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“Burnt” — this is a term used to describe the situation where something is offered, such as at an auction, and doesn’t sell. It is sometimes thought that the object will now carry the stigma of its failure to sell, like a scarlet letter on its forehead.
It is feared that some future potential collector will remember or learn of that prior unsuccessful sale and feel it indicates the reserve or selling price was too high.
There is often a struggle within the mind of a collector between the collector’s feeling about a photograph, and the knowledge of the sales record of similar or “comparable” photographs.
I have tried to direct these Newsletters to issues of collecting that are not about money, but there are few collectors who do not figure monetary value into their collecting.
Strict appraisals are based on a probable figure that would be agreed on by an interested buyer and a motivated seller, if that can be supported by objective records. But in reality an interested buyer A might not agree on the seller’s price, nor might interest buyer, B, C… and so on. But then a buyer comes along who will gladly pay that price, or even a higher price. If that price is public, it may now convince some of those who would not pay the original price to gladly pay it or even more for something comparable. On the other hand, when something sells for a high price, and that price is public, it does not at all guarantee that something comparable will sell for that price or even close to it.
Dealers and Auctioneers constantly have to make educated guesses about what a photograph might sell for. This will determine the price a dealer will put on a photograph, or what an auctioneer will agree to offer at a certain reserve. What does it mean if the dealer or auctioneer is thought to be “wrong?” Is there a price that is the “right” price for a certain photograph?
The lure of consigning something at auction is that it might sell for much more than was originally expected. This happens almost as often as when something doesn’t meet its reserve.
Sometimes at auction a lot will start very slowly, as though there won’t be much interest. Suddenly two people start to raise the level, and now there is a flurry of bids with some bidders who hesitated to offer even an opening bid now bidding at multiples of the high estimate. Did they require the validation that other people want this photograph before they reach out for it themselves? Or do they just not want to show their hand, for fear that it might influence others to bid. The practice of “sniping” on eBay usually has just this purpose.
By the way, there are collectors who only want to add material to their collections in utterly private ways. They want to be the first to have a chance to acquire it. They don’t want to show it in their collection and have someone recognize it as having been offered to others. On the other hand, there are collectors who hold back from buying something when it is offered to them directly, but then, at auctions, they hold up their paddles and bid enthusiastically and publicly.
At every show there are many photographs that remain unsold at the end of the show. Dealers may feel that some of these are among their best offerings, not the worst. This remains true even though these photographs have been rejected by numerous visitors to the booth.
Auctions used to be primarily venues where dealers would acquire material. In recent years both collectors and dealers compete for the same photographs. When a dealer outbids other dealers and collectors at an auction, this is often because the dealer has the feeling that the photograph has value that is overlooked by the competitors at the auction. At shows many sales are made from dealer to dealer. Indeed there are some shows where almost all the sales are made this way. Has the selling dealer priced the photograph too low?
As collector, I believe one should develop confidence in one’s taste and the felt value of a photograph to one’s collection. Especially in the case of a unique or very rare photograph, one should acquire what gives most personal value within the collection, at the level one can afford, and not give too much weight to what others may think. What seems to be the received opinion today may not be so tomorrow. Sometimes it is only in the context of a sensitive collection that what the collector sees in a photograph becomes visible to others. This is case with collections of material that did not cost a great deal, as much as with collections made up of very costly photographs.
These occasional Newsletters are intended to be about the heart of collecting photographs, not with photographs as “investment.” The current economy, the state of the photography market, and my increased involvement with 20th-century photographs (especially for my September 30 auction,) have made me think a lot recently about the huge disproportion between the sales (and thus collecting) of some kinds of material over others.
I’m not at all questioning the keen competition for certain photographs that leads to very high prices. I am wondering why there is so much less interest in many other photographs that can provide sound collecting joy. There is an economic factor at play that makes photographs at much less than record prices still unobtainable for most collectors. But there are many opportunities for the discerning. I think there is a misunderstanding about the relative value of some photographs, and that is what I want to address here.
