After previewing and leaving bids at Yann Le Moel Auction House (more on that in the next newsletter), I took the Eurostar from Paris through the Chunnel to come over to London on May 19, Monday. As in France, it was raining off and on, but the weather was not a reflection of the auctions in London.
Previewing went smoothly at both Christie's and Sotheby's with only moderate traffic at both. The buzz was primarily about how well the Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey daguerreotypes and the Coburn vortographs would do at Christie's, and how well the Tripe lots and a mixed early album would do at Sotheby's. More on the latter later.
One of the interesting things about the Girault de Prangey sale was that it contained so many "first photographs" of so many exotic places. These were very early images from some pretty difficult-to-get-to places--at least during the first half of the 19th century.
The "smart" money (so much for that designation) was that there would be heavy bidding by Middle Eastern interests, including perhaps Sheik Al Thani, on the Middle Eastern dags in the sale. The hope was that one might snatch a French, Italian or Greek piece away.
Before I viewed the daguerreotype sale, I felt that many of the lots were frankly overestimated, especially in view of the sheer quantity of material (here and in reserve) and the quality, which was very erratic. But I also felt that most of the estimates were relatively dead-on (although close to full retail), and I congratulated Christie's 19th-century expert Lindsey Stewart for her fine work in this regard. That notion might not have been evident if you only looked at the catalogue instead of viewed the sale. There was considerable variation in condition, contrast and how a particular daguerreotype presented in person. Apparently some of this variation was due to the conditions in place when Girault de Prangey took his daguerreotypes (heat, water quality). But Stewart unerringly took each of those factors into consideration, even if her bidders did not.
But if you think the Christie's staff wasn't a bit nervous, consider this: it appeared from where the auctioneer started and the few lots that did not sell that the reserves in this sale were set at only about 50-70% of the low estimate. My thanks to Nigel Russell for this keen observation.
The Christie's staff did an excellent job with the catalogue research and accompanying articles and chronology of Girault de Prangey's work. There was even a champagne reception and lecture on the Monday night prior to the auction. I do applaud these fine efforts on education, which are too rare in the auction world today. It very much reminded me of nearly the same approach that Sotheby's NY made with the Southworth and Hawes material.
On my way into the auction room, I bumped into Sylvie Aubenas, director of the collection of prints and photographs of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. Was she there to bid? I asked her timidly. "No," she replied. She was only there to see how good a purchase she had made when she bought 158 daguerreotypes from the archives earlier through Christie's. She need not have worried. By the end of the evening, she was one of the few people in the room with a broad smile on her face.
Code named "Mosque" (no, I am not making this up) by the Christie's staff, the Girault de Prangeys got off to a modest start, after all, the auction record for a Girault de Prangey was a "mere" 29,375 pounds sterling (about $45,000 at that time), set just three years ago at Christie's London. That image, "The Haram al-Sharif, Jerusalem," was bought by Michael Wilson, with Badr el Hadj, a noted collector of Middle Eastern material, underbidding him. At the time, Christie's was still posting more modest estimates and so gave that lot a £5,000-7,000 range. That is about what happened this time out too, except the estimates were a touch less modest.
I should note that all prices below include the buyer's premium and that the pound sterling was about $1.65 during the sale (although Christie's P.R. release says it was $1.632; I guess that is right if you run billions through your bank, but for the rest of us it was a bit above $1.65 and now a bit higher still). And, for the most part, I have confined myself to lots that sold for over £19,000.
Lot 1, a frozen fountain of the Chateau d'Eau, sold to the phone (bidder 906) for £17,925 against the estimate of £9,000-12,000. It seemed a fair price.
A French collector in the room picked up the second lot of the night, the Central Pavilion of the Tuileries Palace, Paris, for only £5,000, but the image was not the strongest.
The activity level picked up dramatically with the third lot. All of a sudden Christie's London Photo Department Head Salome Michell began bidding for a phone that was to be the most influential of the evening--and, of course, rumored to be Sheik Al Thani, who had been so active in previous years at the Jammes two sales and at Bearnes. Even in rough condition, the marvelous full-plate tree (a la Douy) sold to her bidder 909 for a total of £29,875, which actually broke the previous record for a Girault de Prangey (but nobody noticed at the time). Of course, this was just the beginning for 909.
Salome's phone was back on lot 6, a wonderful vertical panorama of Trajan's Column. But 909 had to fight off other phones and New York dealer Hans Kraus's persistent attacks. Estimated at £50,000-70,000, the column fell for a whopping £318,850 (about $525,000), which made this only the third most expensive of the night. Girault de Prangey was climbing up the top ten list and fast. Hans Kraus, ever the cautious auction bidder himself, was probably bidding much of the time during this sale for the Getty Museum, which he often bids for on 19th-century material.
