At Sotheby's for the Auction of the Polaroid Collection

At Sotheby's. Photo by WOTBA.
Over the past several days, visitors have been filing into Sotheby's New York on York Avenue and 72nd Street to look over the collection of stunning photographs of the former Polaroid Company, over a thousand images from the likes of Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, William Wegman, Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, Robert Frank, David Hockney, and others, artworks forced into auction by a bankruptcy judge in Minnesota so the company could pay its creditors. Visiting the works on display provided a rare chance to see some of the finest photographic work of the twentieth century and often at a rare scale, with the knowledge that as soon as the final auction gavel comes down later today, these works will likely be dispersed to far-flung locales. Many will disappear into private hands, and we may never see them again.

The sale at Sotheby's, an unusual bankruptcy proceeding for the auction house, has not been without controversy. Several artists and photo historians have expressed alarm over the breaking up of such a formidable collection, and efforts by several museums to acquire the collection broke down in negotiations. Second, and related, several artists who had participated in the company's Artist Support Program, one in which they received film, equipment, and technical support from the company over the years, have stated that they understood that the collection would remain together and stay accessible. (See A. D. Coleman's blog, Photocritic International, for details and updates on these matters. Coleman has been a leading critic.) In this video from The Deal Magazine, Sotheby's Denise Bethel, Head of Photographs, and Christopher Mahoney, Senior Specialist in the Photographs department, explain the circumstances of the auction and share their thoughts about the sale.

Lot 51
Andy Warhol
Farrah Fawcett    
Unique Polacolor Type 108 print
Est. $5/7,000
Sotheby’s New York
Photographs from The Polaroid Collection
June 21-22, 2010
Courtesy: Sotheby's New York.
Now underway at Sotheby's, with one session yesterday and three today, the Polaroid auction nearly achieved its estimated value on the first day. A rare work by Ansel Adams, "Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park," one of several monumental mural-sized prints by the photographer at the auction, sold for $722,000, much higher than the expected $500,000. Adams, a friend of Polaroid founder Edwin Land, helped develop the non-Polaroids for the company's Library Collection, buying works by Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Harry Callahan, and others. Also at auction are several works by Andy Warhol, a famous user of Polaroid cameras. According to Art Daily's story on the first session, the auction record for an Warhol photograph was broken twice, with the sale of the funny large close-up, "Self-portrait (Grimace)" and then "Self-Portrait (Eyes Closed)." According to same report, the latter Warhol served as the object of a fierce bidding war, with several bidders pushing up the final price to $254,500, considerably higher than Sotheby's high-end estimate of $15,000. So, in terms of money, these works are highly valued and will surely boost the market for the represented photographers.

While walking around six floors of Sotheby's in advance of the auction, I certainly placed my own value on many of the photographs, though not in monetary terms. The large murals by Ansel Adams, images I could acquire in much cheaper poster editions but with the loss of considerable quality and aura, knocked me over with their insight into the preternatural beauty of the American West. It’s all about the sensitivity of light, tones, the Zone, fused with visions of sky, water, trees, rocks, and mountains. For a time, I was no longer on the Upper East Side of Manhattan but in a valley looking at the moonrise in New Mexico or dipping my toes in a clear stream in Yosemite. At another moment, as a dog person and a William Wegman fan, I had the treat of seeing more fetching (sorry) Wegman Weimeraners than I had ever seen assembled in my life. In 1978 Polaroid invited Wegman to try out their 20-by-24 inch camera, an instant camera but at a new unprecedented scale. His subsequent work made him and his canine companion Man Ray photo rock stars.

Lot 411
Ansel Adams
Half Dome, Merced River
Mural sized
Est. $30/50,000
Sotheby’s New York
Photographs from The Polaroid Collection
June 21-22, 2010
Courtesy: Sotheby's New York.
Lot 47
William Wegman
‘Game Preserve’
Unique large-format Polaroid Polacolor print
Est. $4/6,000
Sotheby’s New York
Photographs from The Polaroid Collection
June 21-22, 2010
Courtesy: Sotheby's New York.
Polaroid's ability to rock and roll appealed to me personally as a young shutterbug. Half way through viewing the collection, I had one of those Proustian flashback moments when my eyes set upon a display of cameras, including the fabulously groovy object known as the Polaroid Swinger, the company's popular camera marketed in the late 1960s. In an instant, so to speak, I remembered the abrupt and startling sound of the machine as it dispensed its print and the smell of the film as the image appeared.

After the first Swinger, I would go through several more Polaroid cameras. A quick survey of my own personal archive turned up dozens of Polaroid prints, still in fairly good condition, with images of my family, friends and pets. As I write this, I'm looking at four instant snapshots of one of my dogs, the one that passed away last year. He was a puppy then, and he looked so cute. MY Polaroid collection is precious and irreplaceable. It’s no joke that it’s recommended in the case of an emergency to stash your book of photographs where you can find it as you flee the door.

Walking Notes: I recommend a visit to Sotheby's New York (1334 York Avenue), especially to see exhibitions of works in the days preceding a particular auction. Catalogues are for sale in a section of the lobby. Sotheby’s Terrace CafĂ©, offering light fare and lovely views, is on the 10th floor. The next large events at Sotheby’s New York will come in late September 2010 with high profile sales of Contemporary artworks and American Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture. The sale of the Polaroid Collection was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Images: Many thanks to Sotheby's New York for auction images.

Let's get the jingle for the Polaroid Swinger stuck in our heads all day, shall we? Yes, that's Ali McGraw. This is a camera that says "YES."

"It's more than a camera. It's almost alive."

UPDATE with auction results  06/23/2010: Lot 51 (Farrah Fawcett by Andy Warhol) sold for $43,750; Lot 47 (Wegman) sold for $15,000.

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