Newer, bigger, better? Eggleston reprints sell out
Trade divided over production of large prints of some of the photographer’s best known works, but buyers love them
By Charlotte Burns. Market, Issue 234, April 2012
Published online: 04 April 2012
The conventional wisdom that unique works of art are more attractive to the market than multiples was turned on its head by a white-glove sale of works by the photographer William Eggleston at Christie’s, New York, on 12 March, which was 100% sold by lot and by value.
The 36-lot sale, “Photographic Masterpieces by William Eggleston”, totalled $5.9m, well over its pre-sale estimate of $2.2m to $3.4m, with the top lot, Untitled, 1970, making a world auction record for a single print by the artist at $578,500 (est $200,000-$300,000).
The sale was controversial because it included new, larger-format editions of the famous dye-transfer images that the artist first produced in the 1970s and early 1980s. The pieces that attracted the largest sums were new prints of works that were made famous by their inclusion in a 1976 solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Before the auction there were rumours in the trade of a possible lawsuit by a disgruntled owner of one of the originals. There was a separate debate in the trade about the rights and wrongs of the sale. “This whole thing seemed so strange to me… it’s like Diane Arbus (if she were alive) deciding now to reprint her most famous images the size of Gurskys or Demands,” said the art adviser Todd Levin of the Levin Art Group.
In light of the sale’s success, it would be difficult to bring any kind of lawsuit, however. “What would be the argument for damages? It would be hard to show that the sale had diminished the market,” says the art lawyer Donn Zaretsky, of John Silberman Associates.
According to the New York state law on photography editions, sellers must be clear about edition size. Nonetheless, they need only state the number of multiples that are already in existence. While it is standard practice for sellers to be open about the edition size, the number of artist’s proofs is less commonly disclosed. Sellers must state whether the number of proofs that have already been made “exceeds the number in the limited edition by 20 or 20%, whichever is greater”. This means that works that might be made in the future are not covered.
This leaves “serious grey areas”, says Francis Hodgson, the photography critic of the Financial Times and the former head of Sotheby’s photography department. He adds: “The real meat is in trading practices and whether one thinks it is right and proper to standardise them.”
“Up until the early 20th century, the idea of a limited edition in the graphic arts did not exist. Previously, it had been a factor of the mechanics of the process—for example, a lithographic stone can only issue about 1,000 examples,” says Weston Naef, the curator emeritus of photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum.
He insists that artists must be allowed to create works as they see fit—“it’s their job”—and adds that the image and the object are distinct entities. “This is especially important for Eggleston because he is mostly known for his images, which have been seen in reproduction more than in their original form.” The new works were created using different processes and are on a much larger scale than the originals.
Christie’s points out that there is a long precedent of artists reprinting works in new formats. “Editions are about the format and the process, so to say that we are somehow reprinting identical objects is absurd,” says Josh Holdeman, the senior vice president and international director of 20th-century art at Christie’s.
The ultimate test is whether the market accepts a work, says Zaretsky, adding that the trade “does a pretty good job of policing itself”. Owners of the originals need not worry too much, says the art adviser Allan Schwartzman: “If I owned originals, I would fear them being reproduced. But if they are reprinted, it is usually because there is an increased interest. As the market expands, value often does, too.”
Nonetheless, the practice of limited editioning was, says Hodgson, originally a “defence manoeuvre by the trade. And it’s very odd when people break their own defences.” The secondary market dealer Christophe Van de Weghe says: “The photography market can be annoying. Editions are complicated, and can be confusing—it’s why I decided to step back from dealing in it.”
UPDATE: A New York collector filed a lawsuit against William Eggleston and his trust in federal court this week over the recent auction of digital reprints. Jonathan Sobel, a financier, says his collection of more than 190 photographs by Eggleston which includes limited editions prints, has been devalued by the auction. He is seeking damages from Eggleston and his son William Eggleston III, as trustees of the Eggleston Artistic Trust, for violation of the New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, fraudulent misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment and promissory estoppel.
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