Phillips' exhibition of Passion & Humanity: The Susie Tompkins Buell Collection, April 2019. Image courtesy of Phillips.

The evolution of categories within auction houses: Photography

Marina Dias Teixeira
11 May 2020, 12:02 pm

Along with Latin American Art and Design, photography is another pillar in the selection of works presented to the public since the beginning of SP-Arte. It was in 2007 that, considering the relevance of photographic making in the art circuit, SP-Foto was born, dedicated exclusively to this artistic language. The event celebrates modern and contemporary photographic production, which occupies a central position in debates, launches and exhibitions, and establishes itself in the city’s calendar as the most relevant photography event.

The history of photography in the art market dates way back. For almost 30 years in the field, Christopher Mahoney, Senior International Specialist and Senior Vice-President of Phillips, third interviewee in the series dedicated to international auction houses, recounts memorable episodes throughout his career and infects us with his passion for this language so dear among collectors.

How was the evolution of Photographs at Phillips over the years?

Christopher Mahoney: Photography has always been an important field within Phillips. Phillips has a comparatively small number of departments, so photography is a prominent aspect of our identity and intrinsic to Phillips’ brand. From the very start, Phillips zeroed in on high quality photographic material, in individual works and entire collections. So, we started at a very high-level, and I’m pleased to say that’s a level that we continue to maintain. I think there is the understanding amongst our collectors that when Phillips’ Photographs catalogue lands on their doorstep (actual or virtual), they are going to find a tightly curated selection of quality material from across the history of the medium.

Above: Phillips' exhibition of Passion & Humanity: The Susie Tompkins Buell Collection, April 2019. Image courtesy of Phillips.

Edward Weston, "Circus Tent", 1924. (Foto: Cortesia Phillips)
Tina Modotti, "Telephone Wires, Mexico", 1925. (Foto: Cortesia Phillips)

Edward Weston, "Circus Tent", 1924.
(Photo: Courtesy of Phillips)

Tina Modotti, "Telephone Wires, Mexico", 1925.
(Photo: Courtesy of Phillips)

Could you share a memorable episode in the history of the category within big auction houses?

CM: After 29 years in the business I have too many stories! The auction field is an exciting one: there are the collections we’ve been trying to get for auction for years, and the collections – or individual pieces – you didn’t know existed, that appear suddenly. We always have to keep an eye on the collections we know about, and be prepared to react quickly when unexpected things arise.

One of my favorite experiences at Phillips was selling the collection of Susie Tompkins Buell in 2019. When I started out in the field in the 1990s, Susie was a legendary collector known for competing hard at auction for the rare pieces that met her high standards. She bought remarkable photographs by Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, and a series of phenomenal images by Dorothea Lange, as well as lesser known talents like Consuelo Kanaga, and so much more. Calling the collection “stellar” doesn’t do it justice. In terms of the rarity of the images and the strength of the prints, this really was one of the top collections in private hands.

In 2018 it became clear that Susie would sell her collection, but the decision wasn’t formally made until early 2019, which gave us very little time to collect the material, catalogue it, and produce the kind of special catalogue that the collection deserved in time for an April sale date. But the Phillips Photographs team is a finely-tuned machine, and we moved quickly. Cataloguing, photographing, researching, writing, laying out the catalogue – the weeks were a blur of activity. If I can speak for my colleagues, I think what got us through this mountain of work was the exhilaration of handling such fine material. Ultimately, the sale was a wonderful success: we set new price levels at auction for Modotti and Kanaga, shattering the previous records, and we achieved really significant prices for Weston, Lange, and Imogen Cunningham.  Selling this collection was the perfect auction experience, for the Phillips Photographs team, for the company, and for new and well-established collectors who got to add amazing pictures to their holdings.   

Consuelo Kanaga, "Profile of a Young Girl" da série Tennessee, 1948. (Foto: Cortesia Phillips)

Consuelo Kanaga, "Profile of a Young Girl" from the Tennessee Series, 1948.
(Photo: Courtesy of Phillips)

In your experience, which pieces achieved unexpected sales records at auction?

CM: If you look at the top prices across the photography field, you’ll find that the one thing they all have in common is rarity. Obviously, there are many other factors: the photographer; an image’s status within the photographer’s oeuvre; the print quality, condition, provenance, etc.  But when a truly rare or unique photograph comes to auction, people compete for it. So, whether we’re talking about the Nadar salt print from 1854 that we sold for $542,500, or Helmut Newton’s massive four-panel Sie Kommen which we sold for $1,820,000, the common thread is rarity. You just were not going to find other examples of these works on the market.  Collectors recognized that and rose to the occasion.

What are your personal highlights for pieces belonging to the category?

