A round of photography auctions opened here on Monday with a host of shattered records and keen interest in the controversial work of the late Robert Mapplethorpe.
A set of 21 cloud studies by Alfred Stieglitz brought the top price of $396,000 (including the standard 10% buyer’s commission) at Christie’s sale of 600 19th- and 20th-Century photographs. The sale to an anonymous telephone bidder exceeded the auction house’s estimate of $300,000 and established a new high for photography. The previous auction record was $115,500 for a picture of a nautilus shell by Edward Weston.
Stieglitz conceived of his record-setting cloud studies as abstractions and called them “Equivalents.” “My cloud photographs are equivalents of my most profound life experience, my basic philosophy of life,” he wrote of the set, made in the 1920s for Alma Wertheim, his patron and friend.
Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic and sadomasochistic photographs are at the center of a continuing furor over the federal government’s funding of art. At Christie’s, however, all eyes were on Mapplethorpe’s prices.
His trio of silvery cropped female nudes, called “Lydia,” set the pace for his part of the auction, selling for $33,000, about double the pre-sale estimate of $15,000 to $18,000. However, a lower priced work, “Larry and Bobby Kissing,” set a record for a single Mapplethorpe photograph. The auction had valued the picture of male lovers at $12,000 to $15,000, but dealer Ken Mazik bought it for $17,600. The previous record was $16,500 for a color photograph of a calla lily.
Mazik, who bought 5 of the 16 Mapplethorpes offered by Christie’s, plans to put on a Mapplethorpe exhibition at his Kizam Gallery in Mt. Dora, Fla. “What’s interesting about these works is that all the folks who participated in them are no longer alive, as I understand it. I think there’s a lot of pathos in that,” Mazik said.
Among other Mapplethorpe sales, an elegant photograph of an orchid bloom, estimated at $5,000 to $6,000, brought $15,400 from a telephone bidder.
All but 4 of the 16 works by Mapplethorpe surpassed the auction house’s most optimistic estimates. Mapplethorpe fever, however, did not run completely rampant. That may wait for a sale of his collection of art and furniture today at Christie’s and a larger selection of Mapplethorpe photographs to be offered on Thursday at Sotheby’s.
While a small group of dealers and collectors vied with each other for Mapplethorpe’s work at Christie’s, others appeared more interested in works by pictorialists and early modernists.
Edward Steichen’s 1901 platinum portrait of British painter George Frederick Watts was sold to New York dealer Jill Rose for $110,000, more than doubling its high estimate of $50,000 and setting a record for the artist.
Stieglitz’s clouds and Steichen’s brooding portrait were expected to bring the auction’s biggest prices, but a few other works so far outstripped their estimates that they left prospective bidders muttering.
Sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s photograph of his bronze sculpture, “Mademoiselle Pogany II,” for example, was valued at $20,000 to $25,000. After spirited competition, it sold to a telephone bidder for $79,200.