Sotheby’s sets new records, spurs medium’s next phase

By LAURA HUMPHREY
Contributing Editor

NEW YORK (Fotophile.com) — 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 nearly $1.25 million at Christie’s in November 2005.

The sale of photographs from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at Sotheby’s on 14 February 2006 broke this record three times. Two important and rareAlfred 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 to $1 million.

Unlike the Prince photograph, there probably won’t be much debate over the high value given the Stiechen and Steiglitz photographs: Each is a rare print by a landmark artist. It can be argued that the Stiechen 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 Stiechen 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 Jaromir Funke print went for 18 times the top of the estimate given by Sotheby’s. The heated battle on the auction floor lead to a buyer’s price far and away above the typical values for top Funke prints on the retail market. The estimate was set at $5,000 to $7,000 but sold for $130,000, without buyer’s premiums, to 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. The main difference is that the photographs in this sale all came with such sterling provenance. 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 artists’ estates, but more often auction consignments come from people other than the artist or estate. Case in point, the record-breaking 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, according to PDN, “at home wrestling with [his] 8-year-old daughter in [his] bed watching the World Series of Poker, eating the last of [their] Halloween candy” 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?