LONDON SPRING AUCTION REPORT; PET PEEVES ABOUT AUCTIONS
London Auction Report
London was actually a drag this time. Very little new material is coming on the auction market either in London or Paris now. It's mostly a rehash of collector and dealer material: picked over albums, etc. All the following prices are hammer prices in British pounds sterling, except where noted for house totals. After 15% buyer premium, shipping, VAT and currency exchange, figure about double to get US Dollars. There were only a few exciting pieces and they went to deep-pocketed collectors and institutions.
I was the underbidder on three out of three lots that I really wanted at Christies' South Kensington. Michael Wilson, producer of James Bond movies, (via his buyer, Violet) got one (the Melville album --material resembles Cameron and Carroll-- at 19,000 pounds hammer price), the National Gallery of Dublin got another (important and artistic early Irish aristocracy album with artwork) and Sean Sennett (Mr. Charles Jones himself) got the third (another two sets from the same Irish source). If I knew how important this Irish material was, I wouldn't have even tried to bid, knowing Sean's love of the material and deep pockets. I was still able to buy a couple of nice ambros; a wonderful set of large platinum prints of North Wales scenes reminiscent of Roger Fenton's (but of course about 35 years later) large landscapes; a great Desire Charnay; and a nice group of albumen prints of flowers.
A good print of the Breaking Wave at Sete by Le Gray but with foxing marks marring it went to Alan Leeds, a US collector, for 42,000 pounds. A fabulous mixed album with some of the best prints of Taku Fort that I've seen went to Michael Wilson for 15,000 pounds, perhaps a bargain. A rather boring mixed album with only the striking illustrated image by Ueno Hikoma of any real interest still went for 9,000 pounds, which was the bottom of its estimate range. I do understand that there were some scarce early Japanese landscapes in the album but it did seem to go very high for so few compelling images. This album went to the British trade. Bi-coastal (London and LA) oriental image dealer Dennis Crow snagged two lots (210 and 211) in a row by phone: a very lovely print of a Philippine woman and a huge mixed album for 11,000 pounds sterling. Otherwise the only real action at Christie's was on the twentieth century, with an album of panoramas of the Russian imperial family just reaching the bottom of its estimate range at 40,000 pounds and going to a US collector.
To me the most mesmerizing image of the entire London auctions was the Werner Mantz of an apartment house in Cologne, 1928, which was a fabulous print, which went for an equally fabulous record price (for Mantz) of 23,000 pounds sterling. US Dealers Hans Kraus and Lee Marks, both bidding for customers, were outbid by phone by a collector from the US. A Brassai also set a new London record at auction for Brassai, sold to Michael Wilson's buyer Violet as favor for a friend of Michael's for 17,000 pounds.
Overall Christie's South Kensington did a relatively mediocre 487,000 pounds sterling including the buyers' premiums. They also had a hefty buy-in rate of 41%. Contrast that with Christie's NYC operation's auction, which hit over $5.5 million (a record) and an impressively low buy in rate of only 24%, one of that operation's best outings ever. Atgets that hit six figures, a Hill & Adamson that fetched a record $70,000+, and many other superb prints in excellent condition boosted Christie's NY.
Over at Sotheby's London the activity was focused largely on the lots of Moholy-Nagy. West Coast dealer Paul Hertzmann took the first lot at a record 95,000 pounds. But the shocker was on the cover photo lot by M-N of the photogram hand. It was bid up by Rick Wester of Christie's NY, who was moonlighting in the front row, for an astounding 155,000 pounds sterling hammer price. Rick was apparently bidding for NYC "hand" photo collector, Henry Buhl. Philippe Garner of Sotheby's, obviously flustered but still a gentleman, told me later that he didn't know whether to be annoyed or overjoyed. NY dealer Edwynn Houk purchased a few of the M-H lots, including a nicely toned pair of photograms (lot 292) for 68,000 pounds, perhaps a "bargain."
Condition was a bit rough on some of the M-H lots, but that didn't seem to slow down the action from largely US dealers and the phone. Other lots that shocked included a complete set of Camera Works that went for a record-setting price of 58,000 pounds (well over $100,000), and well over previous auction records of about $75,000 for matched sets with provenance. This was a pieced-together set, which would typically be expected to fetch about $65,000, ideal dealer stock. And none of the photogravure dealers in the room (including Willie Schaeffer, Mack Lee, Henry Feldstein, Paul Hertzmann, etc.) were even in the running at the end, although they were clearly interested in this particular lot. Whether this proves to be an aberration or not, we'll have to see. I just can't see this market going up 25-35% right now, but who knows. Watch out, you ebay Camera Work gravure freaks!
