Controversial Polaroid Auction Triumphs at Sotheby's

Sotheby’s sale of 1,200 photographs from the collection of the bankrupt Polaroid Corporation shook out and developed into a $12.47 million triumph, launching past its $10.7 million high estimate.

The two-day, four-part auction began last night with a marathon session that fetched $7.2 million, eclipsing the entire sale’s low estimate of $6.9 million as every single lot in the session sold, a feat that is known in auction parlance as a white glove affair. However, Sotheby’s had been forced to pull nine lots over concerns about the company’s right to sell the works, saddling a tiny asterisk to the auction feat. (Some artists, including Chuck Close, said they had given the company their photographs with the understanding that they would one day enter a museum.) Call it a no-hitter, but not a perfect game.

Many works in the sale easily beat their estimates, and it appeared that the auction house had been overly conservative in setting expectations. Some of those outsize sums included the $43,750 figure garnered by a circa 1979 Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of musician and former lover Patti Smith (est. $10–15,000) and the $254,500 paid for a 1979 self-portrait of Andy Warhol with his eyes closed (est. $10–15,000). A slightly larger 1979 self-portrait of Warhol, showing him mid-grimace, sold for more than $100,000 less, reaching a still-impressive $146,500 on the same $10–15,000 estimate. Bidders seem to know what they want from the mercurial Pop artist.

Warhol was not the only rare entrant to prove his mettle in a photography auction, with works by Chuck Close and Robert Rauschenberg also selling for high sums. A 1987 Close self-portrait, the third lot in the sale, set the tone for the lengthy activities as bidders gamely ignored its $70,000 high estimate, pushing its price to $290,500. Bidders continued to chase work by artists less known for photography as they took the $60,000 estimate placed on Rauschenberg’s 1988 Japanese Sky I and quadrupled it, a 100 percent premium for each of the four unique bleached Polaroids that composes the work.

Bridging the gap between the photographic and the painterly was Lucas Samaras, whose critical acclaim has rarely translated into banner auction numbers. His 1983 mural-sized red-and-green-soaked image of two hands shot past its $30,000 estimate to a $194,500 finish, a record for the artist. His 1990 self-portrait, an unashamedly spooky choice for a cover lot, also trounced expectations, netting its winning bidder a $56,250 invoice, far more than the $15,000 the auction house had said it anticipated.

In the realm of more traditional photography, a new record was set for a work by Ansel Adams, as his large-format 1938 Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, the 100th lot of the sale, swept past its $500,000 estimate to a $722,500 close, a new artist record. Photographs by Adams were spread throughout the sale, and smaller works by the landscape master also fared well and offered collectors and dealers a chance to buy at more modest price points. The 1961 Fern Spring, Yosemite, which captures water streaming over rocks on a 4½-by-3½-inch Polaroid, was one particularly choice example, earning $6,875 on its $6–9,000 estimate.

Work by other classic photographers also fared well. A copy of Dorothea Langes 1938 End of an Era — of a figure staring coldly through the window of a car — more than doubled its $30,000 estimate, going for $74,500. A 1958 print of Lange’s most iconic Depression-era image, Peapicker's Family (Migrant Mother, Nipomo), her 1936 photograph of an indigent woman being hugged by her children, also surpassed its high estimate of $80,000, as it found a buyer willing to pay $218,500.

Fashion photographs and images with the added lure of celebrity were also major draws, and buyers proved willing to pay considerable sums for unique works by Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin. Newton’s haunting portrait of a lithe woman sporting nothing but heels, printed on a tiny three-inch-by-three-inch Polaroid, cost its buyer $13,750, while Bourdin’s enigmatic image of a white glove just barely cleared its $7,000 high estimate by $500.

By the end of the third session, the house had already taken in $11.23 million, meaning that the $1.24 million earned in the fourth quarter merely amounted to a victorious team proudly running up the score as a once-in-a-lifetime game drew to a close.