A panorama of the Ponte Rocco in rough shape sold to an Italian looking man in the front rows for the midpoint of the range at £31,070.
Lot 8, the fabulous panorama of the top of the Temple de Vesta, Rome, became a battle between the phones and Hans again. This time Kraus nailed down the lot at £106,050 (about $175,000), which was good enough for eighth place on the sale's top ten list. Considering the rest of the sale, the price on this fine piece could be called a great bargain. It had been estimated at £50,000-80,000, but I thought it would go much higher than even Kraus's winning bid.
Lot 9, Cypress Trees in Tivoli, sold to a collector in the room for below estimate range at £20,315.
Lot 10, Villa d'Este, Tivoli, then sold to the phone (bidder 907) for £23,900, again below estimate range.
Another breakaway bidding session was in the cards for the beautiful full plate Parthenon façade (lot 11). Estimated at £60,000-90,000, the piece became a matter of contention between dealers Hans Kraus and Lee Marks, who often bids for collector Howard Stein on important pieces at auction. In the end it was Kraus who took home the prize at £162,050 or about $265,000--good enough for sixth place in this sale's top ten.
Kraus scored on the next lot as well, an interesting dag of shattered Greek sculpture, by bidding £20,315 over fellow dealer Robert Hershkowitz's efforts.
But Kraus was not about to complete his "hat trick". On lucky lot number 13, an iconic full plate of the Temple of Jupiter in Athens, Kraus found himself on the losing side as Salome's phone bidder 909 (probably Sheik Al Thani) took home the prize for a new world auction record price for a daguerreotype AND for a photograph of £565,250, or $922,488 if you use Christie's too low exchange rate, or over $932,000 if you use my more accurate rate--but what's $10,000 give or take to the Sheik. As collector, semi-retired world-class physicist and stand-up comic Michael Mattis put it, "Look for prices at the pump to go up two cents per gallon to pay for those purchases." Oddly Christie's was too modest in its press release, only claiming a world auction record for a 19th-century photograph, but this one clearly eclipsed the Le Gray Grande Vague Sette, which held the previous 19th-century and overall world auction record for a photograph.
This particular lot also put to rest the previously reasonable idea that the Sheik and fellow Middle Eastern collectors would only focus on Middle Eastern subjects in this sale, causing some bidding strategies to collapse in on themselves. In some cases to follow, the Middle Eastern material actually looked reasonable against this last bid (but then, of course, everything did), probably because other non-Middle Eastern bidders had put in commission bids with dealers and the house with the idea that the focus of the "big" money would be on the Mid East material.
On lot 15 Christie's 19th-century consultant Lindsey Stewart also started bidding somewhat schizophrenically, dividing her attention between two very active bidders (900 and 908). At least one was apparently another Middle Eastern interest or had the money of an oil sheik, leaving more than a few pundits in the room to weakly joke that the bidders were dancing sheik to sheik, or that they were two sheiks to the wind while bidding (for my European friends, I don't really know where to start with trying to translate those puns). Lindsey mumbled the bidders' numbers, so much so that the podium kept asking for clarification. Obviously she was trying to keep the numbers from being heard in the audience--one more piece of interesting absurdity for the evening. I have tried to be careful on reporting those numbers (even checking them against several other observers' notes), but I may be off on one or two lots. In any case, lot 15, Temple of Minerva, Athens went to Lindsey's bidder 908 for £33,460.
Her other bidder (900) took the next lot, a full plate of the Temple of Minerva, Poliade Façade, for under estimate at £89,250--just good enough to make this the tenth highest price of the evening.
Number 17, a full plate of a nondescript cathedral in Athens, passed at £50,000 against an estimate of £70,000-90,000.
Bidder 909, our erstwhile Sheik Al Thani, took this lot, one of the first of the Middle Eastern items, a full plate of the Mosque Nabedemiane, Alexandrie, for under estimate at £47,800.
Lindsey Stewart was back with the other phone (bidder 900) on the next lot, a date palm tree and one or the other of her bidders on lot 20, a cactus plant. Both lots went many times over estimates at £10,755 and £8,365 respectively.
But the bidder (909) that I felt was Sheik Al Thani started to make his phone presence felt again. Starting with lot 21, the bidder took the next eight lots in a row. In some cases it appeared that just the fact that Al Thani appeared to be bidding seemed to scare off competitors. While some of the lots below may actually look somewhat reasonable, you should consider that the prices would have been considerably higher if there was a second bidder really pushing 909. To Christie's credit, the house did not play any games with reserves or "air" bids to boost up the prices.