There wasn't much in 19th century to get excited about at Sotheby's London (unlike their NYC counterpart's historic Southward and Hawes sale). However, an unusual Le Gray of a factory in the east of France went for a hefty 28,000 pounds. I felt that the image was interesting if not compelling and the print quality was just "ok". It was rich but with a few surface marks.
And then there was the battle by Hertzmann/Singer versus Willie Schaeffer for the Taber archive of 557 prints for a hefty 13,000 pounds sterling with Schaeffer the winner. The presale estimate on the lot was only 1000-1500 pounds, proving once again that you have to ignore estimates in your bidding strategy. This California oriented lot included moon shots, Chinatown views and even some self portraits.
I made some good purchases at Sotheby's including a number of vintage Lartigue prints of Renee Perle, his most famous model and mistress; a salt portrait of Victor Hugo; a wonderful group of nudes posed with skeletons (c.1920) by the German photographer, Franz Fiedler, whose studio was firebombed in WWII; a group of larger prints by Disderi of various Royals; and a scarce and important silver print heliograph by Karol Hiller, a modernist equivalent of the cliche verre process.
Overall Sotheby's London did over a million pounds, more than double Christie's South Ken. Their buy-in rate of 38% was slightly better than at Christie's. It seems odd to me, but it almost appears that the auction houses' current orientations are the exact opposite of their NYC counterparts. Sotheby's London Philippe Garner has (with the exception of the wonderful Tripe albums and the upcoming collector specific Jammes and Murray sales) seemed to push the house more in the direction of 20th-century modernism for its general auctions, as does Christie's NY's Rick Wester.
Meanwhile, over at Christie's South Ken, Lindsey Stewart appears to fulfill more of London's traditional role of providing more 19th century source material, much as Denise Bethel of Sotheby's NYC, although, as Denise, has pointed out to me, Sotheby's NY also does exceedingly well with 20th century American images, holding the records for Weston for instance. The problem on 19th century source material is that much of this material appears to be drying up.
Filling in with collector and dealer left-overs will not help much with this strategy, unless the house can convince those sources to part with higher end items. Some of the albums/groups looked like they had been gone through and some key images removed and then put back up at auction. Frankly there wasn't much to buy in the London market at any decent prices. Some privately sold hard images in the lower end were still reasonable, but Christie's put silly reserves (thanks to consignor Uve Scheid) on many of their hard images and most were bought in. This helped boost their rather poor buy-in rate.
Petaluma, CA dealer, Barry Singer, bought some very interesting Paris Opera Construction photos by Durandelle from ebayer and London dealer Pierre Spake, who still has a few more left. Print quality is in the average range, but subject matter is really quite strong. They reminded me of the Delamotte's of the Crystal Palace construction that sold at Sotheby's London last year. Pierre had them at the small table-top Photo Fair immediately following the auctions.
I was able to buy a few nice hard images here, mostly ambrotypes. Two other London shops that I always stop at are: John Benjafield's in Portobello (Saturdays only) and Daniella Dangoor's shop on 40A Museum St near the British Museum and the Holborn Station stop (Daniella is usually in the shop Wed-Sat.). Both are nice people with good eyes for images, and I find that I usually bump into old friends at both places.
And thanks to fellow ebayer, Ron Sheeley, I now know the great bar at the Russell Hotel near Russell Square where we set up camp on more than one occasion. Here's one for you, Ron.
One other little tip for the London bound: Daquise, a Polish (yes, that's right, I said Polish) restaurant just around the corner from the South Kensington station and not far from Christie's. It's at 20 Thurloe St and makes some of the best food for the money in London. Entrees are about 6 to 8 pounds, which for London is a steal, considering that you'd be hard pressed to get out of McDonald's for less than 6 quid. It's not imperative but it could be useful to make reservations. It's small and the non-smoking area (an innovation itself for London/Europe) is even smaller, although I find less and less people smoking in London now. Try the stuffed cabbage or hungarian goulash pancakes with a Zwiek Polish beer (a full half liter at a potent 5.8% alcohol level) and top it off with a desert of crepe pancake with cream cheese and raisins. My thanks to Daniella Dangoor for this suggestion. I wound up eating there four times!
I fear that Americans collecting non-American material are in for some big shocks. Europe, if any thing, may actually be higher on most items. The original source material has largely dried up and now it's only a rehash of collector and dealer stock, both in London and Paris (certainly in the last round of London and Paris auctions). And dealers there now realize this. I saw prices on basically the same type items hiked by the same French dealers by 25-100% from just last year! London dealers are following the same trend, but with a little more discretion. My only question is: who's going to buy the low-mid-level material at these inflated prices? I see some problems ahead.
