photo collectors that I've spoken with feel vindicated that classic photography has finally attained the market value, ergo the level of art world acceptance, that we always thought it ought to have: a great Steichen gum print should indeed sell for as much as any other masterpiece in any other medium from the Stieglitz circle (an Arthur Dove oil has sold for $1.25 million, and three Marsden Hartleys have auctioned between $2 and $3 million). Let me flat out say it: after the Gilman sale, that old _expression "photography is undervalued" can finally be put to rest. And the startling new prices will definitely flush out a lot of great pictures in the near future. Personally, I predict that after the April sales, it will be clear that for the best material these price levels are indeed "real", and there is no going back. On the other hand, I also sense no small degree of wistfulness that our little private club has been crashed (as in, do we really have to share our toys now with these hedge-fund guys?). Several dealers bemoaned the fact that they were totally aced out at the sale, and are despairing of being able to replace the top tier of their inventory at the new price levels. One dealer that I know is going to try to segue from between-the-wars Modernism to sixties and seventies material, much of which now seems undervalued by comparison (the silly season for posthumous Arbus’ notwithstanding). Another dealer is now looking more at the 19th century. This type of refocusing by dealers, collectors and curators is to be expected and is not inherently a bad thing; such is the nature of the art market in general.
Michael P. Mattis

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