Zooming in on the Trends That are Reshaping the Market for Photography
Zooming in on the Trends That are Reshaping the Market for Photography
The crowd at Sotheby’s New York on the evening of December 12 was nervous — and not in a good way. It was the first of three sessions devoted to photographs from the collection of philanthropist Henry Buhl, and not many in the room had high hopes. “Two collectors came up to me beforehand and expressed fears that the market for classic photography might be dead,” recalls Denise Bethel, director of the house’s department of photographs since 1995.
There was cause for concern. The October auction results had been lackluster at best. The average price had declined in the 12 months between sales at Sotheby’s (from $34,452 to $25,944) and Phillips de Pury & Company (from $22,482 to $18,425). Christie’s was the exception, having posted a modest rise from $22,380 to $24,883.
For years auction catalogues had been featuring the same photographs in prints of different vintages by the same photographers, including Ansel Adams’s Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico; Ruth Bernhard’s In the Box; André Kertész’s Chez Mondrian; and Alfred Stieglitz’s Winter—Fifth Avenue, to name only a few perennials. Were dealers simply passing them back and forth until someone was stuck with an old maid? Had this game finally come to an end? There seemed no solid ground for believing that Buhl’s wonderfully eccentric collection, built around the theme of hands, would do enough to lift collectors’ grumpy spirits.
But that’s exactly what happened. By the end of the sale, where the million-dollar threshold was easily topped by two works — László Moholy-Nagy’s Fotogramm, 1925, and Herbert Bayer’s Lonely Metropolitan, 1932, each sold for $1,482,500 — and where auction records were set for four other artists (El Lissitzky, Lee Miller, Peter Hujar, and Helen Levitt), modernist photography no longer seemed passé. Once again it had proved itself a desired collectible and was at the red-hot center of the traditional market.
“With the first session of 100 lots we surpassed almost all the high estimates,” says Bethel, who presided over the 2006 auction that set the record price for a photograph, $2.9 million for Edward Steichen’s Pond—Moonlight, 1904. In her opinion, “the sky’s the limit” for exceptional prints by canonized photographers.
It’s a view widely shared by dealers in the field. “The market is extremely healthy for the highest-quality material,” says Edwynn Houk, who has galleries in New York and Zurich. “There is permanent interest from museums and from the half-dozen collectors who buy at the high end.”
But the Buhl sale also highlighted a divide in the field that has always separated the upper tier from the low and middle. Of the 437 lots offered, just 12 accounted for more than 60 percent of the $12,318,704 total. The buy-in rate was nearly 35 percent. As Houk notes, “What’s sluggish is interest for the secondary, tertiary material, which used to sell steadily.”
Deborah Bell, head of the photographs department at Christie’s New York, notes softening prices for artists who in years past were strong performers at auction. “Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Edward Weston — these have been old reliables for us and have been hitting the bell for years.” Why their prices stagnated or foundered in the past year is hard to say. But “dealers aren’t buying for inventory as much as they used to,” Bell says. “They’re not as flush, and their own client base is shifting. They’re wondering who they are going to be selling to.”
The popularity of art fairs and online sales has broadened the audience that buys photographs and, at the same time, added to what Peter MacGill of New York’s Pace/MacGill Gallery calls a “disintermediation of authority” — the elimination of the expert middleman. He blames the auction houses for mixing too much lesser material with the finer. (For example, he believes the Buhl sale could have done even better with fewer lots — all choice — on offer.)
MacGill’s gallery probably bought half the photographs that sold for more than $700,000 between 2004 and 2008 (including the record-holding Steichen). It also brokered the sale of the Thomas Walther collection to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for $27 million in 2001, and the Manfred Heiting collection to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for $54 million in 2002. He has seen business expand over the past five years with new buyers from China, Brazil, Belgium, and Switzerland.
But MacGill has also felt a market constriction over the last 18 months. Even more troubling, in his opinion, are the trends that are harder to quantify, such as a decline of connoisseurship. One-on-one conversations with clients are being replaced by what he regards as suspect online advice. “We may invest a lot of time educating clients about the history of, say, Emmet Gowin’s prints,” says MacGill. “Then they just go to Artnet, look up the most recent auction price, and disregard everything we’ve told them.”
