New York’s spring photography week got off to a strong start at Sotheby’s on Monday and Tuesday, with all three auctions exceeding their high estimates. “This was an outstanding series of sales,” said auctioneer and Sotheby’s Senior Vice President Denise Bethel. “The fine art photographs market has never been more vibrant.”
The action began Monday evening with the 68-lot auction of the Quillan Collection of 19th- and 20th-Century Photographs, which earned the house $8,901,350 (est. $4.6–7 million). The sale featured a masterpiece collection that included only one work by each photographer, put together by dealer Jill Quasha for the Quillan investment group. The evening’s top lot was a 1925 Edward Weston nude, a prone, quasi-abstracted female torso against a dark background, which fetched an impressive $1,609,000 (including buyer’s premium), crushing the high estimate of $900,000 and establishing a new record for the artist. The winning bid was made by Peter MacGill of Pace/MacGill Gallery, who also took home two other top lots: Paul Strands Rebecca (1923), for $645,800, another record, and Cindy Shermans Untitled Film Still (#53), which sold for $313,000, more than tripling its high estimate.
In total, the Quillan sale established 19 auction records, including for Weston, Strand, August Sander, Hans Bellmer, Bill Brandt, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
Tuesday’s two sales produced fewer fireworks, but the overall results were still impressive. The morning began with the sale of another private collection. The auction, titled “Edward Weston’s Gifts to His Sister and Other Photographs,” included 40-odd works by Weston and nine more by his son Brett that have remained in the family since they were created. At the final hammer, Sotheby’s had earned $1,530,375 (est. $900,000–1.4 million), including $325,000 for top lot Nude on the Sand, Oceano (1936, est. $120–180,000).
The Weston auction was followed by a marathon 183-lot, two-session sale of photographs from various owners, which realized $6,870,325 (est. $3.6–5.6 million). Auctioneer Bethel moved things along briskly in a day and afternoon that featured several surprises, both positive and negative, with expected top lots yielding uninspired returns and less-anticipated works catapulting themselves to the day’s top 10 list.
The sale’s highlight lot was Diane Arbuss A Family on the Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, N.Y. (1968), which features a wife and husband respectively sunbathing and covering his face in shame, lying on chaises longues in their backyard as their son plays in the background. Fierce bidding between Jeffrey Fraenkel of San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery and a phone bidder pushed the photograph above its $300,000 high estimate, at which point a third bidder, in the back of the room, entered the fray. Fraenkel eventually outbid the late entry, buying the Arbus for a record-setting $553,000. Both Freankel and the unidentified underbidder made multiple purchases as well. The dealer took home a Carleton E. Watkins and a Walker Evans, while the underbidder purchased an Irving Penn and two Robert Frank images from The Americans.
The day’s next two highest lots also delivered its biggest surprises, with neither estimated to make much of a splash. A half-plate daguerreotype portrait of Samuel Appleton (ca. 1850) by Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes earned $409,000, crushing its estimate of $60–90,000. And Karl Strusss Metropolitan Tower-Twilight (1909), a pictorialist rendering of the structure that was once the tallest building in the world, realized an even greater appreciation over its estimate, selling for $313,000 (est. $30–50,000).
Despite these many successes, the auction had some rough patches. Two highly considered lots by Man Ray — an untitled Rayograph from 1926 and Champs Délicieux: Album de Photographies (1922), an edition of 40 images — both earned lackluster six-figure results just above their low estimates, as did Weston’s Dunes, Oceano (1936) and Robert Mapplethorpes Calla Lily (1984).
Overall it was a very strong day, with seven records set and 90.2 percent of lots sold by value, and it seemed that for every disappointment the sale offered a pleasant surprise. The day’s impressive results also included Weston’s Leeks (1927), which sold for $229,000 (est. $80–120,000) to Michael Shapiro Photographs of San Francisco, and Ansel Adamss 1975-77 Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, ($157,000, est. $80–120,000), the highest selling of the photographer’s 25 works on offer. Adams had an excellent auction, with 21 of his images selling above the high estimate.
Photo week continues with the AIPAD Photography Show at the Park Avenue Armory (VIP preview April 9, general admission April 10–13) and auctions at Phillips de Pury & Co. (April 9) and Christie’s (April 10 and 11), though Phillips’s "Diane Arbus: Hubert’s Museum Work" sale was canceled.