When Thomas Solley, a descendant of the Eli Lilly family and director of the Indiana University Art Museum, started buying photographs in the seventies, great prints could be had for a few hundred dollars. By the time he died last year at 81, he had amassed a collection worth about $3 million. It goes to auction at Christie’s on February 14.
His estate couldn’t have chosen a better moment. The auction record for a photograph is $2.9 million, set last year for Edward Steichen’s 1904 The Pond—Moonlight, and prices for Irving Penn and William Eggleston have hit six digits. Those are numbers more associated with painters than lensmen, and they’re on the rise. “It’s still possible to buy a masterpiece in photography, although in fifteen years that may not be the case,” says Dr. Michael Jacobs, a collector who’s on the advisory committees at MoMA and the Getty. Photographs come in multiples, of course, but connoisseurs know that few prints are alike. A Steichen image printed later in his life is a pleasure, but a century-old vintage print is a sensation. Here’s an advance look at what to watch for.
1. Richard Avedon
Dovima With Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, August 1955. Printed 1979; No. 25 in an edition of 100.
Estimate: $25,000 to $35,000. The Ur-Avedon, Dovima also defines fashion photography’s stance at mid-century: sculptural, grandiose, contrasty. The fact that it’s familiar—maybe overfamiliar—doesn’t hurt the price. “Particularly with fashion photographs, resale is more directed if it’s a signature piece,” says Sarah Hasted of Hasted Hunt Gallery.
Market details: This smallish ten-by-eight-inch print is accordingly budget-priced. (Avedon printed images at multiple sizes.) Bigger isn’t always better, however. A vintage, highly desirable Kertész, for example, is often a carte postale.
Prospects: Avedon’s prices, always strong, have been going up steadily since his 2002 retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (He died in 2004.) A print from the same edition sold last year for $50,400; this one could double its presale estimate.