Auction Preview: Photographs, October 14 and 15, 2008 @Sotheby’s

In the past few years, Sotheby’s has solidified its place at the top of the Photographs heap by consistently unearthing a higher percentage of truly high quality material, both for single and various owner sales. The auction house has made a conscious decision to focus its attention on these top lots (quality), letting the low end (quantity) go by the wayside for the most part.

When you dig into the details of this sale, this strategy really comes through strongly (i.e. their execution is good). There are a total of 249 lots in this sale, for a total estimate of a whopping (for Photography) $10115000. Here’s the breakdown:

Total Low lots (high estimate $10000 or lower): 57
Total Low estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): $490000

Total Mid lots (high estimate between $10000 and $50000): 153
Total Mid estimate: $3545000

Total High lots (high estimate over $50000): 39
Total High estimate: $6080000

What is interesting is that in the High range, Sotheby’s and Christie’s have approximately the same number of lots (39 and 37 respectively), but the value of those lots at Sotheby’s is nearly double that of Christie’s ($6080000 versus $3540000). It is this difference in value (and quality) that separates the sales; in the Low and Mid ranges, they are comparable (at least by number of lots, estimated value, and quality of material). And as we all know, it is the top end that drives the revenue of the auction house.

Interestingly, there are only 12 21st century lots in this sale (negative date of 2000 or later); Sotheby’s seems to be losing the battle of contemporary photography to its rivals, or else has temporarily ceded this ground, only to come back and fight for it when the dollars really materialize. Additionally, there are only 6 19th century lots in this sale, which is surprising, as I think of Sotheby’s having strength in this area. Perhaps this is just the variation in arrival rate of great (or even adequate) material.

Finally, I have to add that I think some of the low end estimates here are on the high side (verging on the ridiculous). A later print of Judy Dater’s Imogen and Twinka for $5000-7000? Later prints of Brandt nudes for $8000-12000? A single Siskind Pleasures and Terrors later print for $7000-10000? Come on.

There are many images to tempt us in this sale:

  • Lot 5 Tina Modotti, Cala Lillies, 1924 (print by Manuel Alvarez Bravo 1976)
  • Lot 7 Edward Weston, Tina on the Azotea, 1924
  • Lot 16 Karl Blossfeldt, Blumenbachia Hieronymi, Loasaceae, 1920s
  • Lot 17 Imogen Cunningham, False Hellebore (Glacial Lily), 1927
  • Lot 18 Imogen Cunningham, Figures (Two Sisters), 1928/1950s
  • Lot 19 Alma Lavenson, Tank, 1931
  • Lot 20 Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Marseille, 1929
  • Lot 39 Robert Frank, Paris, 1951
  • Lot 80 Dr. Dain Tasker, X-Ray of a Lily, 1930
  • Lot 195 Robert Mapplethorpe, Orchids, 1985
  • Lot 196 Robert Mapplethorpe, Lily, 1984

Since we are such active Cunningham collectors, the Two Sisters image, even as an unsigned later print is the most enticing for us. We have been looking for an image from this series for a long time, and none has surfaced. Whether it is worth $40000-60000 (which seems meaningfully high to us), we’ll soon see.

October 14 and 15, 2008

1334 York Avenue
New York, NY 10021

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