1:43 pm Oct. 8, 2012
Celebrity sells, but not all the time.
A few murmurs filled the Christie's showroom off Rockefeller Plaza on Thursday night, as one of Richard Avedon’s most iconic works, which captures an aloof Marilyn Monroe, failed to reach its low estimate of $100,000. It was the inaugural evening of Christie's fall photography season, and the Avedon sale, from the collection of a single owner, was the keynote event.
Avedon’s iconic portraits were all in attendance, but also all underperformed. Of course, the failure to move the Marilyn image wasn’t enough to halt the night, which ended on a reasonable note with Avedon’s hopped-up, solarized portrait of The Beatles. The lot was a later edition, printed in 1981, and failed to reach its low estimate of $100,000. It sold, but for $70,000. Overall, the auction was successful, with evening results totalling $1,517,250 against a low estimate of $1,352,000 for the 28 works. That’s nothing to be sad about. Still, most of the lots that did sell hovered just above their low estimates, and 30 percent of the lots didn’t sell. It seems that at this moment, a showcase of Avedon’s strange, glamorous world doesn’t garner much excitement.
Josh Holdeman, international director for Christie’s photography department, described the current market for Avedon as “steady.” Just two years ago, Holdeman might have said it was robust. In 2010, at a Paris sale, Avedon’s Dovima with Elephants sparked a personal record for the photographer in excess of a million dollars.
Another print of Dovima with Elephants, significantly smaller than the record-setter but also produced earlier,was on sale Thursday night, garnering a hammer price of $220,000, just above its low estimate. But with fees and the buyer’s premium taken into account, it became the sale’s biggest payout, beating out a 1959 photo of Brigitte Bardot that also sold at $220,000 to the same phone bidder.
Christie’s auctioneer Philippe Garner tried to get more for that photograph.
“I’ll take $230,000 if you wish,” urged the polite, British auctioneer. His slow-as-molasses manner served as an obvious tactic to encourage shy bidders. In most cases, they just weren’t biting.
But that $230,000 question? It was an important one. Garner posed the question to an in-room bidder, listening attentively to the other end of his iPhone, but who could not say “Yes” for his client at that amount. That left the phone bidder with the Bardot, still well above its high estimate of $150,000 and eclipsing all previous sales for the work. Earlier this year, another edition of the Bardot print sold for £120,000 ($189,792) at Sotheby’s London.
Still, not all the lots were successful: eight of the twenty-eight works up for sale remained unsold by the end of the night. That’s not unheard of with a single-owner sale; often there’s a span of quality in the smattering of photographs consigned to the auction house. Besides which, Avedon collectors might have sated themselves earlier this year, when the Richard Avedon Foundation collaborated with Gagosian on an exhibition of large-scale photographs.
One of the unsold was Jean Shrimpton, Toga by Forquet, Paris studio, August 1965, the first work on the block. While it’s not unheard of for the first work to be passed over—auctions have to build momentum, and the more exciting works are rarely placed near the start—it’s perhaps inauspicious at the auction house’s first photography sale of the season.
The ups-and-downs of the Avedon sale, while maybe not the most reliable market indicator, did give a glimpse about what to expect with Christie’s main photography auction held later that night. Works by a big name in photography like Irving Penn were stable, and then there were a few runaway hits—like wildlife photographer Peter Beard’s Cheetah Orphan Triptych (1968), which hammered down at a whopping $550,000.
Animals, maybe that’s the next big thing in photography. Or maybe it’s just one of those auction surprises.