Lot 21, a panoramic daguerreotype of Fouah, Egypt, sold to 909 for £33,460, still under the estimate.
A double panorama on one full plate of Rosetta, Egypt was the next lot. Bidder 909 took it for £57,360--again well under low estimate.
Number 23, a very interesting vertical panorama of a minaret in Cairo, was even more of a bargain for 909 at a mere £19,120.
Lot 24 fell for the same amount as the last lot; and lot 25 sold for half its low estimate at only £11,950. Lot 26 sold for the same amount as 23 and 24--£19,120, again for just above the 50% mark against the estimate. Lot 27, a poor plate, sold for under its small estimate at £2,629. All went to bidder 909 with little to no competition.
Finally, on lot 28 the phone sheik got some competition. Lee Marks, probably bidding for Howard Stein, took on 909 for this very pretty half plate dag of windows in the Mosque Gmr Ebn Touloun. When the bidding stopped, 909 was still the winner at £45,410, but had to go well into the estimate range to do it.
On the next lot, two quarter plates on one half plate, dealer Robert Hershkowitz gave 909 some competition, but it sold for only £21,510, still below the estimate range.
On lot 30, a little sixth-plate gem of the interior of Mosque Gmr Ebn Touloun, Salome Michell's phone bidder got even more competition. Both Hans Kraus and French dealer Serge Plantureux pushed 909 up to £31,070 over an estimate of only £5,000-7,000.
After losing lot 31 to a collector in the room, 909 came back on lot 32, snatching it up from bidder 900. The 909 repeated this on lot 33 at £22,705.
UK dealer Ken Jacobson took the next lot, number 34 of Mendiants, one of the few dags focusing on people. I wondered if it might find its way to Princeton University, which Jacobson sometimes represents at auction. Hans Kraus then took lot 35, a Barque of the Minaret.
Then 909 was back, taking lot 36, the Minaret of Mosque Gmr Ebn Touloun, for £19,120.
The images up next were from Asia Minor and they all looked like they had been taken on a foggy day in San Francisco or London. Fog, fog and more fog. Apparently Girault de Prangey ran into technical problems here, either impurity in the water or climatic problems, or maybe just fog. Many of these images really did look a lot worse in person than in the catalogue.
Lot 38, somewhat foggy but still one of the nicest and most interesting of the group, sold to dealer Lee Marks, who got into another classic battle with Hans Kraus. Estimated at a low £3,000-4,000, the columns and capitals of the Temple of Venus at Aphrodisias managed to garner £33,460, or nearly ten times the low estimate with premium.
Lindsey Stewart's 900 bidder got the next two lots--both well over the estimate ranges. Another phone bidder (903, Mack Lee) dropped by on lot 41. And then 900 picked up the following lot, which was an interesting "Is it right side up or down?" daguerreotype of fragments of the Temple of Venus, for "only" eight times the low estimate.
Robert Hershkowitz then grabbed lot 43, a very nice daguerreotype of a column capital of the Theater at Milet. Pierre de Gigord, a collector of Turkish material, took lot 44, a panorama of Constantinople, for £38,240--well under the low estimate. Then lot 45 was taken by a collector in the room at a price nearly six times low estimate.
Ken Jacobson got a good buy on lot 47, a pavilion near Serail, Constantinople, only having to double the estimate. Then Hans Kraus picked up lot 48, Bosphore, north beyond Pera, for triple the high estimate. And these were the reasonable lots.
Lot 49, a quarter plate portrait (Constantinople, Surudje), was not so reasonable. Estimated at an appropriate (to me at least) £9,000-12,000, it soared on bidding first from Serge Plantureux and then later from Lindsey's and Salome's phone bidders. The latter two bidders spiraled this object up to just over £100,000 or about $165,000 to place it solidly in ninth place for the night. But in the end it was 909 again. This triumph was the beginning of a string of victories for 909, who often sent Salome Michell under the telephone table for more private conferences.
909 was back again on the very next lot, a whole plate of an Iwan in Damas, which 909 scooped up for £57,360--still below estimate. The plate lacked contrast.
And so it went: lots 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56 and 57 all went to this telephone bidder. Occasionally someone would bid against 909. I did on lot 53, a good image of Baalbec (I own most of the good paper negatives and positives of this area by De Clercq and thought it might be interesting to have an early daguerreotype of the same image). Badr el Hadj gave 909 a run for his money on lot 54, which went for £20,315 over an estimate of only £9,000-12,000, and on lot 56, which sold for £31,070 over an estimate of £12,000-18,000. And a French collector tried on lot 57, but still lost at nearly three times the low estimate.