Follow-up on Last Newsletter
I received lots of nice email from the last time I sent this newsletter out, but I got a few brickbats back as well. Swann photo expert Daile Kaplan pointed out that my "expectation" that they did not hit the $1 million hammer price mark for their last auction was incorrect and that their buy-in rate was not "high". I still have not received the info that I requested back including the number of lots that sold afterwards (reportedly in the 20s) that might impact these figures, but I'm glad that the house did well, even if some of the sales might have come later, including an important group of Civil War images that sold later for $17,000 hammer.
She also took exception with my "characterizing Swann's material as 'quirky'". As I pointed out to her in my return email, that I only used this term in the most positive fashion and only noted it in the context of the additional fine job that she and Swann have been doing with some larger and more important pieces. It's the "quirkiness" that most of us have come to love about Swann. It ISN'T just the same old, same old. It offers interesting vintage work instead of the same parade of late printed pieces. Daile is one of my favorite people and if I gave anyone out there the wrong impression of this house, I certainly apologize.
Latest eBay Rumours
While we're on the subject of Swann, the hot rumour (I haven't gotten out of the habit of using British spelling yet) in London was that they were the next target of eBay and that conversations were underway.
No confirmation from either source yet. I don't know if this is just a shot in the dark or there fire with this smoke, but the sources seem quite emphatic.
No offense to Swann, but I still don't understand with eBay's multi-billion dollar war chest why they just don't buy Christie's with its international and broad market expertise. They could pick up the house for about $6 billion, a literal drop in the bucket for ebay right now. Perhaps LiveBid, the Amazon.com competitor who attempted to buy B&B, helping to precipitate that sale to eBay, will.
My Latest Editorializing/Ranting and Ravings
I have two pet peeves about the auction houses that I feel I have to vent:
1.) The auction houses have really fallen to new lows when it comes to their reliance on their "Buyer Beware" clauses. Can't any of you exercise some control over taking those idiotic "Josie Earps" in your auctions? You should be ashamed of yourselves. They debase the auctions. These are clearly NOT Mrs. Earp and they are not at all rare. (The ones you see on Ebay typically are even late reprints.) There are hundreds of them on the market and they aren't worth the paper that they're printed on, in my humble opinion. They're the "beenie babies" of the photo market. They are perhaps one of the least rare images of the turn of the century. The unfortunate buyers will eventually be stuck with these next to worthless images that they get suckered into buying for thousands because they have the blessing of an auction house. When I've posed this question to each of you at the auction houses, I get ridiculous answers like: "They still sell" and "All the auction houses are taking them". Maybe this will help to staunch the flow of more wasted funds.
And condition reports have also degenerated. I saw prints this last month (including a Man Ray that I actually owned at one point and sold in its unrestored condition for about $200, if memory serves me right) represented as vintage that were not; prints that had major damage repaired; a print that actually had a four inch tear across it that was apparently known to be there by the house when it was photographed (with the tear pasted down and not in evidence on the catalog illustration, of course). The non-vintage and repaired Man Ray sold for nearly $15,000 and the torn print sold for well over $4,000. Pretty expensive lessons, considering the non-return policies in place at these houses. The auction houses have definitely become, even more than in the past, a Buyer-Beware marketplace.
I'm genuinely sorry if I've offended any of you who have bought one of these pigs in a poke, but I'm offended when auction houses and dealers do not take responsibility at all for what they sell. Second-rate material misrepresented as rare or vintage is a mark on us all. Seriously damaged goods are also a problem. It's one thing to make honest mistakes concerning these types of things, but too often I have recently heard the auction houses' mantra: "Buyer Beware." The auction houses state it very clearly in their catalogues: the buyer takes all responsibility. All the more reason that you must have a knowledgeable person preview for you instead of the house.
2.) I also have seen this on ebay recently as some dealers refuse to take returns on items, even if their condition reports and descriptions don't hold up. While it's the buyer's responsibility to buy responsibly and not just take a "flyer" on an item that they don't really expect to buy, a dealer should stand behind at least their descriptions. Daguerreian Society members seem to have a higher level of responsibility than most of the average "antique" dealers out there. Join the Society if you buy hard images and patronize the dealers listed in their directory or at least the dealers who stand behind their products. I've never had a problem yet buying from (or returning to) any Dag Soc member. (Knock on Wood.)
3.) Auction houses, even in NYC, still, despite laws to the contrary, often do not CLEARLY indicate whether or not an item has PASSED or not. Sotheby's London is the worst offender, but even NYC has their offenders. "Clearly" does not mean mumbling "sold" or "unsold" so that one cannot tell the difference. The word should be a clearly enunciated: "PASS". Of course, Denise Bethel at the Sotheby's NYC Southworth and Hawes sale didn't have this problem because everything but one poor lot of faded prints did indeed sell out, and at the auction itself, not later.