As prices for vintage photographs rise, some collectors are forgoing the aura of an original in favor of a sharper image.
Via Art + Auction Magazine
At Christie’s New York last April, a rare signed print from 1925 of Imogen Cunningham’s exotic close-up "Magnolia Blossom" (est. $250-350,000) sold for $242,500. A month later at Swann Galleries, in New York, another print of the same image brought just $31,200. Why the disparity? The Swann version was "late," executed in the 1960s or ’70s, while the Christie’s one was vin- tage. In the photography market, where rarity and provenance are revered, those designations mean the difference between six figures and seven. For young collectors, they also mean the difference between an unattainable treasure and a prize within their financial grasp.
A vintage print must have been made from the original negative within a variable but typically short span of years from the date the image was taken and with the artist’s direct involvement. Later, or modern, prints are also made from original negatives but beyond the time limit for vintage designation, and they may be executed by the photographer himself, by technicians or collaborators working under his supervision, or posthumously, with the authorization of the artists’s estate. Vintage material is increasingly rare. As a result, says Denise Bethel, the longtime head of photography at Sotheby’s New York, "we are seeing an even bigger increment in price between the early print and the later print."
"Shell (Nautilus)," a vintage print from 1927 by the American photographer Edward Weston, was the first photo to exceed $100,000 at auction, going for $115,500 at Sotheby’s in 1989 to the noted Houston collector Alexandra R. Marshall. She consigned it back to the house in October 2007, when it brought an artist record $1.1 million (est. $600-900,000). This past April yet another early print of the image from a private collection turned up at Sotheby’s and, in the middle of a market downturn, still made $1.08 million, far exceeding its cautious estimate of $300,000 to $500,000.
Six-figure sums may be out of reach for some aficionados but they have alternatives. Consider another "Shell," this one executed in the 1970s by Weston’s son Cole. Put up in March 2009, again at Sotheby’s, and estimated at a quite modest $5,000 to $7,000, the picture was snapped up for $8,125. "There’s a whole group of new buyers who can’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars but would be very happy to have the Cole Weston print, which, by the way, is beautiful," says Bethel, "because Cole was an absolutely amazing printer and worked with his dad, so he knew what he was aiming for."
Swann Galleries photography specialist Daile Kaplan concurs. "We’re seeing more and more clients, younger clients in particular, who know the image and want a [later] copy of it," she says. "I don’t see any reason to be reluctant [to buy a modern print] as long as the photograph has been authorized by the photographer. To me, the modern print is simply another interpretation of that original negative."
Later interpretations are often larger than the originals. Size, which enhances their wall power, adds to these prints’ value. Last October at Swann, a 20-by-16-inch print, made no later than 1967, of André Kertész’s gorgeous 1954 shot of a snow-covered Washington Square (est. $6,000-9,000), which was taken from his Greenwich Village studio, brought $22,800. In December 2009 a 10-by-8-inch print dating to the early to mid 1970s of the same image and carrying the same estimate sold for $10,200, also at Swann.
In addition to greater size, the presence of a photographer’s signature also increases the value of a modern print. Those executed closer to the date of the original shot generally command higher prices, as well. This may not be the case with every image by photographers who keep close control on their later prints. For instance, although some of Kertész’s modern prints were made 30 to 50 years later than the vintage versions, the artist authorized them. "Kertész did not print them," Kaplan explains. "A technician did, and [Kertész] signed off on the ones he felt were representative."
The clarity and beauty of the image, of course, are also major determinants of value. And here later prints may rival their vintage counterparts, at least in the eyes of connoisseurs more interested in aesthetics than in the technology’s history. "We are becoming much less focused on the technical processes and much more interested in the quality of the final result," says Josh Holdeman, the head of photography at Christie’s New York, noting that "most photographers don’t even make their own prints, so who cares?"
