Art Sales: London celebrates photography

Jean Patchett, Vogue, New York, 1950 by Erwin Blumenfeld
Jean Patchett, Vogue, New York, 1950 by Erwin Blumenfeld Credit: Erwin Blumenfeld Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York   

Photography is the focus of the London art market next week. Five auction houses are staging specialised sales, with Phillips celebrating the 100th anniversary of Vogue magazine, MacDougall’s branching out into Russian photography with the help of respected dealer and art adviser Zelda Cheatle, and Bloomsbury Auctions staging one of its popular, low-value sales concentrating on the Sixties.

A fair, Photo London, at Somerset House, is the icing on the cake. There will be more than 80 dealers, stimulating talks, and gallery exhibitions, such as the superb early modernist work by American artist Paul Strand currently at the V&A. Together these really do contest the notion that the photography market in Britain is down and out.

Irving Penn
‘Mouth (For L’Oréal), New York’, 1986
Irving Penn Mouth (For L’Oréal), New York, 1986

That view dates back eight years to the closure of the last London photography fair and the transfer two years later of Sotheby’s London’s photography sales to Paris – a process that has been reversed in both cases.

Next week’s London auctions are more glamour and fashion-driven than those in Paris or New York, where rare, 19th and early 20th-century vintage prints tend to steal the shows. Phillips maintains that rarity can also apply to contemporary fashion photography, with unique photos by Nick Knight (of Rebekka Botzem), Steven Meisel (of Naomi Campbell) and Mario Testino (of Gisele Bündchen) among others made for Vogue over the past 35 years, followed by extremely rare prints of images by Robert Mapplethorpe (a £60,000 self-portrait), Peter Beard (a £100,000 photo and drawing collage of model Maureen feeding a giraffe at night), and a masterpiece from The Raven series (£15,000) by Masahisa Fukase.

Top lot at Sotheby’s is Irving Penn’s jazzily multi-coloured lipstick Mouth (for L’Oreal), New York, 1986, estimated at £180,000. The image is tongue-in-cheek, and credited with being an early example of the cross-over between fine art and advertising. It is followed by other big fashion names such as Richard Avedon, closely associated with Andy Warhol, Guy Bourdin, who bonded with the art world with his series of studio portraits, and Miles Aldridge, the latest contemporary photographer to stir demand at auction.

Christie’s, similarly, tips its hat to fame and glamour, with its top lot, a large collage of Marilyn Monroe by wildlife photographer Peter Beard, blending the artist’s interests in African wildlife and American city life, fame and glamour. Heart Attack City comes with a price to match the title: £300,000.

Unknown photographer possibly Richard Beard or Antoine Claudet. London Monument to the Great Fire, likely early–mid 1840s
Unknown photographer possibly Richard Beard or Antoine Claudet. London Monument to the Great Fire, likely early–mid 1840s Credit: Bernard Quaritch Ltd

Photo London promises to have much the strongest selection of 19th-century work, with the participation this year of the eminent New York dealer, Hans P Kraus. A source of gossip among dealers is the possible exhibition by book dealer Bernard Quaritch, of the earliest known daguerreotype of London depicting the monument to the Great Fire. The price for this will be £25,000 plus VAT.

While the rare and beautiful command high prices, collectors often find their way to them via more affordable, later reprints. All the salerooms are promoting images in the lower thousands. Dealer and collector James Hyman is on the advisory board of Photo London and has been holding a programme of weekly exhibitions of affordable modern photographs in the run-up to the fair. The idea, said Hyman, was to explore a way to lead new buyers to appreciate the more expensive earlier prints. 

For his exhibition at Photo London, Hyman has images by André Kertész, with entry points from £10,000 to £40,000 for later reprints. Early Kertész vintage prints have sold privately for as much as £750,000.

An issue for the market is whether the digital revolution has made analogue look more historical and collectable than before, and whether this has brought photography closer to contemporary art. A relevant exhibition here is at the Sprovieri gallery in Mayfair by Polish-born, Paris-based artist Esther Shalev-Gerz, who has assembled an array of material, making films and photographs about the final stages of the last Rollei film factory in Germany. Every fair-goer and auction bidder should see this. If they are tempted to buy, an editioned print could sell from €6,500 to €15,000, while the whole, strangely nostalgic installation is priced at around €140,000.