Phillips has disappointing results but market continues to climb

Sotheby’s set auction records for 25 artists, while Christie’s made the most for a sale in this field

NEW YORK. Of all the markets expected to be hit by the US recession, photography—which is dominated by American buyers—had been widely expected to suffer. But most of last month’s sales showed signs of this market’s continued growth.

Sotheby’s made $17.3m for 300 lots over its three sales, with each sale exceeding its high estimate and only 26 lots failing to sell. Records were set for 25 artists, including Edward Weston (Nude, 1925, $1.6m), Paul Strand (Rebecca, 1923, $645,000), and Diane Arbus (Family on the Lawn One Sunday in Westchester NY, 1968, $553,000). The Weston and Strand both went to dealer Peter MacGill, on behalf of clients.

Phillips de Pury, on the other hand, suffered one setback after another. Its highly touted sale of Diane Arbus photographs of Hubert’s Museum—a Times Square freak show—was pulled at the last minute. The work was consigned by Philadelphia book dealer Robert Langmuir, who had bought it from Bayo Ogunsanya, a collector who is suing Langmuir, claiming he was duped into selling the photographs for a fraction of their value. The suit relies heavily on an alleged promise by Mr Langmuir to compensate Mr Ogunsanya if the works were worth more than the $3,500 paid.

While Mr Langmuir’s lawyer, Peter Stern, told us that the sale was pulled “because of concerns about the recent lawsuit”, this appears to be debatable. Phillips is not named in the suit nor was there a court order to stop the sale. The auction house said the entire collection was being sold to a single buyer—which had not happened two weeks later. A more likely explanation was that there was little interest in the pictures at the inflated estimates Phillips was asking. There are a handful of interesting pictures that show the beginnings of Arbus’s mature style, but most of the works are juvenilia, and many have condition problems.

Also at Phillips, the collection of Corbeau et Renard realised only $1.5m with half unsold. Its various owners’ sale fared slightly better at $1.7m. Still, it’s a lot less than the $10.4m made over two sales last April, before the sacking of US photo department head Rick Wester.

Christie’s set the highest total in auction history for photographs at $17.6m, although on almost 600 lots. These included Irving Penn’s iconic Black and white Vogue cover, 1950, which sold for $481,000, setting a world record for the artist in the morning session on 11 April. This was broken hours later by his Cuzco Children, 1948, which achieved $529,000.

Meanwhile, Michel Comte’s 1993 nude of Carla Bruni, the wife of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, ($3,000–$4,000) attracted a bank of cameras from European news agencies and had the audience laughing throughout the bidding before it was sold for $91,000, reportedly to a Chinese collector.

Stephen Perloff

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