Preview of the Fall 2000 Photography Sales

Christie's and Sotheby's are taking divergent paths as they gear up for the fall sales. Each  would like to be both the leader in sales and profits, but for the past few years Christie's has been driving for market share, while Sotheby's has emphasized profitability. The differing approaches these two major houses are taking are clearly manifest in their upcoming photography sales. Christie's will showcase a select group of photographs in an evening session, under the rubric "Masterworks 2," and then complement that with a day sale and another sale at Christie's East. Sotheby's, meanwhile, will focus their attentions on a more limited auction, consisting of some 300 lots offered during a single day. Where Christie's has chosen to aggressively push the envelope of the photography market, Sotheby's has opted to sail closer to the wind.

The photography auction season kicks off with Christie's East sale on October 11th featuring works from the collection of the fashion photographer Sheila Metzner and her husband, including pieces by Julia Margaret Cameron, Paul Outerbridge and Edward Weston.  That evening, Swann Galleries, a regular player in the photography auction market, will take the unusual step of offering a much smaller sale than normal. Reconfigured from the standard 500 lots to a more selective 180 lots, Swann's sale is "smaller but stronger," according to Daile Kaplan, Vice President of Swann and head of their photographs department. "We felt it was important to maintain a presence, but we want this sale to function as a bridge to our next auction in February, which will be twice the size and positioned to take place when there are not 2000 lots on the block in one week." Kaplan acknowledges "Christie's East is coming on so strong that it has changed the playing field." However, her fall auction is still estimated to make $800,000 to 1.2 million, which is comparable to what previous, larger sales would garner, indicating that Swann has "ratcheted up another level" in terms of the quality of material they're offering.

The following day Sotheby's enters the fray with a group of photographs being de-accessioned by the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. Sotheby's has scored some impressive results when other institutions, such as MoMA (in 1994), have chosen to put duplicates prints on the market. The strength of the CCA material lies in the 19th century, encompassing work by William Henry Fox Talbot, and Roger Fenton. Denise Bethel, Sotheby's expert in the field, predicts "Collectors will be thrilled to have a chance to acquire these masterworks with the Centre's outstanding provenance." A rare portfolio of 73 portraits by Frederick Evans also counts among one of the chief highlights of the sale. Bethel feels "This will change everything we know about Evans. It is one of the most purely photographic things I've ever seen. He was doing more than we ever suspected." Estimated at $80,000 - 120,000, this folio incorporates work spanning from the 1860s through the 1920s.

The success of the Sotheby's auction may very well set the tone for the Christie's "Masterworks 2" sale later that evening. Marking the tenth anniversary of a landmark Christie's auction, this sale similarly aims to take the measure of the photography market with a small (70 lots TK) auction spanning the history of the medium. Comprised of works by Andre Kertesz, Paul Outerbridge, Alfred Steiglitz, Paul Strand, and other acknowledged masters, it will also include contemporary works by Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Cindy Sherman, and Joel Peter Witkin. Rick Wester, Christie's international photographs department head, notes "This sale makes note of the last ten years in the marketplace. It has allowed us the opportunity to gather some wonderful photographs that contain a sense of mystery and convey the power of the medium. These photographs are beautiful objects combining an element of surprise along with rarity, print quality, and provenance." Wester cites an album of 21 male nude albumen prints by Thomas Eakins as an example of the characteristics he was looking for when choosing pieces for this sale. "This is a focused group of pictures that has never been shown in public and was known only to a handful of curators." There is an element of controversy surrounding these images, considering that they are dated to 1886, right at the time that Eakins was dismissed from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for using his students as models in his nude studies. Wester appraises the album at $90,000 - 120,000.

Christie's wraps up the season with a sale the following day, and an auction in London on the 20th. In all, Christie's will hammer down more than 1500 lots in the course of a week, giving them a commanding presence in terms of sheer volume. This is an intentional strategy. When Rick Wester was appointed International Director of Photographs earlier this year, he consolidated the Rockefeller Center, Christie's East, Los Angeles and London photography operations under one division. "This is part of a broader company strategy," he says. "All of the departments will become internationalized. This puts us in line with the other departments. We're now part of a larger strategy. I see it as a first step towards even greater opportunities for photography at Christie's. This is an appropriate step in terms of the growth of the market, and will lead to some real efficiency in marketing photography. Its my job to steer the ship and then to share our expertise with the other departments." He points out that he has top notch people working with him: Leila Buckjune at Rockefeller Center; Bryce Wolkowitz at East; Liz Smith in London; and Yuka Yamaji in LA.

By contrast, Sotheby's maintains separate department heads in New York and London, though distance is no barrier to cooperation between Bethel and her UK counterpart, Philippe Garner, the senior expert in the field. Bethel is also concerned with flooding the market with so much material at one time, and focuses, instead, on achieving competitive results with fewer lots, and fewer lots bought in. "I don't feel we're able to absorb so many lots in one week," declares Bethel. However, Sotheby's hasn't ceded the bulk of the business to Christies: Bethel points out "Our sales have gotten smaller because material is shifting to the Internet." This year, more than any in the recent past, the two major houses's deviating business philosophies should make for some very telling post-auction comparisons. 

ART & AUCTION

7 August 2000