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.
2. Helmut Newton
Self-Portrait With Wife and Models, Paris, 1981. Printed 1984. From an edition of 75.
Estimate: $15,000 to $25,000.What looks like a scene of voyeurism was actually domestic comedy. “His wife was hungry and wanted to go to lunch,” explains Leon Constantiner, a New York collector who bought a print of the image in 1992. “That’s why he was wearing his coat. He said, ‘Just one more,’ which turned into a whole roll of film. That’s the beauty of photography—which one is the One from a roll?”
Market details: The late photographer planned to sell 75 10-by-10½-inch prints, but no more than 25 were released, effectively shrinking the edition.
Prospects: Another Newton, Sie Kommen—Dressed and Naked, is likely his most famous image and has been reaching six figures. This tableau, however, makes the most of Newton’s playful kink. Though fashion work has traditionally attracted less market respect than ostensibly purer fine-arts photography, Newton’s name is joining those of Penn and Avedon as a serious crossover figure, so demand should be there.
3. Herb Ritts
Versace Dress, Back View, El Mirage, 1990. Printed 1990; No. 18 in an edition of 25.
Estimate: $12,000 to $18,000. Pure fashion photos like this one propel Solley’s collection from a studious, sober grouping to a record of passion for the female form. But as clean as Ritts’s images are, they haven’t yet convinced most fine-art photography buyers that they have transcended their moment.
Market details: This image sold out its edition, according to Etheleen Staley of the Staley-Wise Gallery, which originally sold it to Solley. While Ritts’s images of male bodies in Grecian poses were more popular in the eighties, his women have since caught up.
Prospects: As fashion photography gains acceptance as another serious genre within the medium—a perception fostered by MoMA’s big exhibition in 2004—prints like these can only get more expensive. For Ritts, the price is right, and this should sell within estimate.
4. Roger Fenton
The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1856. Vintage salt print; edition unknown.
Estimate: $3,000 to $5,000.The British government sent Roger Fenton to document the Crimean War, with the proviso that he not photograph the dead or wounded. He came home with benign military still lifes, as well as this chilling image filled with cannonballs, which Susan Sontag describes in “Regarding the Pain of Others” as “a portrait of death without the dead.”
Market details: Nineteenth-century prints are scarce but not sexy—“a bargain basement,” says Joshua Holdeman, director of Christie’s photographs department. This print has slight “foxing,” or brownish spotting, where it’s mounted, which may account for the low estimate. “But as [early] prints continue to dry up and the choices become more limited, pristine condition becomes less of an issue,” says dealer Bruce Silverstein.
Prospects: This should sail over its estimate, unless the fussier buyers balk at the discoloration.
5. Paul Outerbridge
Self Portrait, circa 1927. Vintage gelatin-silver print; probably unique.
Estimate: $40,000 to $60,000. Outerbridge was the Cindy Sherman of his day, dressing himself up for mock-comic, disturbing self-portraits. He was also an early adopter of color photography as well as an innovator of erotica.
Market details: Although Outerbridge made another photograph from the same sitting, this print is thought by Christie’s to be unique, making it especially desirable.
Prospects: A solitary print by an acknowledged master of the medium (if not exactly a household name) makes this the perfect buy for true collectors. It takes only two of them to bid up an excellent price.
6. Edward Steichen
Flatiron Building, Evening, 1905. Printed circa 1960; edition unknown.
Estimate: $40,000 to $60,000.Steichen is the Picasso of photographers—the dominant early modernist. (He eventually became director of photographs at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1947.) And his impressionistic pictures of turn-of-the-century New York are among his most valued.
Market details: This is a later print of an iconic image. A vintage print—meaning one made close to the time the image was shot—could conceivably approach $1 million. “The later the image gets printed, the more it begins to lose its attachment to the time,” says the London collector (and James Bond producer) Michael Wilson. “Collectors like to feel that the image has not lost its context in history.” (Contemporary photographs go the opposite way: As an edition sells and buzz builds, the remaining prints with later numbers grow more expensive.)
Prospects: Few prints of this Steichen exist, vintage or more recent. “There’s no doubt it will get significant interest,” says Silverstein.