Auction Preview: Sotheby’s Contemporary Art, September 10, 2008

You know auction season is just around the corner when the first of the wrist breaker catalogues thumps down on your doorstep. The first to arrive at our house was for Sotheby’s Contemporary Art sale on September 10th. This is generally lower end/lower priced sale, spreading out the lots that don’t get into the bigger Contemporary Art sales later in the fall. Out of a total of 418 lots for sale, there are 21 lots that could be described as “photography”. I’ve listed them below alphabetically:

Pierre Bismuth, Most Wanted Men/NYC, 2007
James Casebere, Toilets, 1995
Rineke Dijkstra, Almerisa Wormer, 1999
Sam Durant, Landscape Response (Pigs Heads), 2002
Steve Giovinco, Untitled (Night Landscapes, #1626), 2004
Richard Kern, No Dogs (Long Island), 2003
David LaChapelle, Pamela Anderson, Miracle Tan, 2004
Louise Lawler, Pleasure/More, 1998
Philip LorcadiCorcia, Calcutta, 1998
Loretta Lux, The Dove, 2006
Paul McCarthy, Heidi Drinks, 2000
Ryan McGinley, Sam at Ground Zero, 2002
Ryan McGinley, Dan and Eric, 2002
Tracey Moffatt, Something More, No. 1, 1989
Yasumasa Morimura, Self Portrait (Actress)/White Marilyn, 1996
Jack Pierson, Flower No. 6, 1995
Thomas Ruff, Nudes Obe 06, 2001
Ed Ruscha, Five Views from the Panhandle, 1962/2007
Sandy Skoglund, Walking On Eggshells, 1997
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Mathematical Form 0004, 2004
Andy Warhol, Dolly Parton, 1985

The real thought behind this post is to consider the continued, blurry question of which pictures are “photographs”, and which ones are “photo-based art” or some other moniker used to place them more in the realm of Contemporary Art (with capitals). Just what is “photography” these days? In the list above, there are more than two thirds that would (in my opinion) do just as well or fit just as appropriately in a normal, run of the mill Photography auction. So it begs the question, why are they here? Are some of these inherently more Contemporary Art than Photography? How has the Photography market evolved in recent years?

It seems that these pictures/artists (and others like them, whatever that might mean) have been singled out from the larger world of Photography for their qualities that make them attractive to Contemporary Art collectors. Perhaps they are large, or colorful, or provocative, or touch on themes that are “beyond” photography. But the underlying thought must be that they will sell for more in a Contemporary Art sale than in a Photography sale, maybe because different people go to the different auctions, or maybe because there is more money flying around Contemporary Art than ever before. Does the data bear this concept out? I haven’t checked side by side, but it seems unlikely to me that savvy collectors will pay higher prices for a Sugimoto simply as a result of which sale it was placed in.

Perhaps the inevitable and ultimate outcome will be that the world of Photography (capitalized) will split, into a “classic/vintage photography” world, say pre 1985, and a “contemporary photography” world, for everything after. Phillips seems to believe this, and has headed aggressively in this direction. And for those artists on the bubble, which box are they put in? There must be an ultimate “list” somewhere that is the final arbiter (I’m sure the auction house specialists have a working list they use) of where an artist fits, although it has to be fluid, as artists’ reputations and collectors’ tastes evolve and change. Will Avedon, Penn, Arbus, or Mapplethorpe be “pulled forward”? Perhaps the sales in the next few seasons will see this become clearer. We’ll try to keep this question open as the rest of the sales this season come and go, and perhaps when all the data is in, a better pattern will emerge.

And by the way, is it just me, or did the Sotheby’s Buyer’s Premium thresholds go up, yet again? This catalog has the step down thresholds at $50,000 and $1,000,000 versus $20,000 and $500,000 (where they were in the spring sales). Maybe there was a press release with this in it, but I must have missed it. Collectors get squeezed again.

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