THE ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHER
The collector can have a role that supplements that of the photo historian, the institution, and the major dealer. The collector who assembles a sensitively selected body of work by a photographer who is not yet in the received pantheon can have the pleasure of acquiring a body of work that is much less expensive than the work of the “masters,” but still significant. Such a collection can help adjust and correct the understanding of photography of a certain period.
Part of the pleasure and importance of collecting works by young or emerging photographers is to “discover” the work of those whose photographs will become part of the continuing history of photographic image making. This pleasure can also apply to collecting works by earlier photographers whose work is already known but not part of the “canon,” or even by photographers who are relatively obscure.
In doing appraisals, or helping to determine the “reserve” for something in my auctions, I look up the auction record for the work of a certain photographer, and am surprised to discover that, at least at auction, that person’s work does not seem to be seriously collected. This situation remains fairly static until at least a small group of adventurous collectors start to collect that work more actively.
You might come upon a photograph by someone you have heard of, but whose work is not familiar, or by someone whose name is new to you. The photograph may “speak” to you in a special way. Some time later you come upon another work by this photographer that also strongly appeals to you. This might be the start of doing research on this photographer and acquiring a body of work. Each addition brings you a new appreciation of this person’s artistry. For many people this can be much more personally satisfying than acquire a few photographs by an already well acknowledged master.
The prices for the work of iconic photographers are understandably higher than for the less well known artists, but the difference in price is often way out of proportion to the actual interest of the work.
THE ICONIC PHOTOGRAPH
There are photographs by canonic photographers that have become recognized as “key” works and are frequently sold at higher and higher prices. The goal of some collectors is to assemble a body of outstanding prints of these works. Such a collection can be a trophy collection. Visitors to the collection will immediately recognize the photographs. As the collection becomes more “advanced” the collector may want to sell off the less popular images, in order to acquire more of the icons.
Each of us who bothers to think about such matters can come up with our own sense of what we see as the true great images as opposed to those that have somehow become familiar and often sold and reproduced but do not seem to us to deserve their position. Even as they become more valuable and are the pride of many collections, they become less interesting to us the more we see them.
While it may be “safe” to purchase the iconic images, it can be more adventurous to acquire other photographs by that photographer that may provide more pleasure over time. A collector should try to reach a level of connoisseurship that will allow for a judgment that may be oblique to popular or received opinion. It is natural that there will be a demand for iconic images, but their price in contrast to other photographs by that artist can often be way out of proportion.
SIGNED VS. STAMPED
A photograph printed and signed by the photographer will have a more personal connection to that photographer than otherwise, and should be valued accordingly. But there are some cases where that relative value can be way out of proportion.
It is assumed that by signing a photograph the artist is giving it personal approval. But this is not always the case. In the “modern” era when collecting started to become the big business it has become, the act of signing needs to be understood on a case by case basis. Just as there are widespread book signings at bookstores during publicity tours, there are instances of “wholesale” signing of prints, sometimes long after the print was made. (There are of course many more copies of books than of photographs.)
On the other hand, until the 1980’s, photographers did not always routinely sign their prints. An unsigned print may not be a lesser print. Similarly photographers might have stamped their own prints for identification when they sent them out for various reasons, and did not think of signing them. The distinction between an “exhibition” print and a print used for another purpose is not the same in every case.
It becomes a subject of specialized study to determine when a print was printed, when it was stamped or signed, who printed it. Some photographers frequently had their prints made by others, sometimes under their supervision, but also sometimes the photographer was able to trust the printer to live up to the required standards without constant supervision. Even such a famously fastidious printer as Ansel Adams had assistants who printed his photographs. In the case of some pictures there may be few or no prints actually made by the photographer. If something can be proven to be made by the photographer and signed when the print was made, this should definitely be a collector’s prize. But my point here is that a closely similar print should have a value that is in reasonable proportion, though less.
