Sotheby's photography sale on 6 April last year (2011) was particularly successful, generating a sales revenue of $4.5 million (excluding fees) and 82% of the works sold. Two days later (8 April), its rival Christie’s generated nearly as much ($4.2m) from a photography sale, and then on 9 April 2011, Phillips de Pury & Company ended the week with a massive photography sale (259 lots, 90% sold) that generated $4.6m. Together the three leading auction houses generated $13.3m from their New York Photography sales in April 2011. A year later, this figure has been revised downward by $1m primarily due to a sharp decline at Sotheby's, whose unsold ratio rose from 18% to 31%. The other two auctioneers maintained their sales figures with $4.2m at Phillips de Pury & Company on 4 April 2012 (19% unsold) and no less than $5.38m at Christie's on 5 April 2012 (19% unsold).
The Sotheby's total would not have been so low had it not failed to sell its star lot: a box containing 10 photographs of Diane ARBUS , each numbered as one of a limited series of 50. These photographs, taken by Neil SELKIRK in the early 1970s (Diane Arbus died in 1971) were estimated at between $400,000 and $600,000. And yet the most famous pictures of this limited edition can fetch $80,000 at auctions, as we saw with Identical twins acquired in April 2010 at Phillips de Pury & Company. The same subject, printed during the artist’s lifetime and signed by the artist, fetches between $200,000 to $400,000 on average!
If the classic favourites such as Ansel Easton ADAMS , William Henry Fox TALBOT , Robert FRANK , Irving PENN and Robert MAPPLETHORPE sold without much trouble, more contemporary signatures have not yet caught up with their 2007 prices. For example, Andres SERRANO ’s Black Mary (100.3 x 68.6 cm, limited edition of 10) did not reach its low estimate of $30,000, although it fetched $34,000 in 2001 and $36,000 in 2007.
Christie's did better thanks notably to 25 photographs by Irving PENN . His famous Black and white Vogue Cover reached $360,000, the second best hammer price for this very graphic 1950 photo (the best was $400,000 in April 2008 at Christie's). In fact, the old Vogue cover generated the best result of the three days of sales dedicated to photography.
Earlier this year, on 12 March 2012, Christie's New York dispersed no less than 36 photographs by William EGGLESTON of which 16 found buyers between $100,000 and $480,000. The work of this pioneer of colour in art photography rose in value by 23% between 2004 and 2008. The subsequent contraction in his prices over the 2009-2010 period provided an excellent buy opportunity. Nowadays his small formats are reaching unprecedented prices, such as his Untitled (1973) (21.1 x 47.7 cm) which seems to crystallise the America of the 1970s and which fetched $200,000 on 5 April against an initial estimate of $70,000 – $90,000. Indeed, Christie's mammoth photography sale in New York on 5 April offered another 15 works by William EGGLESTON , most of which were priced between $5,000 and $15,000. Other notable results at the Christie's 5 April Photographs sale included $180,000 for Schadographie Nr. 17 by Christian SCHAD , champion of the New Objectivity, well known for his paintings, setting a new record for a photo by the artist.
The collectors of legendary photographs hotly contested Helmut NEWTON ’s famous Self Portrait with Wife and Models ($75,000, whereas his less famous shots generally fetch between $9,500 and $12,000) and Robert FRANK ’s Trolley - New Orleans which sold for $360,000 against a high estimate of $150,000. There was also a lot of 29 photogravures by Edward STEICHEN which fetched $100,000. Meanwhile, the Contemporary signatures maintained their prices next to the great classics and works signed by Massimo VITALI , Adam FUSS , Vik MUNIZ , Candida HÖFER or Hiroshi SUGIMOTO found buyers for between $45,000 and $55,000.
The prices of pictures from the 1960s to 1980s have also climbed steeply: Phillips de Pury & Company recorded an impressive record for Candy Cigarette (1989, ed. 25) by Sally MANN which sold for $220,000 against a high estimate of $60,000, as well as a new record for Francesca WOODMAN whose Untitled, Rome,1977, was acquired for $140,000 against an estimate of $15,000 to $20,000. Above all, there was a result of $520,000 for Cindy SHERMAN ’s Untitled Film Still # 49(1979) against an estimate of $400,000!
As usual, these mammoth sales also offered plenty of affordable works such as chromogenic prints by the famous Cindy Sherman or albumen prints by Eugène ATGET from $2,000.
The next major photographs auctions will be held in London in May: Christie's will be offering a hundred lots estimated between £30,000 and £120,000 on 16 May with a Diptych by Andreas GURSKY (Art Market Confidence Index, est. £80,000 - £120,000), the Guggenheim Museum, New York seen by Hiroshi SUGIMOTO (est. £70,000- £90,000) or a large format print of Helmut NEWTON ’s Self-Portrait with Wife and Models ‘Vogue’ Studios, Paris 1980 (est. £70,000 - £90,000).
A week before these sales, the world of Contemporary photography will be looking forward to Christie's Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York on 8 May which includes an Untitled # 96 by Cindy SHERMAN from her Centerfold series (1981). Recall that another copy of the same work fetched no less than $3.4m in May 2011, becoming for a while, the world’s most expensive Contemporary art photograph. The copy submitted for auction on May 8th will be a good test of the high end of the art photography market.