The First $1,000,000 Photo

The Fall auctions broke big records and left collectors wondering: How high is up?

When the hammer came down on the final lot of the fall photography auctions, you could almost hear a self-satisfied gasp among collectors and observers in attendance. Altogether, the New York sales at Phillips de Pury & Company, Christie's, Sotheby's, and Swann Galleries totaled $30,302,208, obliterating the old season record by some $13.5 million. The auction featured more buyers, a broader and deeper inventory of offerings, and numerous record prices; in the days following the sales, it became clear that a paradigm shift had occurred. The art of photography had, almost overnight, vaulted into the art market big leagues.

Phillips de Pury & Company led off the auction season with an evening sale on October 6. The highlight of the evening was Andreas Gursky's very large, glistening, green "EM, Arena I," an aerial view of a soccer field with play suspended and a player down. In the end the prize went for $291,520, the top lot of the sale. The buyer was Erin K. Fitzpatrick of Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, who was bidding for a client. Phillips touted this result as "a record for a work by this artist sold in the context of a photographs auction," rather than a contemporary art sale.

Christie's evening sale of the Elfering Collection on October 10 became a triumph for Irving Penn. His "Woman with Roses" soared to $204,000, with collector Leon Constantiner taking the prize. A phone bidder bested dealer Peter MacGill for Henri Cartier-Bresson's "On the Banks of the Marne, France, 1938." The price was $132,000, an auction record for the artist.

Next up was Sotheby's sale of photographs from the collection of Joseph and LaVerne Schieszler. A print of Edward Weston's "Shells" (one of only four known prints and the first vintage print of this image to come up at auction) reached $352,000, followed by Weston's "The Breast, 1921," inscribed by Weston and dated 1923. The model was Tina Modotti; only three other prints of this image are known. The $300,000-$400,000 estimate seemed only slightly conservative, given that collector Michael Mattis bought a similar print in April 2004 at Sotheby's for $299,200. This time, Peter MacGill won the bidding at $822,400, a record for any 20th-century photograph at auction.

Sotheby's multiple-owner sale the following day was another astounding success. Dorothea Lange's "White Angel Breadline" (estimate: $200,000-$300,000) was a very fine, large vintage print. In the end it was MacGill tying the world auction record for a 20th-century photograph that he helped set just the night before at $822,400, the highest price on a lot in this auction.

The final day of the auction season came with a various-owners sale at Christie's. Up early was a complete set of the 20 volumes of Edward Curtis's The North American Indian. Given that complete sets had previously sold for over $600,000, the estimate of $400,000-$600,000 seemed very low. Tucson dealer Terry Etherton was standing in the back of the room holding a cellphone. Against him was a determined bidder on the telephone. There was real excitement in the room as the bidding escalated beyond $700,000, beyond $800,000, beyond $900,000. Etherton, who told me he was bidding for an institution, claimed with bemused pride that he was the first person to bid over $1 million at an American photography auction. But little good that did him. The American collector on the phone finally prevailed at $1,250,000 on the hammer.

The big news, however, came a couple of weeks later at Christie's Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, when Richard Prince's "Untitled (Cowboy)," appropriated from the Marlboro cigarette advertising campaign -- and arguably the most iconic example of Prince's work -- galloped to $1,248,000, the first single photograph to sell for more than $1 million at auction.

The roomful of collectors exploded with applause, leaving everyone to wonder: What record will fall next?

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