National Geographic’s auction of images fetches $3.8 million


“Afghan Girl, 1984,” taken by Steve McCurry, appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985. (STAN HONDA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
December 6, 2012

It is, the auctioneer needlessly reminds his audience, “an iconic image.”

So let’s buy it.

Twenty-five thousand dollars is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s quite sneezable at Christie’s, for this auction, for this particular photograph. The bids whoosh through the twenties, thirties, forties, eighties. “I must rush you now,” Andrew McVinish gently informs a prospective buyer stuck at the pesky number of $122,000. “There it rests. Now’s the time.”

Only when the flying numbers surpass $130,000 does McVinish remind everyone: “I did say this was an important photograph.”

It is the photograph of photographs of photographs. The ragged red scarf, the scissors-sharp green eyes, the hungry, hunted, haunted beauty. “Afghan Girl,” taken by Steve McCurry, appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985, and you saw it and you remembered.


“The Duel on the Beach,” a painting by Newell Convers Wyeth, brought $1.1 million. (STAN HONDA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

On Thursday afternoon, it was for sale. A lot of it was, which is to say a small portion of it was. Specifically, 232 lots from the National Geographic Society’s 11.5 million-image archive were put up for bid in the society’s first auction in its 125-year history. The event was held in New York, but it — like everything else now — was live-streamed online for anthropoli-geeks around the globe.

McVinish (close-trimmed, Australian, balletic in his gestures) conducted the proceedings in the dignified manner of a man who could sell very expensive snow to very well-dressed Alaskans, but never once make it feel as if he was nudging.

“It’s at one-thirty-two,” he reminds the prospective bidders for the Afghan photograph. But then, suddenly, the photo is at $140,000. The audience gasps. Someone chortles in the back — an apparently involuntary-glee reaction to the mere mention of this kind of money.

But McVinish is not done yet. “One-forty-one?” he entices. “Another? One-forty-five. This might be the last one. Fantastic. Magical. Are you certain? No regrets. Fair warning. Last chance. No regrets. Never to be bid on again. It’s going. It’s going.”

It went, the photo of the Afghan girl, with a “hammer price” of $147,000 — some three times more than the photograph had been expected to fetch — to a bidder whose identity remained anonymous.

But it wasn’t the biggest-ticket item, not by far. That honor went to “The Duel on the Beach,” a painting by Newell Convers Wyeth, which brought $1.1 million. Other items sold included works by Ansel Adams, Margaret Bourke-White and Alfred Eisenstaedt, for money totaling $3.8 million.

One hears this number and one thinks: Fire sale? Desperate measures? Why is National Geographic auctioning off some of its best stuff?

But no. Maura Mulvihill, director of the National Geographic Image Collection, says finances were “not at all” a factor in the decision to hold the auction. “The idea came about as a way to celebrate our legacy,” Mulvihill says, and to connect the public with memorable images from the organization’s history. Along with the Smithsonians, National Geographic has become the Washington institution most synonymous with preservation — with, as Mulvihill says, “building a visual history of the world.”

The proceeds will go toward preserving the archives and to supporting emerging photographers and artists. National Geographic retains the rights to publish the images, even if it doesn’t own the physical objects.

For those who missed the auction: Copies of the June 1985 issue featuring the Afghan girl — who was later revealed to be a Pashtun woman named Sharbat Gula — are available on eBay starting at $6. And there are still upwards of 11 million National Geographic images, tucked away in a climate-controlled archive, beneath the organization’s Washington headquarters at the corner of 17th and M streets NW.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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