Savvy buyers snap up rare photographs


May 31, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen,Solis-Cohen Enterprises

Dealers beware: savvy antique shoppers are on the prowl. A rare circa 1851 daguerreotype of a Cincinnati street scene bought last year at a small Northern California antiques shop for $200 recently sold at auction in New York for a record $63,800.

The 4 1/2 - by 5 1/2 -inch image of the outside of Myers & Co. Confectioners' shop, made by James Presley Ball, a noted black photographer, provoked a bidding duel between two specialist photography dealers at Swann Galleries in April; it quickly surpassed its published $7,000 to $10,000 pre-sale estimate. Even Swann's photography expert, Daile Kaplan, was surprised: she recalled telling the unidentified consignor before the auction that interest was so strong it might fetch up to $30,000.

The buyer, Allen Phillips, of Coventry, Conn., hopes to resell the picture for an even higher price. "It's rare for a great daguerreotype to show up at auction," he said after the sale. "They tend to change hands privately." A week earlier Mr. Phillips paid $29,700 at a small Rhode Island auction for a daguerreotype showing a group of California gold miners with their tools in front of a tent; it was accompanied by a miner's portrait.

"Dags" are one-of-a-kind positive images exposed by special cameras on light-sensitive chemically prepared sheets of silvered copper.

The Ball daguerreotype was a highlight of the major spring photography auctions in New York at Sotheby's, Christie's and Swann's, which together grossed $3.6 million. That is down slightly from $4 million a year ago. Buyers are selective: About a third of the lots offered at Sotheby's and Christie's failed to sell, as did nearly a quarter of the generally lower-priced images at Swann's. Fewer photos were auctioned in New York this season than in 1990, when the sales peaked at $8.6 million.

Butterfield & Butterfield's May photography sale in San Francisco grossed $425,000, focusing on generally more affordable images than those sold in New York; still, 35 percent of the lots went unsold.

Photography collecting is as old as the medium itself, but gained momentum in the 1970s and 1980s when several American museums began building their collections and held major exhibitions. Since the 1960s, many art collectors who recognize good quality and find themselves priced out of the painting mar

ket have turned to photography, where they can buy the best for a fraction of the cost of works on canvas. While sky-high art and antiques prices generally collapsed during the current recession, photography prices had a shorter distance to fall and the market has held its own, even setting new records as the daguerreotype sale demonstrates.

Daguerrotypes were made during a short period, about 1840 to 1860. They were replaced by less-expensive ambrotypes, which created a negative image on glass, and then by tintypes. Many daguerreotypes currently sell for under $500.

James P. Ball (1825-1905), one of the best photographers of his day, was rediscovered recently. Born a free man in Virginia, he learned the daguerreotype process from John B. Bailey, a noted black photographer in Boston. Mr. Ball opened a studio in Cincinnati in 1851 which catered to the city's leading families and may have been across the street from the Myers' confectionery shop. The record dag's viewpoint suggests it may have been taken out a second story window using a prism or a mirror to make the lettering of the store signs read in the right direction; usually it's reversed.

Although a note pasted on the daguerreotype reads: "Great-grandfather Myers's store, Cincinnati, 1840," Ms. Kaplan of Swann's dated it circa 1851 by the style of its brass mat and leather case. A small portrait of George Myers accompanied

the lot.

Several other rare and compelling photographs found buyers at high prices this spring. At Christie's, Denver dealer Ginny Williams paid $121,000 for "In Search of Times Past," Herbert Bayer's unique surreal 1959 mixed-media photocollage of Colorado tree trunks and staring eyes. It was a record price for a photo by Mr. Bayer, a Bauhaus-trained artist and architect.

At Swann's, dealer Daniel Wolf bought a cache of 1930s experimental high speed action-stopping photographs made by Dr. Harold Edgerton, inventor of the electronic flash. Two groups of 51 assorted prints each carried $1,500 to $2,500 estimates; one brought $8,250, the other $5,720.

California photographer Tina Modotti's 1925 "Telephone Lines" surpassed Sotheby's $40,000 to $60,000 estimate, selling to a San Francisco collector bidding by phone for $88,000. It was the sale's top lot, followed by two other Modotti prints. Demand for her work has been strong since "Roses Mexico" sold last year at Sotheby's for an all-time photography auction record of $165,000.

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