CM: I tend to be more “classic” in my tastes, but that doesn’t mean I am conservative by any means.  I love to see an artist really push the limits of the medium of photography and demonstrate what a flexible and expressive tool it can be. Whether that’s László Moholy-Nagy showing us, in the 1920s, new ways of working with light; or Man Ray seeing every aspect of the photographic process as something that can be pushed or pulled to create entirely new imagery; or Dorothea Lange redefining documentary photography in the 1930s and expanding the kind of stories it can tell; or Peter Beard challenging the orthodoxy of photography by incorporating collage, painting, and objects onto his images. I could go on and on. I’m a true believer in photography – a real photo nerd – and I am always ready to see something new, whether that’s something from the 19th, 20th, or 21st centuries.

Nadar e Adrien Tournachon, "Pierrot with Fruit", 1854-55. (Foto: Cortesia Phillips)

Nadar and Adrien Tournachon, "Pierrot with Fruit", 1854-55.
(Image: Courtesy of Phillips)

What are the challenges of the category within the art market?

CM: I think the biggest challenge is finding ways to succeed in a market – and in a world – that is constantly changing. Phillips has a strong culture of creativity and a commitment to keep our approach to selling fresh, whether in the context of our live auctions, our on-line auctions, or private sales. We are creative, we work fast, and we give our clients – buyers and sellers alike – a very high degree of attention. I think those traits, all of which are very evident in the Photographs Department, will serve us well as we negotiate this next phase in the art world.

How is the performance of the category in online auctions?

CM: Our on-line sales have been performing very well!  Phillips’ has had a very robust digital initiative for years, and our technology is very good and allows clients to interface with Phillips specialists and the works that we sell more completely than other auction houses. And, over the years, we have found that our clients’ comfort level with digital interactions has risen continually. In the current situation, our focus has very much been directed to on-line transactions, and we recently developed a program of online-only auctions covering all the categories we sell, including Photographs. The response has been very positive. And, notably, these online auctions are bringing clients to Phillips who are entirely new to us and participating with enthusiasm. So, that’s a very exciting thing for us. 

Dorothea Lange, "Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California", 1936. (Foto: Cortesia Phillips)

Dorothea Lange, "Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California", 1936.
(Photo: Courtesy of Phillips)

Would you pick a work available on SP-Arte 365?

CM: I can only pick one? There are so many strong pieces!  I am of course drawn to the photographic work, of which there is a wonderful selection. I’m really attracted to Leopoldo Plentz’s image of trees on Exceção à regra, Parque da Cachoeira, RS (2003): such a wonderful and mysterious picture, and I love the one tree which deviates so expressively from its fellows. Ricardo Sanchez’s images printed on the heads of metal bolts on Sem título (2019) are completely new to me. What a wonderful idea!  The figures all seem like ghosts within a mechanized metropolis. I’m intrigued by the landscapes of André Severo. So much landscape photography involves a pristine rendering of the wilderness on Sem título (2017); I like how Severo has incorporated a subtle layer of visual “noise” into his photographs. It somehow makes them more evocative and worthy of prolonged viewing. And, just to show you that it’s not all about photography, I’ll pick the painting Ateliê Benjamin Johnston nº1 by Luiz Mauro: a wonderful monochromatic rendering of the studio of photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston (okay, so maybe it is all about photography – for me at least!).

About Christopher Mahoney

Christopher Mahoney has been a professional in the field of fine-art photography since 1991 and is one of the foremost experts on the evaluation and sale of 19th, 20th, and 21st-century photographs. In his previous positions at Swann Galleries and at Sotheby’s he handled many of the most significant photographs and photograph collections to come to auction. He was instrumental in the 2014 sale of 175 Masterworks to Celebrate 175 Years of Photography which, totaling $21 million, holds the record for most successful auction of photographs. After his 2016 departure from Sotheby’s he worked as a private consultant and advised Phillips on the two successful Odyssey of Collecting auctions of material from Joy of Giving Something Foundation in 2017. He joined Phillips as Senior International Specialist in the Photographs Department in January 2018. He has researched, written about, and sold the work of such auction-record-setting photographers as Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, Eugène Cuvelier, Southworth & Hawes, Robert Frank, and Robert Mapplethorpe, among many others. Chris earned a BFA in Photography from New York University and remains an active photographer.

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Marina Dias Teixeira graduated in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of the Arts London (UAL). She has worked as part of Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, Sotheby’s Brazil and SP–Arte teams. Today, she is Project Coordinator at Act., art consulting bureau based in São Paulo. In parallel, she researches decolonial theories and the production by artists of the African Diaspora in the contemporary arts circuit, with a focus on black women. Since 2020, she collaborates for Casa Vogue Brazil, with a close look on black artists and their production.

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