Sotheby's held two auctions on May 19th. The first was a general photography sale, the second a specialist sale with works from the collection of London dealer Eric Franck, who is retiring. There weren't many surprises in the general sale, but the main surprise was that some of the material that usually sells in London failed to take off.
The auction started with a print by Michel Comte, "Aiko T, Tokyo", which sold for £6,875. Next came an intriguing Polaroid by Helmut Newton, a naked model riding a clothed man, which sold for £5,000. Lot 3, another Polaroid by Newton, two models lying next to car in a car park, found a buyer at £2,500. This was followed by a posthumous Guy Bourdin print, a classic image of single face peering out under a sea of umbrellas, which sold for £20,000. Lot 6, "Lisa Fonssagrives with Harp" by Horst, printed later, went for £12,500. Next came a vintage print of a beautiful nude by Fernand Fonssagrives, the model's first husband, which brought in £5,000.
Lot 8, "Lydia", a 1987 nude by Robert Mapplethorpe sold for £47,500; Lot 9, "The Divers" by Hoyningen-Huene, printed later, went for £18,750, doubling the high estimate. A print from Melvin Sokolosky's famous "bubble shoot" failed to sell, as was the case with Frank Horvat's "Givenchy Hat".
Stranger still, lot 15, the Albert Watson print of Kate Moss, failed to sell, as did lot 16, a contact sheet from the same session. Lot 19 was the first of a group of Mapplethorpe prints, two of Lisa Lyon, "Flex Studies", sold for £7,500. The next "Flex Studies" sold for £9,375. The flowers in the group were a bit pedestrian by Mapplethorpe's standards. Lot 21, was far better, "Thomas", one of the variants of the series shot with the model in a circle, went for £21,250.
Lot 27, Irving Penn's "Hippie Family (Kelly), San Francisco, failed to sell, as was the case with lot 29, a wonderful portrait of Louise Bourgeois by Yann Charbonnier. Lot 30, a portrait of Francis Bacon in his studio by Bruce Bernard, faired better and went for £4,000.
There wasn't much pre-war material here but lot 36 was a good one, a mid-twenties nude by Frantisek Drtkol, which sold for £31,250. Then came two works by Paul Outerbridge. The first one, the black and white "Nude Torso, Semi-Abstraction failed to sell, but the second one, a color carbro print of nude found a buyer at £31,250.
Heinrich Kühn is to my mind vastly underrated. There were three prints in the sale and all failed to sell. Lot 41 was a 1937 Constantin Brancusi print, far from one of his best in my opinion, but it still went for £22,500.
Lot 47, Peter Beard's "Lion Pride in the Tiva Dry River, Tsavo North, Near Kathmula" seemed reasonably priced to me with an estimate of £30,000 - 50,000 but went unsold. This was also the case with lot 52, Beard's "Elui, Son of Nzenge Mkambo from Voi (Tsavo Lowlands).
Nick Brandt works usually find buyers in the London auctions, but of the four here only two found buyers: Lot 48 "Lioness in Crater, Ngorongoro Crater" which went for £8,750 and Lot 48m "Portrait of Elephant in Dust, Amboseli", for £32,500.
Lot 51, "Mankind", was spectacular, a 104-1/6-inch wide print by David Yarrow of African tribesman and their buffalo herd. Estimated at £15,000-20,000 it was finally sold for £60,000.
Lot 58 was one of the strong images from Pieter Hugo's series "The Hyena and Other Men". It sold for £20,000, and I was surprised it didn't go higher. (Editor's Note: I have always been impressed with both Hugo's images and his integrity. He uses revenues from his pictures to support efforts to sustain these isolated people and their environs.)
Lot 63 was the first of three works by Hiroshi Sugimoto, a subtle view of the Tlalpan chapel, which sold for £11,250. The next one, "Empire State Building" failed to sell, while the last one, "Guggenheim Museum, New York" brought £22,500. Then came two works from Sohei Nishino's amazing series "Diorama Maps". The first one, of London, went for £35,000; the second, of New York, sold for £22,500.
Then came more Sugimoto. Lot 69, an interior view of Gaudi's famous building "Casa Batlló" failed to sell but the following lot, "E.U.R" San Pietro e Paolo" went for £8,750.
Lot 74, "Untitled" by Ren Hang was one of the best in the sale, a young transsexual ( I think ) with birds resting on the head and shoulders. The Chinese photographer had a meteoric career before committing suicide at the age of 30 this year. It sold for £7,500.
Lot 76, was the iconic "Nan and Brian in Bed, N.Y.C." from Nan Goldin's "Ballad of Sexual Dependency". Estimated at £8,000 - 12,000, it finally sold for £50,000.
The National Portrait Gallery in London recently showed a great exhibition pairing Gillian Wearing with Claude Cahun. Lot 95 was from the series that first got Wearing noticed, "Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say" from 1994. Despite the low estimate of £3,000 - 5,000, it failed to sell.
Michael Diemar is a long-time writer about the photography scene, in addition to being a collector, curator, lecturer and ex-London gallerist (in 2009 opening Diemar/Noble Gallery). He has written extensively for several Scandinavian photography publications, as well as for the E-Photo Newsletter and I Photo Central.