On February 14 US auction house Swann Galleries, based in New York, held its latest photography sale. It came 65 years to the day since its very first sale in this field. And the top lot was remarkably similar at both.
The 1952 sale – the first American auction dedicated to photography – included a collection of more than 1000 plates from British photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering work Animal Locomotion from 1887. It sold for $250 back then.
On February 14, 2017, the top lot was… a collection of plates from Animal Locomotion. Somewhat smaller at 50 plates, this time the Muybridge lot made $50,000/£42,750 (plus 25% buyer’s premium), selling to a private collector. The estimate was $30,000-45,000. A collection of 125 plates from Animal Locomotion sold for a premium-inclusive $81,000 at Swann in 2009, 57 years after that inaugural sale.
Another 2017 highlight was a group of 22 photographs from NASA missions 1965-84, cibachrome prints, printed c.1985. It sold for $35,000/£29,000 (estimate: $15,000-25,000).
The 1952 sale had the snappy title A Panoramic History of the Art of Photography as Applied to Book Illustration From Its Inception Up To Date: The Important Collection of the Late Albert E. Marshall of Providence, R. I.
The catalogue included no photographic illustrations of the lots being offered, and no estimates were given in those days. So, what is the photography market like today?
Daile Kaplan, the present Swann director of photographs and photobooks, told ATG: “The market has grown exponentially in the past 60-plus years to reflect the ways in which images are an integral part of everyday life.
“Today there’s an enormous variety of ‘best sellers’, including images that reflect the relationship of science, contemporary culture and art. Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion studies appeal to curators and collectors who recognise the proto-cinematic nature of the serial images.
“Sixty-five years ago, buyers were, perhaps, more interested in the historic nature of the images, i.e. the fact that they were produced in the 19th century.
“Although Swann Galleries has many collectors who purchase vernacular materials, such as the NASA group, other buyers focus on the name or reputation of an artist. With that in mind, prints by Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston continue to sell well.”
These days one obvious difference is the worldwide reach of online. As Kaplan adds: “Swann caters to a clientele that is global. After all, many new collectors enjoy bidding from the comfort of their offices or living rooms. The US and UK have traditionally been active arenas for photograph collecting, but we’re increasingly seeing continental European and Asian buyers step up too.”