The well known scandal of the Lewis Hine photographs that were “signed” but not actually by Hine is a constructive example. Walter Rosenbloom, Hine’s printer, felt the need to present these as original signed prints by Hine because he knew that the marketplace would only “validate” the price if it were presented that way. Many (but nor every one) of the major dealers and collectors of Hine’s photographs thought the photographs looked “right.” It was only a physical aspect of the paper, seen under a black light, which finally proved that Hine could not have made the prints. But if they had been honestly presented as printed by Rosenbloom, shouldn’t they have had a value that would have been in proportion to their subject and print quality? Their value should still have been significant.
The test should be the print itself. It is often possible to compare a print without a confirmed signature and printing date to one that has those features. If the prints are virtually identical the unsigned print should still be appreciated at a value in proportion to the value of the signed one. If the price is much less, this can be a boon for the discerning collector of limited means.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. There are many instances where only the real vintage print reveals the whole beauty and point of the picture, that is lacking in some later prints. For example, this in my view is even the case of the Berenice Abbott prints of Atget’s pictures.
VINTAGE, EARLY, LATER
To continue—In many cases the early vintage prints have a character that, once you have seen it, will be sorely missed in later prints. Or it may happen the other way. You may have seen and become accustomed to the “look” of a certain picture, and then, in a museum or at an auction, you have a chance to see a well made vintage print, and now you understand the picture more deeply. So I am definitely not dismissing the often crucial difference between vintage prints and later ones. Sometime this is a matter of the paper, the chemicals, and the subtle control that the photographer originally exercised, which are not available even to the same photographer at a later time. However if a later print is true to the heart of the picture, and is reasonably priced, this can be a boon to some collectors.
An early print has a different status than, for example, a first edition book. The first edition book has a special character just because it is the first, and it will be valued by collectors higher than later printings that may actually be better produced. With photographs it is not just a matter of “first” but of how it looks.
I always favor careful looking above some external factor that is easy to notice. With daguerreotypes, for example, I don’t make a fetish about “original seals.” One should be able to immediately see the quality of a plate by looking at it even from a little distance. You don’t need to turn it over and inspect the seals in order to see if the surface is rich and glowing or dull or thin.
On the other hand there is some value in early in itself. I am surprised that in cases where the photographer was a photo journalist (as so many of the great ones were) there is not enough appreciation of the very first press photographs of an image that is later printed as an art photograph, prettied up and signed. The later photograph often has a value that is very much out of proportion to the original use. It is sometimes a commercial product far from the photographer’s original intent. Early original press prints and even wire photos have a charm and immediacy that is not present in later art prints. And they are not as easy to come by as one might think. This is an interesting area for collecting now, before the prices will start to climb.
I have sometimes had to do appraisals of collections that include negatives. The hard fact is that negatives are generally perceived as having almost no value in themselves. Their only value is in the prints that can be made from them. This was recently borne out in the ridiculous affair of the group of negatives that were claimed to have been lost negatives by Ansel Adams. The huge value that was placed on them (by those who thought to profit from them) was in the projected sales of prints made from these negatives..
But the negative is the actual record of the artist’s original vision. If Adams thought of the negative as the “score” for the print, his choice of composition and exposure would already have been guided by his sense of its printing possibilities. It was not thought of as something to exhibit, but it should have the value of a prior version of a final masterpiece, like the draft of a poem, the sketch of a painting. It should have a value in proportion to its true significance. And especially glass negatives, relics of a bygone era, are fascinating objects.
MY OWN SELECTION
The Be-hold auctions consist of material that I select from what comes before me in the space of a few months. I’ll be sending you soon an announcement with the auction details (separate from these Newsletters.) The material is already up on the be-hold.com website. I think it’s the strongest selection that I’ve presented. In this Newsletter I’ve gone off in various directions that don’t necessarily apply to the auction, but I hope this might stimulate some thinking about the relative value and collecting importance of photographs. As the major auctions more and more rely on sales of the special material that sells for the top values, Be-hold has become an important source of material that may not reach those values, but that can be exciting for collectors. It is to all our benefit to continually reassess the values that may pertain to great collecting.