Then there was a slight interruption as bidder 900 took lot 58, dealer Robert Hershkowitz took lot 59 (probably the steal of the sale on Middle Eastern material); and 900 again overbid 909 for lot 60, which sold for £38,240 over an estimate of £20,000-30,000.
Bidder 909 was back on lot 61, a Baalbec half plate, at £22,705, well over the estimate of £7,000-12,000.
Lot 62, a great full plate of the Temple Circulaire at Baalbec, became a battle between collector Badr el Hadj and the phones. Finally phone bidder 908 nailed this one down for an astonishing £128,450 over an estimate of only £20,000-30,000. This result was good enough for seventh place in the Girault de Prangey sale.
Bidder 909 returned on the next lot of Baalbec, which sold for four times low estimate at £19,120. Then 909 took lot 64, the door of a small temple in Baalbec, for £20,315 over an estimate of only £4,000-6,000.
After some "small" stuff, 909 was back in action on lot 68, a long and interesting panorama of palm trees strung out along the Nile River. Estimated at only £6,000-9,000, it was probably one of the few lots that I thought to be seriously underestimated, although it was a bit flatter in person. Dealers Hans Kraus, Charles Isaacs, Serge Plantereux and the phones got down to it. As I recall, Isaacs was the last one bidding in the room, but he had met his match with 909, who grabbed this one away for £47,800.
I don't recall how lot 69, the sculptural profile of Sesostris at Memphis (and we don't mean Tennessee), managed to get up there, but this plate, which was in damaged condition, spiraled way beyond its reasonable estimate of £25,000-35,000 to a silly £195,650. Of course, 909 took this one, which was the fourth most expensive of the night.
909 also took the next four lots. Lot 70, a 1/6th plate of a pyramid at Sakara, sold for £22,705 (estimate £1,200-1,800); and lot 71, a 1/6th plate of Hacan Tomb at Beni sold for £10,157 (or 17 times the estimate of £600-900).
Lot 72 , the pylon at Karnac oversized full plate, was perhaps the strongest of the Middle Eastern images. Estimated at a realistic £90,000-120,000, in this elevated atmosphere it soared to another insane price of £397,250 or over $650,000. This was second highest for the evening only to the equally numbing earlier record. 909 had to fend off Lindsey's phones for the prize.
On the fourth in a row, 909 picked up lot 73, the obelisk at Karnac, for £21,510, which had an estimate of only £2,500-3,500.
Lindsey Stewart's 900 phone bidder got aggressive on lot 74, a Temple colonnade at Gournah, and overbid the field at what normal people would think was a pretty crazy price of £173,250 against a reasonable estimate of £20,000-30,000. That is what happens when people start getting desperate to have something from a sale. The desperation also made this lot fifth highest of the night.
At this stage, there were a lot of people "desperate" for a Girault de Prangey daguerreotype. On lot 75, a truly neat object but with weird crazing over the surface and much lighter than in the catalogue, more than a few people went nuts. Estimated at only £2,500-3,500, this 1/6th-plate head of the Colosse at Gournah actually got to over 31 times the low estimate at £77,675. Of course, it was 909 who walked away with this one.
909 also walked away with the next lot as the stunned room did not have time to recover. This phone bidder did steal this one by bidding just the low estimate on a cancelled but still interesting plate of a bas relief at Edfou. Likewise on lot 77, 909 had light competition and bought it for £10,157, in the middle of the estimate.
I had looked over lot 78 carefully for a client. I told the client that the daguerreotype was foggy, lacked contrast, was scratched, had a wipe and a chemical stain in one area. It was estimated at £1,200-1,800. So with the help of Hans Kraus, Robert Koch, a few French collectors, and in the end Lee Marks and phone bidder 909, it got to £15,535. Once more 909 got the lot. Nice image but in poor condition (much worse than the catalogue showed). By the way, the condition report for a number of these daguerreotypes could have read similarly.
Lot 79 had nearly the same results with 909 taking it over Kraus and the phones for £14,340 (estimate £1,200-1,800).
One last full plate, lot 80, which pictured the Grand Mosque in Jerusalem, got 909's interest. This bidder picked it up at the low estimate at £83,650, about $138,000.
The last six lots read like the last lot: 909 swept the rest of the sale. Lot 81, another slightly smaller view of the Mosque, went just above low estimate at £38,240; lot 82 of Jerusalem for £28,680. The next three for chump change for the sheik. And the last lot (86), which was "a little banged up," according to my notes, sold for £28,680.
