The freight train-like succession of auctions over the past two weeks, covering all varieties of Asian and Contemporary art, has passed. Arriving today is a full week of photography sales, and each auction house has boxcar loads of pictures worth seeing.
Long considered the redheaded stepchild of the arts, photography has been gaining academic stature and experiencing substantial market growth. “There is less prejudice now against photography,” an expert in the form at Sotheby’s, Chris Mahoney, said.
The photography market came of age in 2004 when sales began to pop. In 2005, $45 million in photographs were sold at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. In 2006, sales jumped to $63.8 million, helped in part by Sotheby’s sale of photographs from the Metropolitan Museum including the Gilman Paper Company collection. During the sale, the record price for a photograph — $2.9 million — was set by an Edward Steichen print. But 2007 showed the market didn’t need any gimmicks to prop it up with sales advancing nearly another 10% from that record year to $69.9 million.
“The last three years or so have been wonderful times,” Phillips de Pury’s expert, Joseph Kraeutler, said. “Anything with Robert Frank and Irving Penn’s name on it sold and sold well.” This year seems to be no exception. All three auction houses have multiple catalogs and sales with hundreds of lots in each. The range of photography would be bewildering if each radically different genre weren’t so engrossing in its own right. Yes, there’s plenty of Frank and Penn. But Sotheby’s has an entire catalog of Edward and Brett Weston pictures, too.
There’s also a large amount of Ansel Adams and Diane Arbus. Christie’s has a separate Adams catalog and sale. Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have special Arbus catalogs for their sales. Phillips has a cache of Arbus pictures — ” Hubert’s Museum Work 1958–1963″ — that chronicles her fascination with performers and odd folks. These pictures represent a newfound trove of Arbus’s work uncovered in a Bronx storage locker in 2002.
Another intentionally odd body of work is by the photographer Peter Beard. Long a social fixture — and tabloid staple because of his marriage to Cheryl Tiegs — Mr. Beard emerged in the photography market two years ago during the first sale of photographer Gert Elfering’s holdings. Mr. Beard lives half the year on a ranch in Kenya, and his photographs are prized for their exotic locations, wildlife, and women, as well as his markings on them. His photographs, covered in writing, appear throughout the sales. And because there is so much manipulation by hand, his pieces are unique, not merely editions.
Christie’s is selling a “self-portrait” from 1996 made for a show at the Centre National de la Photographie, Paris. This show came shortly after Mr. Beard was trampled by an elephant and makes reference to his need for a morphine drip. The estimate i s between $150,000 and $200,000. Since the work was bought from the Elfering sale just three years ago at a hammer price of $160,000, it is expected to go for more.
One of the excitements of photography is the way it can stand between art on one side and celebrity on the other. The sales include many familiar faces — not to mention naked bodies. There is a set of nude portraits of the model Kate Moss for sale at Phillips, estimated at between $120,000 and $180,000. The set was taken by the painter Chuck Close. Prints from Bert Stern’s famous “last sitting” with Marilyn Monroe — the one Lindsay Lohan paid homage to in New York magazine recently — are for sale, estimated at between $12,000 and $18,000, at Phillips.
Around town this weekend you can see portraits of Jackie O., Hunter S. Thompson, Janis Joplin, Charlie Chaplin, Babe Paley, Nastassja Kinski, Georgia O’Keeffe, Muhammad Ali, Winston Churchill, Robert Frost, George Bernard Shaw, James Cagney, Jane Russell, Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Lennon and McCartney, Brigitte Bardot, Naomi Campbell, and Igor Stravinsky. In case you haven’t heard, there are also nudes of Giselle Bundchen and Carla Bruni, who is now Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the first lady of France.
If your interest runs more toward the artistic, however, you’ll do well to stop by Sotheby’s to see the Quillan Collection. Exhibited for the first time in its entirety, the collection was built by Jill Quasha, a pioneering photography curator, for the Quillan Company, an investment group. The goal of the 69-piece collection was “to represent photography’s achievements from its beginnings in 1839 to the near present.” The Quillan Collection, completed in 1990, quickly attained cult status in the photography world.
“When she completed the collection, it was still the early days and the photography market was much smaller,” Mr. Mahoney said. “The circle of buyers and sellers was smaller. The people in it were involved in it passionately. There were people in the field who, when they saw the finished book, recognized an achievement in collecting. For those who were paying attention, it was meaningful.”