Major Photo Collections Hit the Auction Block This Spring
Works owned by Elton John headline a promising season of photography sales at Christie's, Sotheby's, and Phillips
After enduring a mostly lackluster 2016, the photography auction market is looking eagerly ahead to the New York spring sales, which should get a boost from some high-profile collections coming to the block April 3 through 6. Christie’s has the biggest name, Elton John, who is selling 25 works from his renowned holdings that are expected to raise several hundred thousand dollars for the Elton John AIDS Foundation on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. Phillips, meanwhile, has the season’s highest-value collection: 228 lots, estimated at around $5.4 million, being sold to benefit Joy of Giving Something (JGS), the nonprofit organization created by financier and esteemed collector Howard Stein to support the photographic arts through scholarships, teen education, and other programs.
Phillips kicks off the week by offering the JGS trove in a two-part sale, dubbed “The Odyssey of Collecting,” on April 3 and 4. Amassed by Stein starting in the 1980s, the images span photography’s entire history, from major works by pioneering 19th-century figures such as William Henry Fox Talbot, Gustave Le Gray, and Carleton Watkins to modernist icons by Eugène Atget, László Moholy-Nagy, and Imogen Cunningham to 21st-century pieces by Idris Khan and Zhang Huan. The Stein consignment (which includes another group of works to be sold in October) is the most valuable photography collection Phillips has ever landed. It was seen as something of a coup for the auction house, especially since Stein previously sold 175 works in a record-smashing 2014 auction at Sotheby’s, totaling $21.3 million and setting a new high for a single-owner photo collection. “That first sale obviously whet the marketplace’s appetite, but it was just a first taste of a collection that is wide and deep,” says Caroline Deck, a specialist at Phillips, which has a multiple-owner sale in addition to the JGS material. “There are some remarkable highlights, going back to the very dawn of photography.”
Sotheby’s, for its part, has put together a various-owners sale with 188 lots on April 5. Headlining the offerings is an exceptionally rare complete album of 50 western landscapes shot in the early 1870s by Timothy O’Sullivan and William Bell for the so-called Wheeler Survey. The first example to appear at auction in more than 30 years, the album carries the week’s second-highest estimate at $300,000 to $500,000.
Rounding things out at Christie’s the next day, the Elton John works are sure to grab the public’s attention—and perhaps enjoy a bump from the exhibition of his wide-ranging collection now on view at London’s Tate Modern. The images at Christie’s are primarily from the 1980s onward, encompassing mostly fashion (Peter Lindbergh, Frank Horvat, Bruce Weber) and art (Cindy Sherman, Candida Höfer, Richard Misrach, Vik Muniz). This is the second time Elton John has offered a group of works from his collection at Christie’s—the first was a 2004 sale of around 100 photographs that raised just over $900,000.
But Christie’s also has another collection, 28 photographs amassed by San Francisco collector John Bransten, who died in 2001, now being sold by his family. The group, which includes images from the 1830s through the 1970s, includes two of the week’s highest-value photographs: a palladium print of an Edward Weston nude and a signed lifetime print of Diane Arbus’s Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C.. Both are very rare, and each is expected to bring between $400,000 and $600,000—the same estimate Christie’s has given to an extra-large print of Ansel Adams’s Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico in its various-owners sale.
A combination of quality and big names helps to attract broad interest, including from buyers in other collecting fields. “What we’ve seen is a really fluid movement of collectors between media, which I think reflects the quality of the material on offer,” remarks Phillips’s Deck. She says there is considerable excitement heading into the spring sales. “From our perspective,” she adds, “things look very good.”