Monday, November 12, 2007

Sotheby's [London]: 12 November Results

I think the big surprise of the sale had to be Lot #26, Isambard Kingdom Brunel by the Launching Chains of The Great Eastern. When I saw it in the catalog, I was surprised by the estimate of GBP2,000-3,000. This has to be one of the iconic images of the 19th century: one of the great men of the century in front of one of the great feats of the century. (For more on the Great Eastern, the Wikipedia article is a good start: SS Great Eastern. Lot #26 is even used as an illustration in the wikipedia article.) The Great Eastern was instrumental in laying the first trans-atlantic telegraph cable, so this would be an ideal acquistion by a newly minted Web 2.0 zillionaire. As a work of art, I'm not sure if it holds up. I couldn't really imagine building an entire (small) exhibit around it. But as documentary evidence, as an embelmatic image of the era, it would be right up there with Matthew Brady's civil war images and early Fox-Talbot photographs. In the end, the crucial question is, of course, GBP34,100? It's an iconic image, in good shape, and one that could be displayed. More than likely, yes.

I thought the modern works (roughly post-1930) were weak. Of course, it didn't seem like recent photography was the focus of the auction, so there were not a lot of modern works, and the ones at auction were not necessarily great examples. For example, both the Vik Muniz and the Nan Goldin seemed like particularly middling efforts by these artists. Interestingly, neither of them sold.

But, there were also some nice surprises. A Gursky, used on the catalog cover, was impressive, although it hit only the middle of the estimate. I had no idea Brancusi had any significant photographic works, and this one is absolutely exquisite. The hammer price (GBP6,000) was well-earned. Finally, the Arbus of the triplets was another great piece, and also beat the estimate handily.

[Disclosure: I bid on lot 252 (Sternfeld), but did not win.]

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