Thursday, March 5, 2009

Insight from Matthew Adams on Upcoming Photography Auctions

It's auction season again for photography, with several sales in New York scheduled for the end of March and beginning of April. It promises to be an interesting one. Sales in the art world are down across the board, and along with volume, prices are also down (sometimes significantly) from the recent highs. Works by Ansel Adams seem to have held up better than those of most photographers, but we are looking to the upcoming auctions for affirmation of our thoughts about current market conditions.

The auctions last fall occurred just after the economy started to implode, and we saw a high number of lots "pass" (fail to meet minimum bid requirements established by the seller). Ansel Adams prints that did sell were generally at levels that we would expect, leading to the conclusion that for the iconic images, there was enough demand and competition to keep prices stable, but for the less well known, or less popular images, the buyers were getting good deals or weren't willing to meet the consignor’s floor.

Five months later, while it is definitely a buyer's market, we expect to see a similar pricing pattern. The price of iconic images and really spectacular individual pieces should remain fairly flat. The question is to what extent the weak economy has forced a revision of the seller's floor for the less popular images. Some sellers come to market with a price in mind and won't accept anything less. This may have an impact on the material that is coming to auction. There are many fewer pieces available than we have seen in recent years, and most of the lots have estimates in line with prices realized in the last 3 years.

This year Sotheby’s has the majority of Ansel Adams lots, and will offer two portfolios in addition to a number of popular and iconic images. I have found Sotheby’s condition reports to be pretty accurate, and feel that their estimates are realistic. I will personally be very interested to see their 11x14 Clearing Winter Storm, as the best print in the family collection is this size, and we think the best one we’ve ever seen. In the recent past, estimates at Christie’s have tended to be a bit aggressive, and have perhaps anchored some buyers high in the process. I will be very surprised if the Portfolio 4 achieves the low hammer estimate, but it would be a pleasant surprise nonetheless. The rest of the lots seem to be within reason, although I have found Christie’s condition reports to have overlooked some important details in the past.

As we have for the past few years, the Gallery will be represented at the auctions and will be inspecting for our own evaluations and database. Individuals interested in our auction services or to discuss Ansel Adams original photography should contact me at

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