Thank god this sale was finally done. When someone had responded to my description of the records falling, they said, "It must have been exciting." My response was that it was one of the more boring events that I have been forced to sit through. But for the Christie's staff, it was certainly heady stuff. Not only did they set a world record for a photograph in this sale, they set an average-per-lot-sold-at-auction record. Even using Christie's too low sales figures of $6.2 million (£3,798,126) for this sale, the average per lot was a whopping $73,810 (£45,216)! I have been to some sales in Europe, where that amount wasn't achieved for the entire auction take.
Christie's London likes teamwork, so the comments for the sale came from both Salome Michell and Lindsey Stewart, who predictably said "the sale far exceeded our expectations."
They added, "It was a spectacular success especially as the photographer was relatively unknown. Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey has now claimed his place in the history of photography." And, one might append, Girault de Prangey has claimed his place in securing the success of the 19th-century photography market.
One other point: the daguerreotype market might have to change its collective mind on condition being a factor on price and relegate that to a far distant second or third after artistic and/or historical importance.
Two newsletters ago I wrote the following article and asked for response. I have recapped both the original piece and the responses below.
When we are talking about prints whose "vintage" quality or date is difficult if not impossible to definitively ascertain by empirical means, I wonder how much of a premium there should be on such an image. This is a specific problem with images that were made mid-1950s through to today--some of the most currently popular photographs with today's collectors. Is there meaning to "vintage" or even dating of prints when this becomes impossible to prove scientifically as it is with many prints made after 1955? Should all prints after this date be worth the same for a given image? If not, why not?
This issue was particularly brought home with the steep prices at the recent Seagram's sale for prints made largely after 1955. Should a collector have to depend on the connoisseurship (or lack thereof) of an auction house or a photo dealer to ascertain dating? Especially in view of recent market scandals on this very issue (Lewis Hine, Man Ray and others) involving some photo dealers (and auction houses), where "vintage" was much more easily determined and was still inaccurately portrayed, however innocently? While some of this "lack of knowledge" has been rectified, especially by AIPAD's fine session on conservation techniques at the Metropolitan, there does not appear to be similar techniques available for prints made after 1955 that work consistently.
Even provenance is not always a perfect solution, with artists themselves and their heirs occasionally being less than accurate with the dating of prints. I can cite at least four such instances that I personally encountered where the photographer or heir inaccurately dated material by substantial margins or marked it "vintage" when it clearly was not. It gets particularly problematic when heirs date unsigned images that are made sometimes after 1955 when brighteners were added to some commercial photography papers. It may then even be impossible to know who exactly made that kind of print--another major problem.
Worse, there are no guarantees in dating photographs at auction. Just read the various auction house catalogues' fine print to see that you are only guaranteed that IMAGES are by the photographers themselves (not even necessarily the prints). This came as a shock to many during the Hine's scandal when prints were determined by scientific methods to have been printed many decades after Hine had died. Today these prints that were sold for tens of thousands of dollars in some cases have little market value (a group of 14 of these prints dated 1973 by Phillips sold at the Seagram's sale for under $800 a piece; which also makes one wonder what might now happen to these prints). At least, as I understand it, the AIPAD photography dealers who sold the Hines that were printed well after Hine's death were giving money or credit back to their clients after the facts surfaced and the prints went for testing. While occasionally auction houses may make allowances for inaccurate catalogue information, they really don't have to do this because of their catalogue exclusions.
As we enter a digital age, these questions will certainly become even more important and may revolutionize how the photography market handles the issue. It is important that the market deal with these issues forthrightly in order to maintain the confidence of collectors and curators. I would appreciate other viewpoints on this issue, and I will be happy to publish them in a subsequent newsletter and/or on-line if fully attributed. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
I agree with your premise that determining the print date of most post-1955 photographs by objective testing is beyond our capabilities. From my perspective as an art conservator with a special interest in the material history of photography, I think our present situation is both better and worse than you describe and I appreciate the opportunity to comment on the current state of research.
Bad news first. It is a fact that dating any 20th-century print (pre- or post-1955) is problematic. While we have recently discovered components, such as optical brighteners and certain type of papermaking fibers that only turn up in photographs made after 1955, we still have a difficult time dating prints that lack these "red flag" components. For example, current research shows that every photographic paper made from the early 1930s to the mid 1950s contains softwood bleached sulfite pulp and lacks optical brightening agents. By the late fifties things began to change as new papermaking fibers came into use and brighteners were added to baryta coatings and base papers. However, not all photographic paper brought to market after the 1950s contain the newer papermaking fibers or brighteners. Based on these criteria alone, many prints made after 1955 to the present are absolutely consistent with papers manufactured over 70 years ago. This means, of course, that recent high profile authenticity scandals probably would not have been detectable through objective testing if the questioned prints were on more carefully selected contemporary paper. Complicating the picture are the facts that brighteners can be "extinguished" and that very old unexposed paper can be used to make very nice prints. Sophisticated efforts to intentionally misrepresent the origins of photographs, from any period, will always pose problems. The application of digital imaging techniques is one more tool along these lines. Therefore, while I understand your rationale for using 1955 as benchmark date, I want to emphasize that we need to do much more work to understand the material history of 20th-century photography in its entirety.
