Photography sales in May



April-May and , October-November are the key periods for the photo market in London, Paris and New York. In 2008, the strong increase in both demand and prices considerably accelerated the frequency of photography auctions. No fewer than 23 sales entirely dedicated to photography were organised by the art auction market leaders, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury & Company, generating a total revenue of $53m. In 2009, the number of specialised sales dropped to 14 and the annual revenue lost 62% vs. 2008.

After a severe contraction of the high-end photography market, photographs priced at above $10,000 – which were hard to sell in 2009 – have returned to auction podiums. Last year, the ratio of photos sold above $10,000 fell from 33.8% to 19.7% in New York and from 39% to 28% in London. After the April sales in New York this year, the ratio returned to 36.5%. In London, the ratio recovered to 30.8%. These positive signs plus a number of very good results for the star lots at these sales contrast somewhat with the disappointing sale at Sotheby’s on 20 May: nearly 64% of the lots were bought in and the revenue total of £931,700 was roughly half way between the $1.5m generated on 13 May 2008 and the $575,000 total of 19 May 2009.

The Sotheby’s sale started badly: eliciting very little interest, the first five lost were bought in. The first lot to sell was an albumen print of the Boulevard de Strasbourg by Eugène ATGET which fetched £15,000 ($21,500) at the low end of its estimate. The following lot, La Villette, Rue Asselin by the same artist sold underneath its estimate at £19,000 ($27,200). The temperature rose considerably for the lot of BRASSAÏ prints (Ten Photographs) which fetched £15,000 vs. an estimated range of £9,000 – £12,000 and the bidding was decidedly animated for Robert MAPPLETHORPE’s Calla Lily which fetched £85,000 – £25,000 more than its upper estimate. However the real star of the May sales was Irving PENN.

Strong demand for Irving Penn
A few months after the artist’s death, collectors are urgently buying Penn’s work and are fighting tooth and nail to acquire some of the best art photos of the 20th century. In response to this avid demand, the auctioneers have considerably raised their offer this year with 98 photographs by Irving Penn proposed between January and end-May 2010 vs. 67 for the entire year 2009. On 14 April 2010, the sale Three Decades with Irving Penn: Photographs from the Collection of Patricia McCabe set the tone with seven works selling for between $110,000 and $260,000 (Christie’s).
On 20 May 2010, the Sotheby’s sale was partly rescued by Two Liqueurs, New York, a colour transfer print by Irving Penn which doubled its low estimate (and its previous record) with a winning bid of £120,000 ($172,000). Another surprise was his portrait Pablo Picasso at la Californie which tripled its estimate fetching £100,000 ($143,000). This was double its previous record of ($75,000 at Christie’s New York). In effect, Irving Penn was responsible for the best results at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s London May sales. Christie’s best result was £72,000 ($103,000) for Pompier, Paris originating from Penn’s series and estimated £10,000 – £15,000.

On 21 May, Christie’s also generated a new auction record for Nick BRANDT’s vision of wild Africa. His impressive Elephant With Exploding Dust fetched £38,000 (£54,545) just below the price paid for a superb view of the Nile (View across the Nile) by Gustave LE GRAY which fetched £42,000 ($60,000). Meanwhile, in Paris, Beaussant-Lefevre sold five of Le Gray’s photographs within a much more modest price range of €450 – €3,000 ($550 – $3,700).
Despite some important signatures which failed to sell (Inez VAN LAMSWEERDE, Bettina RHEIMS, Massimo VITALI, Michel JOURNIAC, etc.), Phillips de Pury & Company still managed to generate some good results with a portfolio of Robert Mapplethorpe works that fetched £60,000 (X,Y and Z portfolios, $86,000), a silver bromide-gelatine print by Peter LINDBERGH, « Helene Christensen, Italian Vogue, ET Mirage, California, United States » which sold for £48,000 ($68,822), a portrait of Audry Hepburn by Irving Penn which fetched £39,000 ($56,000), Xteriors IX by Desirée DOLRON which sold for £52,000 ($74,557) and Untitled (Penitent Girl) from Twilight by Gregory CREWDSON which fetched £25,000 ($35,845).

Although the market has not yet returned to million-dollar results à la Richard PRINCE or Andreas GURSKY in 2007, it is not in bad shape and has clearly not yet completed its convalescence.