Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Photography Auctions and Angry Voters

Auction Hero: Robert Frank's "U.S. 90 En Route to Del Rio, Texas"
 One of the resources I use to collect info is a publication called The Photo Review. It has exhibition reviews, book reviews, and portfolios that in the past have featured a number of young artists who've become very big artists. I bring all this up for two reasons, only one of which has anything to do with the mid-term elections. (Read on to see how I deftly link congressional upheaval to photography.)

1. My first reason for mentioning The Photo Review is that it holds an annual benefit auction to raise operating funds—it's a non-profit, like this blog—and this year's auction will be held on Saturday (that's November 6) at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. (You can also bid online; go here for information.) There's good work from old-timers including Edouard Baldus, Edward Curtis, Man Ray, George Seely, and Weegee, and contemporary work from Marilyn Bridges, Larry Fink, Henry Horenstein, and Joel-Peter Witkin, to name a few. If you've got some money to spend, you might be able to pick up something great at a bargain. Which brings me to my second point, which is actually a question:

2. Who's got money for photography? The art market for photography exploded over the past two decades; if you'd bought the right work in 1990, your investment would have outperformed the stock market, including the dot-com and housing bubbles. How's it been doing recently? I decided to ask Steven Perloff, who edits The Photo Review and writes a newsletter for collectors. (Appropriately, it's called The Photography Collector.) Steven keeps a box score of the photo market and an eye on the national economy, because when the stock market is up, wealthy people buy art. (Very wealthy people buy contemporary art, which includes work by Richard Prince and the like.) When it goes down, the rich scrape by in other ways. So the photo market isn't a bad indicator of the mind-set of Wall Street, if not Main Street. And what is that mood? " could be worse," said Perloff. But it could be better. Now, about the elections...

Man Ray's "Still Life with Chess Set..."
 When I spoke with him, Perloff had just finished covering the fall photography auctions at Christie's, Sotheby's, and Phillips de Pury & Company, the three New York auction houses that set the pace of the market. The total sales for all three this fall was just over $15 million. Let's put that in perspective: At the height of the market in April 2008— those halcion subprime days just after the Bear Stearns collapse and a bit before the Lehman collapse—the total sales for the three auctions houses was $38 million. By October of that year— after George W. Bush's trenchant  "This sucker could go down"  analysis of the economy he'd overseen for nearly eight years, the fall photo auctions in New York brought in $16 million.

Then came the bank bailouts and the G.M buyout—all that expensive hole-in-the-dike stuff that may have kept us from becoming a banana republic but was just so infuriating. Before the anger, though, there was fear. In April of 2009, the total photo auction sales were $6.3 million—an 84-percent drop in one year. Later, as the economy stabilized and Goldman Sachs executives added zeros to their end-of-year bonuses, the photography market regained a heartbeat, if not brain-wave activity. Last April the sales total was $18 million. And just as the economy's pulse fluttered over the summer and fall, so did the art market.

That's not exactly good news, but it's not bad either. Unfortunately, not bad isn't very exciting after years of spectacular. Once, every auction seemed to bring a record price for this and that photographer. This fall, the good news came very occasionally: A circa-1955 print of Robert Frank's "U.S. 90, En Route to Del Rio, Texas" was estimated at $80,000 to $120,000 but sold for more than $266,000 at Sotheby's. Man Ray's "Still Life Composition with Chess Set, Plaster Casts, and a l'Heure de l'Observatoire—Les Amoureux" was estimated at $50,000 to $70,000 but sold at Sotheby's for $170,000. That was about it for spectacular, said Perloff.

On the other hand, the buy-in rate at the auctions—the percentage of lots left unsold because they didn't reach the reserve price placed on them by the auction houses—was a relatively low 25 percent. Even in good years the buy-in rates can be as high as 35 percent, noted Perloff. His explanation: The auction houses lowered their reserves. That is, they priced the stuff to sell.

Yesterday, angry voters went to the polls. Art sellers this year simply didn't put much prime material up for sale, which may have been another reason for the lackluster sales. Americans sent a message for change, say the headlines, and they want the change right now. Collectors are just waiting for everything to turn around.

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