The good news is that this work is underway. Though progress is slow, the field of photograph conservation is developing tools to characterize photographs through objective analysis and is gradually applying these tools to reference collections of photographic paper. My own growing reference collection contains over 1,600 dated samples of photographic paper identified by manufacturer, brand and surface finish. With time I am hopeful that a partnership of cultural institutions will perform a range of tests on this and other collections.
Another sign of progress is that collecting institutions and galleries have begun to amass technical information on the materials and techniques used by contemporary artists. In large part, this information is generated by artist interviews and questionnaires. Whenever possible, these efforts should be applied to contemporary photographers as well. From the standpoint of the marketplace, the anticipated payoff of these efforts will be the establishment of a firm baseline comprised of multiple criteria that can be compared to photographic prints of unknown or questioned origin. In a larger context, this is exactly the type of materials-based research that has been applied for decades to other artistic media (paintings, sculpture, works on paper), with a tremendous benefit to art history and preservation. At the moment there is more concrete information on Rembrandt's etching papers than there is on the papers used by Man Ray, Weston, Lange and others. Eventually photography will catch up, and the technical, aesthetic and practical criteria that shaped a photographer's choice of paper during a specific time period or for printing a particular negative will be available to scholars for analysis and interpretation.
We have gained a lot of ground over the course of the past few years. When it comes to dating photographs we have tools, techniques and reference collections that were not available even two years ago. Furthermore, within the broader framework of researching the material history of 20th-century photography, goals and the methodologies for achieving those goals are fairly well understood by a small but growing consensus of conservators, conservation scientists, curators and collectors.
Realistically, however, this work is proceeding slowly and conclusive results applied to the problems identified in your essay should not be expected any time soon. In part, the rate of progress is simply a function of the incremental, methodical and multidisciplinary nature of the inquiry. In greater part is the fact that the approach to the problem is generally reactive. Though attention can be white hot in the context of an authenticity scandal, focus and resources gradually get shifted back to business as usual. There is no centralized entity to coordinate and sustain effort and no real funding, meaning the rate of progress and the dissemination of information will remain somewhat haphazard, inefficient and slow.
In the end, determining the origin and date of a photographic print will always have meaning. The discipline of art conservation places tremendous value on expanding knowledge of the materials and techniques used to create artistic and cultural objects. Within the field of conservation, work to understand materials and techniques used by photographers will continue and this work will always have great relevance if only from the standpoint of furthering the preservation of the medium. Whether this information has relevance to the marketplace, especially when it comes to determining value of pre- or post-1955 prints is an open question and best left to your colleagues and clients. However, it seems a given that objects of known origin will always be more desirable than objects of unknown or ambiguous origin.
Paul Messier, Conservator of Photographs, Works on Paper and Electronic Media,
Boston Art Conservation
Do not dismiss the value of old-fashioned connoisseurship. There are real, tangible differences in the look and feel of prints from 1955 and 1975, say, even if both fluoresce under UV light. If you hold a vintage Robert Frank from "The Americans" next to a '70s print, the differences in the warmth of the highlights is obvious; you'd even choose different shades of mats to put them in. Incipient oxidation in the areas of greater silver density is a good indicator of an older print.
And there are some brand-specific indicators as well; for instance, if the Agfa logo on the back of the photo is followed by the subtype, as in "Agfa Brovira," it's an older print.
In the frequent case that the photograph is mounted there are, of course, more signs to look for: is it mounted on crumbly old pressboard or on gleaming white acid-free stock? Look at the edges of the mounts. Crescent board was big in the '60s (from Ansel Adams to Magnum photographers), while the '70s were the beginning of the acid-free era in mounts.
Michael P. Mattis, Collector
The problem you raise--that it is impossible to prove that prints are vintage that were produced after 1955--is very troubling. However, I think the answer is not--as you suggest--that we should eliminate the classification of "vintage" for anything produced after 1955. That would enable photographers and their families to produce and flood the market with an unlimited number of prints of images made 40 or 50 years earlier. It would give equal status to truly vintage prints and prints known to have been produced in the 1990s.
