Dustin Hoffman and some 500 other collectors could not resist bidding on photographs here today at the most successful auction in this field in years -- totaling $685,000.
The photography market, it seems, is out of the doldrums.
Not that vintage images from the newest and, to some hidebound thinking, lowliest, art form have reached the million-dollar mark, or even the $100,000 mark, as have top-drawer paintings and sculpture. The top bid in today's auction at Sotheby's, $37,750, was paid for "Stairway" (1935), a rare, cerebral print by the American precisionist Charles Sheeler. California dealer Maggie Weston placed the closing bid.
"I am shaking all over," she said candidly immediately after placing the final bid. "It feels fabulous! I would have gone as high as $60,000."
Photography auctions are more fun than most. Aside from Hoffman, who paid $1,760 for "Meudon" (1928) by Andre Kertesz and several other photographs, the sale room was full of young and energetic collectors and dealers who don't hesitate to talk about their deals -- like Daniel Wolf, the 29-year-old New York dealer and former Cosmopolitan magazine bachelor of the month who recently sold $20 million worth of photographs to the Getty Museum in California. Wolf was the underbidder on the Sheeler.
Item: When "Aux Halles" (1929) by Andre Kertesz was sold for $17,600 -- the second highest price -- to Chicago dealer Edwynn Houk, Wolf let it be known that he had sold the same image, different print, to the Getty for $800. Why? "The seller needed the money."
Item: When the National Portrait Gallery bid $4,400, nearly twice the estimate, for "Portrait of Edward Steichen" (early 1900s) by Heinrich Kuhn, the bidder defended the purchase. "We may have other portraits of Steichen one of the masters of early photography ," said curator Will Stapp, "but this is the finest."
Item: When Weston snagged a huge photomontage by the zany British artists Gilbert and George for $17,600, she sighed. "War" (1980), depicting a barechested soldier holding what looks like a ray-gun, could have sold for more in a contemporary art sale. It will go, Weston reported, into the collection of an anonymous client -- one of the few circumspect disclosures of the day.
The main disappointment came at the end of the morning session. A group of rare Diane Arbus photographs from the estate of Marvin Israel, the late photographer's manager, failed to bring the bids everyone had anticipated.
On the strength of the enormously successful recent biography -- "Diane Arbus: A Biography," by Patricia Bosworth -- nearly everyone expected the pictures of freaks and oddities taken by Arbus to go through the roof. But the famous "Jewish Giant at Home With His Parents in the Bronx, N.Y." fetched only $4,950. "Too doom and gloom," was the reason given by one dealer, who asked to be unnamed. "People don't want to look at pain and suffering these days."
The reasons for the renaissance in vintage photographs, it seems, are twofold. Some believe the boom economy has helped the market. But many more think that the Getty Museum has injected the market with new hope. Last spring the Getty, the world's richest museum, broke with its previous policy and purchased a major collection of photographs.
"Thank you, Getty," said Anne Horton, the photography specialist who helped put the sale together.