The dissemination of information that is not always reliable is one of the Internet’s abiding effects, as is the ease it provides in cloaking identity. Auction houses have been forced to adjust to this reality. Collectors can graze through auctions with the anonymity afforded by computers, and online bidding has begun to replace paddle-raising in the salesroom. “I used to know personally everyone who was buying at the very high end,” Bethel says. “But I remember thinking after the Polaroid sale [in 2010] that the names of most of the top buyers were unfamiliar to me.”
The bifurcation of the photography market into classic and contemporary, a split that opened up during the 1980s, remains as wide as ever, and powerful galleries such as Gagosian, David Zwirner, Sonnabend, Marian Goodman, and Matthew Marks all straddle the divide. Artists who use cameras but don’t label themselves photographers — John Baldessari, Gilbert & George, Andreas Gursky, Richard Prince, Thomas Ruff, Cindy Sherman — can routinely command higher prices outside traditional photography auctions. “If we’re offered, say, a Gursky,” Bell notes, “we will usually refer the person to the postwar and contemporary department rather than compete. It’s in the interest of our clients.”
Phillips and Christie’s were behind the surprise “breakout” photographer of the year: Peter Beard. Better known until the past decade for his suave good looks and for being the ex-husband of 1970s supermodel Cheryl Tiegs, the 75-year-old photographer and writer has found a new group of collectors who admire the hand-worked quality of his prints and his close-ups of African animals, shot mainly in the 1960s. The enthusiastic sponsorship of Philippe Garner, the international head of photographs and 20th-century decorative art and design at Christie’s, has helped. Between London and New
York, Phillips sold 14 Beard photographs in 2012, including Hunting Cheetahs on the Taru Desert, Kenya, June, 1960. This enormous resin-coated print, measuring nearly 7 by 11 feet and stained with ink, paint, and blood, bordered in snakeskin and framed by driftwood, sold at Phillips London in May for £325,250 ($519,000). Christie’s exceeded that price in its October New York sale, setting a world record for Beard with Orphan Cheetah Triptych, 1968. Estimated at $100,000 to $150,000, it went for $662,500.
William Eggleston experienced a different kind of breakout after his first show at Gagosian Gallery in November 2011 (he continues his longstanding representation with Cheim & Read as well.) The re-editioning of his celebrated compositions as poster-size digital prints was a commercial success at Gagosian’s Beverly Hills outpost, though it prompted a 2012 lawsuit (not settled at press time) by the collector Jonathan Sobel. (Sobel owns 190 early prints by Eggleston, many of them dye transfers, and he argues they have been devalued by the digital series). More important, Eggleston’s triumph suggests that unease about pigment and ink-jet prints, rampant five years ago in traditional photography circles, has pretty much disappeared, at least among buyers of contemporary art. Still, the market seems undecided about what Eggleston has done. A dye-transfer print of his iconic Memphis (Tricycle), 1970, failed to find a buyer at Christie’s New York in October. (“We used the same estimate as in the past,” says a puzzled Bell. “It isn’t as if we were pushing the limit.”) While this would seem to support Sobel’s claim, results from an October-November show of new Eggleston dye transfers — 20 images recently printed from his 1969–74 transparencies — at Rose Gallery, in Santa Monica, complicate the picture: The gallery nearly sold out the run.
Proprietor Rose Shoshana, like MacGill, laments the fact that so many clients are buying at fairs. “It appears to be the way folks like to shop these days: the ‘big box’ store model,” she says. But not everyone is down on art fairs. Houk has noted an increase in international buyers, mainly from the Middle East and Asia. “Half of our business out of the New York gallery last year came from beyond the United States,” he says. A sizable amount of that business was generated at fairs. A former skeptic about their value — in 1997 fairs accounted for only 0.5 percent of his annual sales — Houk has become a convert, if still highly selective about where he goes. Revenues from fairs now make up 25 percent of his business, with Art Basel Miami Beach serving as a convenient place to meet potential South American customers.
