Former Director and International Head of Photography, Christie's, London
Chair of the Curatorial Committee, Photo London
Published by The Royal Photographic Society
PASSION IS THE DRIVING FORCE
Phillipa Jane Wielgos speaks to Philippe Garner, Director and International Head of Photography at Christie’s, London, about its photographic sale last May, as well as discussing the contemporary market, and how to approach it with a view to collecting photography
CHRISTIE’S PHOTOGRAPHIC AUCTIONS
The Christie’s photographic sale in May comprised 115 lots, which is considered relatively small in auction house terms. It was curated by Philippe Garner, Director and International Head of Photography at Christie’s. The sale featured post war Western and Japanese photographers, as well as contemporary work, and contained many highlights, including: works from the Kurt Kirkbach Collection, assembled between 1929-32 by the Dresden based industrialist, noted as possibly the single greatest collection of avant-garde photography of the modernist Bauhaus period.
• 23 gelatine-silver vintage Paris photographs by André Kertéz, printed on small format un-ferrotyped glossy papers. Reputed to have been rediscovered in 1963 in an underground trunk, after being gifted to his journalist friend Jacqueline Paouillac in 1936, prior to Kertéz fleeing to New York in advance of the Nazi occupation of France.
• The Fritz Springefelde Collection, seen for the first time at auction in 11 years, which includes works by Florence Henri, Willy Zielke, Johann Graf, Rudolf Kessler and Hein Gorny; these ‘lesser known’ avant-garde photographers achieving a distinct niche market clientele, realising prices well above pre-sale estimates.
• Post war and contemporary Japanese photography from the Provoke movement, showing a very different side of Japanese culture. Other avant-garde European, British and American works could be seen juxtaposed with the established greats - Ansel Adams, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941, gelatine silver print; Robert Mapplethorpe, Calla Lilly, 1984, platinum print; Henri Cartier-Bresson, On the banks of the Marne, gelatine silver print; and Eugène Atget, Saint Cloude 1923, arrowroot print.
Sensational oversized prints, representing the current fascination with glamorous supermodels, were featured: Richard Avedon’s Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent, 14 June 1981; Albert Watson’s Kate Moss, Marrakech, January 1993; Gavin Bond’s Gisele, 2006, of Gisele Bündchen with smudged eye makeup holding a cigarette; and Sante d’Orazio’s Pamela Anderson, Profile # 1, Hollywood 2000.
With a largely unstable market, pre-sales estimates and sold prices ranged from £2000 to £230,000. The highest price paid for a single item was for Satiric Dancer, Paris, 1926, by André Kertéz, which sold to the Houkk Gallery, New York at £228,500, compared to a pre-sale estimate of £200,000-300,000. The lowest sale price realised was for Slaughterhouse, 1960, by Mario Giacomelli, which sold at £1700, against a pre-sales estimate of £3000.
Overall, the sale achieved just under £1m. “Sales across the company this year have pleasantly exceeded expectations”, says Philippe Garner, “because we weren’t sure how financial uncertainties and turmoil in the markets would impact on the art world. But, to a great extent, our clients are at the top of the financial pyramid, and it is not people in that category who are really being really pinched in the credit squeeze. There is still considerable liquidity.
“The fact that art has generally a very solid record has actually attracted investments during this difficult period. Having a fabulous work of art on the wall is more appealing than owning a theoretical slice of a nebulous company.
“For this sale, we constructed the hang so that the more intimate scale pieces were grouped together. So much 19th and 20th century photography was on a relatively intimate scale, at about 10x8ins. One of the great changes we have seen over the last 15-20 years is photographers pushing scale to the limits, wanting to make photographs that really have a dramatic presence. Today, there is a core of photographers who wish their work above all to be exhibited, and scale becomes an important part of that.
“Christie’s London sales have a long and well established history, as indeed do I, going back to 1971, when I was involved in what I call the very first auction of the modern market in photographs. For many years, the auction house served almost as a wholesale warehouse for material that was coming onto the market for the first time, and for the most part was going off to American collections. The sales were big: many were multiple lots, maybe an album, a group of photographs or a collection.
“Today, the sales have a very different flavour. There has been a significant shift lately toward post war photography, to a large extent because the great 19th century material has simply vanished from the marketplace. The auction houses make much more effort now to take clients with them, educating them, instructing them, curating sales much more tightly and, as a result sales, have become more focused.
