Art market

MoMA is selling $19 million worth of Eugène Atget images

“We have a practice of letting go of things, even of high quality, in order to in order to buy older, expensive photographs”


The latest museum deaccessioning chapter involves the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which has culled its trove of 5,000 Eugène Atget photographs and selling off some 1,000 duplicates and triplicates, estimated to be worth $19 million.

“This is the third largest collection of Atget in the world after France and the ones remaining in MoMA,” said Peter Galssi, chief curator of photography. It was also the largest such sale in over 30 years. In 1968, MoMA purchased 5,000 images from the American photographer Bernice Abbott, who had acquired them from the photographer's estate with Paris art dealer Julien Levy.

“We have a practice of letting go of things, even of high quality, in order to in order to buy older, expensive photographs,” said Mr Galassi. Last April, MoMA sold off 225 lots, including works by Man Ray and Walker Evans at Sotheby's for $4 million, striking a world record for a single owner photography collection. Mr Galassi cannot discuss future purchases.

Surprisingly, Old Master works on paper dealer David Tunick is handling the sale. He said he has only sold three photographs from his entire inventory, and one was a major Man Ray image to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts more than a decade ago. Mr Galassi said the New York dealer was chosen for his solid reputation. “His other advantage is that he is not perceived to have any favouritism or animosity in the photography world,” said Mr Galassi, adding that a number of dealers and collectors had praised this choice. In addition, Mr Tunick has a solid track record of selling to more than 100 museums here and abroad. MoMA was expecting 20 museums or more to buy, with the deadline for submitting a wish list set on 29 April; the online portal Artnet was also involved, and displayed 480 of the images on its site.

Prices ranged from $3,000 to $150,000, with about 80% priced at over $25,000. Mr Tunick expected about 80% of the total value would go to major institutions, regional and university museums.

“Many have just started photography departments within the past five years, so there is a high level of excitement about the Atget,” said Mr Tunick. The items being sold included 25 prints at $100,000 and above, 60 between $50,000 and $95,000 and the rest below $50,000. The most expensive image was “Boulevard de la Chapelle” from 1921, from the series Picturesque Paris. The dealer will profit considerably and make close to $1 million as buyers must pay him a 5% commission. “There weren’t enough hours in the day to return the calls requesting the Atget images,” said Mr Tunick.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Adieu Atget'