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On Friday, Sotheby’s Photographs sale, which was originally scheduled to take place as a live auction at the company’s New York headquarters ended its online bidding period— offering a total of 199 lots, the sale saw a sell-through rate of just 61%, but reached a solid total result of $3 million.
The leading lot among the group of works was László Moholy-Nagy photogram Broom: An International Magazine of the Arts, from 1922 – the edition is a rare example of early modern photography used in editorial design. Having been shown in seminal exhibitions such as 100 Years of Bauhaus’ show in Berlin, the work transferred ownership through Moholy-Nagy’s family and this is the first time the work had come to auction. Landing solidly within its estimate of $400,000-$600,000, the work only saw two bids before reaching its sale price of $524,000. Sotheby’s Head of Photographs Department in New York, Emily Bierman noted that among the group of works on offer “the result for the Moholy-Nagy is also a significant standout, as it is the third most valuable work sold in an online sale at Sotheby’s this year. In the past few seasons, we’ve seen considerable growth for the European Modernism photographs market, and the exceptional result for the Moholy-Nagy, which is one of the highest prices ever achieved at auction for a photograph by the artist, is a prime example of the strength of the market.”
Other works that performed well against their estimates were contemporary conceptual artist Christian Marclay’s Memento (UB40)—a large-scale cyanotype produced by the artist overlaying unraveled cassette tapes on photo-paper and exposing to sunlight— the piece drew 21 bidders, doubling its high estimate of $70,000 and ultimately realizing a selling price of $162,500. A small-scale rare photo from 1911 by Italian photographers, Anton Giulio and Arturo Bragaglia, Un Gesto del Capo (A Gesture of the Head) which had also been passed down through the family of the artist, had 9 bidders total — ultimately selling for $100,000, doubling its low estimate of $50,000. Photography master and modern icon, Alfred Stieglitz’s photogravure, The Hand of Man, from 1902 realized $112,500, placing between its estimate of $80-120,000. An auction record was set for the American artist and active member of the 1980s downtown arts scene, Tseng Kwong Chi. His 1979 print Disneyland, California comes from the artist’s seminal series of image depicting the Hong-Kong born artist dressed as a Chinese communist official posed blithely in front of American landmarks and tourist hubs. The work, which is said to be the first edition of this particular image to come to auction achieved $27,500, beating its high estimate of $25,000. New York Photography mainstay, Joel Meyerowitz, Paris, Falling Man beat its high estimate of $7,000 with 18 total bidders, eventually reaching its sale price of $10,625. A mainstay in many photographs sales are Warhol polaroids. This time, a set of the artist’s Polaroids depicting toys saw a total of 17 bidders, more than doubling its low estimate of $4,000 and realizing a selling price of $10,625.
As the impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic maintains closures of all public sales and arts programming, the online sales that have replaced live auctions show the current temperature of the slowed market. For Sotheby’s, the expansion to digital platforms appears to meeting demand and attracting new buyers. Acknowledging the market’s robust response to the sale, Bierman also noted that “first-time Photographs bidders comprised more than half of all bidders in the sale—a sure sign that our online platform was able to reach not only new bidders to Sotheby’s but also have crossover appeal to collectors in other categories.”
With more than five items sold for a price over $100,000, the top sector of the Photographs auction have typically been an avenue for multi-category collectors with an attention to modernism to source historically valuable artists at an affordable price. With 30% of the buyers reportedly new to the company at-large, the smaller online sales will continue to be a key space for the firms capacity to engage their collecting base while salerooms are closed.