My recommendation would be to do the best we can--which is probably to continue what we are now doing but to give greater recognition to the uncertainty.
You suggest reliance on "connoisseurship" of collectors, dealers, and museum personnel; and that is, I think, the first line of defense. I do not have it but have been greatly aided by connoisseurs who are able to date prints on the basis of papers used, stamps, and other means known best to true connoisseurs. Dealer-connoisseurs agreed that many prints offered by Phillips in New York as vintage in the most recent auctions in New York simply were not. I am impressed that these connoisseurs knew and agreed.
A leading museum conservator taught me that just turning the print over and seeing whether the back has become slightly yellow with age can be a useful, if sub-connoisseur, source of reassurance.
Provenance also helps, but I have become very suspicious of certifications by children of famous photographers. Those heirs have too great an economic stake in declaring certain prints, which they own, to be vintage.
I have found that simply asking the dealer, "Why do you think it is vintage?" can be a good question. Sometimes the answer is a convincing provenance. Sometimes it is a revealing, "The person I got it from said it was 'vintage.'" The policy of such dealers is, "Don't ask, don't tell." We need to ask.
Paul Sack, Collector
(Editor's note: Michael and Paul both raise good points. For the record, I was not suggesting anything specific, but I felt that by raising the issue the larger photography community could all try to seek solutions to it, so that no one is taken advantage of and collectors are not turned off because they bought images that were not what they seem. Education is an important component for any expensive obsession, such as our mutual love of photography.
Early photos are easier to detect, and there are several good tests to backup the visual examination. For instance, it was pretty clear on the Helen Levitts in the Seagram's sale, because true vintage prints would be late 1930s and 1940s, in other words pre-1955. The problem of vintage character becomes a bit more difficult when the original image was made in the 1960s or 1970s, when there may not yet be a definitive test for age and there may be few visual cues and those cues may not be as conclusive as one may think.
While visual cues are certainly a starting place, they can sometimes be misleading. Yellowing of the back of a print or even silvering in shadow areas comes from many factors (largely the components of the paper, chemistry, and its storage environment) and may not always be present in still genuine well-washed, well-kept vintage prints made from top papers, but may actually be seen in non-vintage prints that do not share these attributes--especially when the difference between "vintage" and "printed later" images may only be a matter of 10 years. On the other hand, yellowing on the back of a print and silver oxidation can certainly be contributing factors in making a decision on a print. You just have to weigh these factors against the other factors. The late-printed Hine's prints were often "dirtied" on their backs (one of the ways to tell a non-Hine-made print) to simulate age. I am sure there are more sophisticated ways of doing this. I would appreciate conservators to respond to my comments. I would be happy to be proven wrong on these statements. In any case, we need to find ways to support the kind of efforts that Paul Messier indicates are needed. Perhaps AIPAD, the auction houses and collector groups will help to fund these efforts. It would be great if some sort of consortium of conservation resources was put together to address this issue so that funds could be funneled to support these efforts without overlap.)
Often a vintage print and a later print are quite different, even post 1955. The distinction can be important.
Looking to the future, we might as well be diligent in our current recording practices for posterity. Of course honesty will remain a problem. But in the past print dates were not often recorded because the importance of recording them was not recognized. Now, doesn't having prints without dates seem a bit neglectful? A print is an object, and like a painting, might as well have a date.
Candace Perich, Gallery Owner
There have been a number of occasions where I've visited galleries, been seriously interested in buying, and asked questions, such as: Did the photographer print this? And how do you know? What paper is it printed on? If it was digitally manipulated/printed, did a company do it? If so, what is the name of the company?
My questions were met with a dismissive attitude as if I had the cheek to ask. Fine. No answer, no buy!
Something really should be done, and the time to do it is now. Imagine the company who prints Gursky's stuff. What the value of their hard drives must be? They could just print off what they like.
Many would think fingerprints and legal documentation over the top, but when you think it through, it is where things will have to go if anyone is to have confidence--especially at this time. If a young unknown photographer goes to a lab and asks them to sign a legal statement agreeing not to print any photographs without his/her instructions, the lab would just laugh at them, but imagine, what if that photographer then won the Citibank award--as was the case with Van Meene and Gursky--and they become sought-after photographers?
I am pretty sure all this is going to happen. I know of very few photographers who process and print their own stuff. They produce digital files and make ink jet prints at home or take the file to a lab for a chromogenic print. And some don't even value their own work.
Chris Kargotis, Photographer, London
I do not believe we have ever met, although I have read so many of your newsletters that I feel as if we had.