True, a newer print doesn’t have the golden aura of a vintage one, but many collectors actually prefer the former’s pristine clarity to the latter’s patina of authenticity. "If you have two prints of the same image and one is a vintage print and the other is newer but a far superior object, I think you’re going to have a much easier time [selling] the object that is a better picture," says Holdeman. He points to the example of William Eggleston’s striking dye-transfer print "Untitled (Near Minter City and Glendora, Mississippi)," 1970, which shows an African-American woman in a lime-green dress walking alongside a road. The picture was shot around 1970 and printed in three editions of 15, done in the 1970s, 1986, and 1999. "The one from 1999 is superior," says Holdeman. "The colors are [more] saturated. The dress really pops. That’s the one that will carry a premium over the old concepts of what equals value." Indeed, an example from this edition sold at Christie’s New York last October for $98,500 (est. $40-60,000). By comparison, a print from the 1986 edition brought $66,000 (est. $70-90,000) at Phillips de Pury & Company in New York in April 2007 — the height of the market.
Another instance in which later may trump vintage is Cindy Sherman’s "Untitled Film Stills." Most of the 30-by-40-inch photos in the series were shot and printed on cheap poster paper in the late 1970s, when they were selling for well under $1,000, before the artist’s market ignited, and, says Holdeman, "a lot of them have turned brown." Metro Pictures, Sherman’s longtime dealer in New York, confirms that some of the prints have not held up well. "The problems that a few owners encountered were paper yellowing or some of the chemicals from the print changing color, producing a pink discoloration in some parts of the image," says Metro’s Andrew Russeth. "In [a few cases], a new photo would be printed and the poster print was destroyed, so this did not create a new edition of works."
The Sherman reprints are more desirable than the originals, according to Holdeman, although he has had some trouble convincing longtime photography collectors of this. "I have to explain that their vintage "Film Still" is not one that the market wants right now. And they say, ‘No way, it’s the vintage print, and it’s the real object.’ I tell them that in the context of the current market, their vintage print would be rejected for a brand-new one that’s sparkling white."
One artist who has been particularly well served by late prints is Diane Arbus. After her death, Neil Selkirk, a photographer friend of Arbus’s, was hired by her estate to make prints of her photos from the original negatives, working closely with another of the artist’s friends, Marvin Israel. "I’m generally not interested in posthumous prints," says the San Francisco photography dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel, "but Diane Arbus’s case is sui generis. A number of pictures that have entered the canon as great Arbuses she did not live to make finished prints of."
The printing done by Selkirk, who consulted with Arbus before she died and who describes his efforts as "a committed attempt to precisely duplicate the existing prints of hers," is well received both critically and in the market. Some, such as "A Puerto Rican Housewife, New York City, 1963," debuted in the Museum of Modern Art’s Arbus retrospective in 1972.
"Not only are Selkirk’s prints respected by museums," says Fraenkel, "but it’s virtually impossible to do a true survey of Arbus’s achievements without them." Fraenkel has Arbus/Selkirk prints in his inventory priced between $11,000 and $14,000. Among these are copies of "A Naked Man Being a Woman, N.Y.C.," 1968, and "Girl with a Cigar in Washington Square Park, N.Y.C.," 1965. He has also sold a rare vintage print from 1967 of "Identical Twins (Cathleen and Colleen), Roselle, N.J." for $900,000. A vintage print of the same image came up at Sotheby’s in April 2004 and fetched $478,400. Another appeared last October at Christie’s New York, but a previous owner had trimmed the edges, so it bought in against an estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. The auction record for a vintage print by Arbus is $553,000, set at Sotheby’s in April 2008 by "A Family on the Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, N.Y.," 1968 (est. $200-300,000). Selkirk prints dating from the 1970s through the ’90s have hit the six-figure mark at auction. The circa 1972-73 print of "Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C.," 1962 (est. $100-150,000), for example, made $229,000 at Christie’s in October 2007.
As much as later printed works are gaining acceptance, there remains a strong preference for vintage material. "Serious collectors, those specifically interested in photography as a medium, are always looking for a print closest to the source," says the New York photography dealer Deborah Bell, who shows such New York Street photographers as Sid Kaplan and Marcia Resnick, "[both] the ones who have been around for a long time [and] people just starting out." As more price-conscious collectors enter the classic-photography market and encounter the relative abundance and clarity of later printed works, however, the long allegiance to vintage will be increasingly tested.
"Beauty Before Age" originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's February 2011 Table of Contents.
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