The late American photographer Peter Beard—notoriously uninhibited in his work and social world—was known most widely for bringing rare portraits of African wildlife to the New York postwar cultural scene, his diaristic style and coveted social ties among the American elite led to a unique practice outside the bounds of the art market’s strictures.
But Beard’s bohemian lifestyle produced a few “hand-shake” deals that would later become a threat to his market’s integrity. In the last few years of Mr. Beard’s life, he and his wife, Nejma Beard went to court to recover ownership rights for several works they claimed to be sold through fraudulent terms. In 2016, attorney Judd Grossman of the eponymous New York art law firm claimed a victory for the Beards in a case against West-coast collector Bernie Chase, who was unable to prove the purchase of the works from Beard’s former model, Natalie White. In 2001, Mr. Beard and his wife, Nejma Beard created an eponymous studio meant “to protect and provide a market for his artwork” according to the filings. In 2015, Beard’s London dealer noted in the filings in Beard v. Chase his “market is at a critical stage -and I’m not talking about money (as you know, great ones are easy to sell) but more about his standing and how he is seen.”
The London gallerist was right, as 2016 to 2017 were crucial in establishing new public records that would contribute to Beard’s legacy. The standing record for Beard’s work was achieved in 2017 with a 1968 edition consigned from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, Orphaned Cheetah Cubs selling for three times its high estimate at $672,500. The year prior, a Christie’s London photography sale showed a rising attention to Beard. His collage, Heart Attack City sold for $634k, almost reaching a new record and in 2018 another edition of the same image sold for $603,532. For photographs sales, works reaching above the $500,000 price point are established among the top ranks for historical value. The 1968 collage that sold in 2017 bears the key elements that showed Beards attitude toward photographs as a malleable medium— adding text, snakeskin and smears of blood to the print. His errant style is signature in the the highest selling works—comprising montages of a wild documentary pursuit.
This embellishment seen in the highest selling works is beyond the careful treatment of traditional photography—outside the norm for the secondary market’s coveted photographs. His visceral approach applied between photography and painting was shared by friend and modern master, Francis Bacon, who painted a study of the photographer in 1975. As muse and close confidant, Beard was one of the few people allowed to photograph Bacon’s studio practice. Beard’s 1972 gelatin silver print perfectly captured the seated painter, with just his head blurred as if mimicking his canvas’s famously obfuscated faces. Few of his collages featuring Bacon have come to market in recent years. In a Phillips London May 2008 sale, his montage Portraits London, F. Bacon, Paris, Nairobi collected at Hog Ranch from 1990 sold for almost four times its low estimate bringing a total of $306,202. This insider access to a mysterious scene of key cultural figures would also come to make Beard valuable in the secondary market.
With Christie’s holding the top three auction records and for Beard’s work, and with the photographs department having worked closely with the studio, Darius Himes, International Head of Photographs recalled a peak auction moment for the name brand artist. “We held a single-artist auction of the artist’s work in October of 2013 titled Into Africa: Photographs by Peter Beard. 28 works were offered and 24 works sold, for $1,290,187” Reminding of his rise to prominence in the market, Himes noted “Peter Beard has been a collectible for a long time” – noting his first exhibition at the Blum Helman Gallery in New York City, in 1975 following his first books published in the 1960s. From there, major career defining exhibitions held at New York’s International Center of Photography in 1977, and later a 1997 show at the Centre national de la photographie in Paris established Beard in the market’s coveted sphere.
The appeal of Beard comes with the privileged proximity to celebrity figures, but often overshadowed his work. That 1988 collage sold in 2016 is emblematic of the photographer’s density of lived experience with the cultural vanguard of the 1960s and 70s. It features images of icons with whom Beard worked and socialized, like Andy Warhol (a co-collaborator and Montauk neighbor), through whom he met Lee Radziwill (Jackie Kennedy’s sister), and author Truman Capote who was covering the Rolling Stone’s tour in 1972 alongside Beard—then the staff photographer for the magazine, through which he became a friend of Mick Jagger. The 1972 Hamptons Summer was were the group of famed figures crossed Beard’s path—these friendships led to opportunities for chronicling untold stories. The recent 2018 documentary exposed Beard’s uncovered footage made in tandem with the 1975 cult classic set in Montauk— a portrait of American heiresses’ descent into decay. As the market continues to unearth gems from Warhol’s circle— the potential for Beard’s remaining archive and legacy remains still to be cultivated.