A thought on issue #57 and the "vintage print" business. It is, of course, a dumb issue. The larger issue is, as you note, who printed it? There have been changes in the papers, far more than in the chemistry, that affect the "look" of the print (ask Paul Caponigro about this). But they affect how the image "looks" far less than what the maker might do in the darkroom.
Compare early and late Brandts, etc. It is only among those not particularly concerned with the fine print that these silly discussions occur--Sommer, Caponigro and photographers of their ilk have spent so much time on each print that minor issues of chemistry become just that: minor. There are so many errors in auction catalogues, museum wall labels (the recent Guggenheim "Moving Pictures" exhibition appeared to set a record in misinformation).
Color photography is a good place to start; there is no such thing as a contemporary "C" print. See the R. Hirsch book "Exploring Color Photography" for a sound explanation on this and a much deeper one in Wilhelm. There are no longer any Cibachrome prints, they are Ilfochrome. This is not nit picking. If future conservationists are to have any chance at saving fading images, they need to at least have accurate records of what materials were used. The auction catalogs will be useless. One hopes that our museums registrars are doing a better job.
Keep up the fine newsletter.
You can also find 200 new images up on the web site, posted up just this last week (and about 35 more in the last month). Photographers whose important images have just be posted up to the website, include: Albin-Guillot, Kertesz, Robert Frank, Atget (a Chestnut Merchant is particularly appealing), Eakins, Sudek (a rare pigment print of a tree-lined path through the woods from 1923), Ray Metzker, Marville, Miot, Mortensen, Kollar, Fizeau, Brassai, Mailand, Misonne, Simelli (one of row boats along the Tiber; I also have another Cloud study coming this fall), Aubry, Bilordeaux, Tuefferd, Yvonne Chevalier, Braun (some large flower studies), Domini, Khaldei, Ivan Raoult, Andre Steiner (a great image of a cigar smoker), Dr. Paul Wolff, Henriette Moulier, Reichman, Benakova-Fantlova, Chauffourier, Doisneau, Krull, Gabrielova, Klein, Moulin, Arthur Radclyffe Dugmore (a group of early wild animal images), Pluschow, Langenheim, Baldus, Giacomelli and many others.
We also put up some great paper negatives by Victor Regnault, Louis Robert and someone in the circle of Le Gray.
Plus a large group of daguerreotypes has just been added and some wonderful anonymous views (or ones by lesser-known photographers), such as the following: Niagara Falls, Alaska (a good group of 9 views), pictures of writer Zola and his family, a Cigarette Making Machine and many other interesting images. Charles Schwartz has also posted up a fine group of Japanese WWII propaganda photographs (more on that in the story below).
In addition, we are privileged to be one of only two American dealers to have the new Drtikol portfolio. A magically printed set of prints of astonishing beauty. This limited edition comes in only 30 sets, plus 5 artist's proofs, authorized and signed by Drtikol's only daughter. None of these images have been used since the 1930s. The original pigment process has been used and the images were printed from the original glass plate negatives. The prints are 11-1/8 x 8-3/4 in. or the reverse. They are all signed in pencil on the verso by the daughter, Ervina Boková-Drtikolová, who provided the exclusive copyright to enable the photographs to be made. In archive mounts, they come in a box designed by Otakar Karlas, a renowned Czech graphic artist. The pigment prints were made by Michal MackÛ under the supervision of Vladimír Birgus. The copy offered here is numbered 4/30. Lesser images in vintage pigment prints have been selling for $50,000-$100,000 each. The price on this portfolio is $12,000. The reorder, now past the next price break, is already at the higher retail price of $15,000.
Just go to http://www.iphotocentral.com/search/search.php and go to the drop down menu on "Time Frame of Posting" and click on "Past Month". You will see all of the great images posted up within the last 30 days, some just this week.
You will find a new Special Exhibit up on I Photo Central, added to the other 20 exhibits that were already on display. We have also continued to change images and add to our essays for all our Special Exhibits, so they are worth another peek, especially if you haven't looked lately.
The newest addition by Charles Schwartz Ltd. is on Japanese military propaganda photography. These are very rare vintage prints, which were used to make propaganda publications intended to excite the public about Japan's expansion. During the late 1930's before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan was at the height of its military power. The Japanese government hired these photographers, and the images were then heavily retouched by hand to enhance their propaganda values. These vintage photos were found in a Japanese book dealer's archive and have never before been seen. Though rare and very interesting images, the prices are still very reasonable.
You can see this fine exhibit, along with others at: http://www.iphotocentral.com/showcase/showcase.php . We are constantly changing and updating these exhibits as we get in new items, so if you have not looked at them in the last few days, you probably have not seen a lot of the material on display even in the older Special Exhibits.