Fairs specializing in photography remain the preferred venues for most dealers in the field. The Washington, D.C.–based Association of International Photography Art Dealers has 120 members and a full house for its April fair at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. David Zwirner and P.P.O.W. gallery have joined the organization, indicating that broad-spectrum contemporary dealers see opportunity in the photocentric market. Paris Photo had 150 exhibitors from 22 countries during its four-day run in November. (Among the 130 dealers and 20 book producers were the Gagosian and Marian Goodman galleries.) Julien Frydman, the fair’s director since 2011, has launched several innovative programs, but the boldest step may be the introduction of Paris Photo Los Angeles. Debuting April 25–28 in the Paramount Pictures Studios, the new fair will include galleries showing video and other timebased art. Frydman says work of this kind may be incorporated into the parent fair in Paris for the first time next autumn.
For all the blue-chip excitement surrounding the Buhl results, the area of the market showing the most robust growth in the midrange may be the broad field of vernacular photography. This includes anonymous pictures that provoke historical curiosity, such as the group of mug shots from the San Francisco Police Department, dated 1908–10, that sold at Swann Auction Galleries for $31,200 (est. $4,000–6,000) in February 2012, or distinctive works such as Beal’s Photographic View of New York, a five-panel panorama of lower Manhattan by Joshua Beal. Shot in 1876, with a tower of the Brooklyn Bridge at the center, it fetched $96,000 (est. $12–18,000) in Swann’s sale of photographs and photo books in October. “That’s a great example of what I call cross-pollination,” says Daile Kaplan, director of photographs at Swann. “There was interest from collectors of maritime culture, of New York material, of Americana. Some were awed by Beal’s technique, and others were serious collectors of the best 19th-century photography.”
During the past decade, institutions have shown greater respect for material from outside the fine-art history of photography. In 2007 the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., presented “The Art of the American Snapshot, 1988–1978: From the Collection of Robert E. Jackson.” None of the images was made by a professional. (Thomas Walther had paved this road earlier, publishing a book of anonymous images from his collection in 2000.) In 2011 New York collector Peter Cohen gave the Art Institute of Chicago more than 500 prints, most of them flea-market finds, taken by amateurs between the 1890s and 1970s. The institute mounted a show to coincide with the publication of a catalogue by Yale University Press.
Galleries have encouraged this market tendency. More than a third of the prints for sale in “The Unphotographable” at San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery (through March 23) are by unknown photographers. Hans Kraus, the New York specialist in prime 19th-centurymaterial, says, “If it’s a compelling image and print, a name doesn’t really matter.” He adds, “Most daguerreotypes have always been sold that way. One is more likely to know the subject than the photographer. That openness now extends into many areas of 19th-century work, although it’s still not true for 20th-century. For that you still need a name.”
Christie’s New York will have many big names in its April single-owner sale of photographs, most dated between 1920 and 1925, from the Chilean collector Carlos Alberto Cruz. Expected to bring $5.2 million to $8 million, the 76 lots include Weston’s Nude, 1925 (est. $400–600,000); Tina Modotti’s Texture and Shadow, 1924–26 (est. $200–300,000); and Man Ray’s unique Untitled Rayograph, 1923 (est. $250–350,000).
Pedigree names don’t hurt when presenting top-drawer 19th-century photography, either. In April 2012 Christie’s New York sold a complete 20-volume set of Edward Curtis’s North American Indian, published between 1907 and 1930, for $2.9 million, an artist record. Another Curtis set sold in October 2012 at Swann for $1.44 million, the highest price the house has ever seen for works on paper. And a Julia Margaret Cameron album of 75 prints, which is fresh to the market, is one of Kraus’s choice offerings at this month’s European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht. An institution has expressed strong interest and requested that he not disclose the asking price. All Kraus will say is that it’s “way over a million.”
Classic photography, at least in some corners of the art market, is anything but dead.
CORRECTION: In the version of this article that appeared in the March 2013 issue of Art & Auction, the writer misstated the nature of William Eggleston's current gallery representation. He continues to be represented by Cheim & Read as well as by the Gagosian Gallery.