“This sale is a good example of that type of focus, because it wasn’t huge in terms of the number of the lots, but it was well structured, having several distinct chapters, each being an excellent representation of the theme of that particular chapter.
“With estimated prices starting within the £2000- 3000 range, and going right up to £200,000-300,000, there are possibilities to enter the market and collect at many different levels. £2000-3000 might still seem a lot of money, and it is possible to collect photographs for less, although probably not if you go shopping at the big London auction houses.
“For somebody starting out investing in today’s market, I would recommend doing as much looking as possible. Go to all the exhibitions and see the original prints. Besides that, look at photographs in books and magazines. There is a mental adjustment you have to undergo: to stop thinking of pictures simply as images, and to see them as objects.
“See how the prints look in front of you; also see how different photographers package and present their work. Gain as much exposure to the market as possible. Auctions are good, because if you want to see pictures out of their frames, that can be arranged.
“I would never assess a fine art photograph for its investment potential. I would assess it for its intrinsic merit, and if I had to I would assess it for its worth, but not in a financial sense. I would be asking myself, does it excite me? Is this a photographer who, when looking at the broad spectrum of his work, clearly has a strong point of view? Is there a consistently powerful content in this photographer’s work? Is this particular image a good representative example that captures the best of that photographer? Is it a work from a key moment in his evolution, a high point in his career?
“Seeking to situate the photograph within the body of that photographer’s work is crucial. Then you have to turn to specifics, like: is it a beautiful print? Is it in excellent condition? What is the edition? How rare is it? How aggressive should I be in paying for it on the
basis of how rare it seems to be?
“An interesting provenance always adds a premium to a piece, and a very interesting provenance adds a significant premium. Good provenance, well documented, to some extent reassures that the piece is genuine – so provenance does matter and does add
value, but it is a hard thing to quantify.
“If somebody asked me for advice on investing in photographs, I would say they had come to the wrong person. If money is the underlying issue, that’s not the way I like to approach it. On the other hand, if they came to me and wanted pointers on how to understand photography better, and learn what criteria are required in photography, I would be delighted to talk to them. If somebody needs to know a bit of the track record of a photographer, I am happy to help them find it, so they can see the pattern of that photographer in the market. Have prices been strong?
Have prices grown? Why? If you talk about investing, it implies that you are asking me to look into a crystal ball and give comfort for the future. All
I can do is show patterns from the past.
“Digital processes are being refined to a great extent, enabling printing to a very large format, which simply was not possible before. Digital is here
- there is no denying it. If we were in denial, we probably would be still working with daguerreotypes.
You have to understand that in order to embrace what new technologies can do. Digital is a tsunami that can’t be avoided.
“I am not sure however that digital has made any difference to the way that the medium of photography is perceived. People who collect contemporary photography, much of which is dependent upon digital processing, accept it as a powerful and significant expressive medium alongside others. “There was a time when the photographic market was niche, perceived as an antiquarian or marginal interest.
What we have seen is the medium of photography being accepted as central within the art marketplace – that doesn’t make every photograph art - but there has been a much broader acceptance that this is a medium through which you can be an artist.
“When collecting in today’s market, don’t be rushed. Spend as much as you can afford. Don’t think of it as an investment. See it as a longer term thing, and think carefully about what area you want to explore. Don’t be too ambitious or try to emulate great collectors. The best starting point has to be the question, what excites me? What do I want to live with? It must come from the gut or heart – rather than a drier or more analytical approach from the head. It has to be an emotional thing.
“Obviously, if you are spending large sums you have to understand what you are doing. Know the market, and situate the work of the photographer within that, but the greatest collections have been put together where passion is the driving force. The benefits of multiplying in value come later.”
Phillipa Jane Wielgos
Lot 7. André Kertész (1894-1985): Satiric Dancer, Paris, 1926.
Estimate: £200,000 -£300,000.
Lot 35. Hugo Erfurth (1874-1948): Marc and Bella Chagall, 1923.
Lot 43, Mario Giacomelli (1925-2000):
There Are No Hands to Caress My Face, 1961-63.
Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976): Cabbage, before 1928.
Estimate £10,000 -15,000.
Published issue 338 RPS Journal September 2008