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Sotheby's Scores In Spring Photo Auctions.

NEW YORK--The spring photography auctions in the Big Apple had one undisputed champion--Sotheby's. In fact, its gross sale total was more than double that of Christie's and Swarm combined. The reason was equally undisputed: the record sale of Photographs from the Museum of Modern Art held on April 25. It established a new record for a "single-owner sale of photographs in New York" according to auction-house officials. Denise Bethel, director of Sotheby's Photograph Department, said, "We had strong prices at every level ... and we are extremely pleased with today's outstanding results."

Indeed, the results showed that even in times of financial uncertainty, collectors will find the necessary funds to purchase such photos, i.e., important works which are fresh to the market.

As for the less exceptional works offered at the other sales of the season, the buyers resolutely refused to pull out their wallets. For example, at the Sotheby's main sale held on April 26, one-quarter of all of the pieces on offer failed to find buyers.

At Christie's on April 18, far more than one-quarter of the works went unsold. Worse yet, many of those that did were the ones with the highest estimates. Six of the top pieces, with a combined estimate of $490,000 to $690,000, all failed to find buyers. Leila Buckjune, head of Christie's Photograph Department in New York, seemed to attribute the sale's poor performance to what she called "the current selective market."

Even Swann, at its April 5 sale, bested Christie's regarding the percentage of works sold. (Note: the figures for Swann were calculated excluding the lots of "Photographic Literature" in the sale.) As well, its top lot was a surprise success story, fetching more than 10 times its high estimate.

Had not MoMA ridden to the rescue, the art market could have headed as far south this season as the stock market.

Ansel Adams, "Moonrise Hernandez, New Mexico"--This old chestnut, as well as other images by Adams, bucked the trend at the Christies sale and performed well. This image sold to an unidentified American collector for an over-estimate $41,125.

Charles Sheeler, "Bleeder Stacks, Ford Plant, Detroit"--Sheeler, who is perhaps better known as a painter, donated this work himself to MoMA in 1941.Although it was originally commissioned by an advertising agency, it is still deemed a "fine art photograph" and sold for $44,450.

Alvin Langdon Coburn, "Near Hollywood, California"--This was the top lot at the Swann sale, but it by no means had been expected to be. Bearing an estimate of only $1,000 to $2,000, it ultimately sold to a dealer for $23,000. According to Daile Kaplan, Swann photograph specialist, the price "reflects a growing interest in Coburn's production."

Edward Steichen, "Self Portrait, Milwaukee"--This piece, described as "an exceedingly rare, Whistlerian self-portrait," was the No. three lot in the MoMA sale. It fetched $170,750.

Walker Evans, "Penny Picture Display, Savannah"--When this lot fetched $181,750, it set a record for the artist and earned bragging rights as the top lot of the season.

Man Ray, "Enigma II"--Thirty percent of the top 10 lots at the Christie's sale were images by Man Ray. This one, which purportedly evidences the photographer's interest in the writings of the Marquis de Sade, became the No. three lot of the sale when it brought in $52,875.

Berenice Abbott, "New York at Night"--Abbott required permission to take this photograph from a top floor in a skyscraper in 1933.As she observed, "they always thought you wanted to commit suicide." It set an auction record for the artist when it brought $69,750.

Margaret Bourke-White, "Soviet Children Seated at a Table"--This precise image, which was an engagement gift from Henry Luce to his personal secretary at Fortune magazine, bears the photographer's inscription, "Hope you like the Bolshevic babies." It sold to the trade for $12,650.


                      Sotheby's   Sotheby's
         Christie's     MoMA        Main      Swann

unsold      43%          11%         25%       35%
sold        57%           89%         75%       65%


                      Sotheby's   Sotheby's
          Christie's     MoMA        Main     Swann

unsold      36%            3%         20%       32%
sold        64%           97%         80%       68%

According to Denise Bethel, Sotheby's MoMA sale boasted" one of the
highest sold rates in our department's history." Its main sale, though,
posted only fair-to-respectable figures, and the Christie's and Swann
sales fared even worse than fair.


Christie's    Sotheby's     Sotheby's     Swann
                MoMA          Main

$2,539,175    $4,015,230    $2,217,500   $416,427

The chart is clearly dominated by the Sotheby's MoMA sale, which grossed
$4,015,230. This, combined with the $2,217,500 fetched at the Sotheby's
main sale, yields more than $6.2 million. Christie's, hobbled by the
poor performance of its top lots, could not even muster half of that

Note: Table made from bar graph.


Only 35 percent of the
pieces sold at the MoMA
sale sold over estimate.
Thus, it seems that the sale
was a blockbuster because
top-quality images were
on offer, not because buyers
were profligate. At
Sotheby's main sale, the
distribution is practically
textbook--there is an
almost perfect distribution
between the four categories.
The meager over-estimate
figures at
Christie's and Swann pale
by comparison.

               Sotheby's             Sotheby's   Christie's
               Main sale    Swann      MoMA

within            23%         21%        33%         20%
over estimate     27%         15%        35%         14%
unsold            25%         35%        11%         43%
under estimate    27%         29%        21%         23%

Note: Table made from pie chart.
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Publication:Art Business News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jun 1, 2001
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