SOLD! Aboriginal Artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Monumental 1991 Canvas Commands More Than $430,000 at Sotheby’s

Emily Kame Kngwarreye - Kame-Summer Awelye II (est. £300,000-500,000)

Update: Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Kame-Summer Awelye II sold for £309,000, or about $430,400.


What you see: Kame-Summer Awelye II, a monumental December 1991 canvas by Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Sotheby’s estimates it at £300,000 to £500,000, or $418,000 to $697,690.


Who was Emily Kame Kngwarreye? Born in 1910 in Utopia, an Aboriginal community in Australia’s northern territory, Kngwarreye [pronounced ‘no worry’] is one of the most significant and successful Aboriginal artists. She embraced painting late in life, when she was almost 80. Though her career was brief, it was exemplary. Her works started selling for six figures at Australian auctions at the turn of the century. She died in 1996 at the age of 85 or 86.


What does the name of the painting mean? “Summer ceremony,” says Tim Klingender, Aboriginal art specialist at Sotheby’s. “Awelye means ceremony. It means singing, dancing, and body painting as performed in traditional [Aboriginal] ceremonies, relating to the Dreaming of one’s totems and country.”


This is one of a group of four monumental works by Kngwarreye. Another is in a museum. Do we know where the other two are, and if they have come to auction? And is this the first of the four to go to auction? “The other two are both in private collections, and were both exhibited in the artist’s two retrospectives,” he says. “This is the first of the four to appear at auction.”


The lot notes say Kame-Summer Awelye II was painted ‘during a time of intense ceremonial activity.’ Could you explain what these ceremonies were, and how Kngwarreye participated? “Indigenous desert people meet at various times of the year to perform ceremonies, relating to rain, animals, plants, ancestors and initiations,” he says. “At such ceremonies, ancient songs and dances are performed, bodies painted, and sand mosaics are created on the ground and danced upon.”


The lot notes say that Kngwarreye might have daubed paint on the torsos of those who participated in the ceremonies. Did the paint patterns she applied to their bodies look in any way like the patterns we see in this painting? “In some cases, yes. In others, they are paintings of her country, Alhalkere,” he says. [Alhalkere is an area in central Australia that’s about 142 miles north of Alice Springs.]


In what ways does the painting reflect or represent the Northern Territory landscape? “These paintings are aerial views of ‘landscape’ from above–painterly views of landscape infused with the spiritual energy of the ancestors, or creation, or Dreamtime beings,” he says.


The lot notes also state that the painting ’emphasizes the intrinsic connection of the individual to the landscape as a form of personal expression.’ Could you say more about this?  “To artists such as Emily, their inherited country and their connection to it are everything,” he says. “Her paintings are a celebration of that connection.”


Kngwarreye was in her early eighties when she made this painting. Do we know if it was difficult at all for her to make a painting of this size? How did she approach its creation? “Amazingly, she could handle large scale works with ease,” he says. “Google Big Yam Dreaming in the NGV to see a work she painted on a massive scale in the second-to-last year of her life.”


Why did she, among all of the Aboriginal artists in the Utopia community, break out and gain fame? “Because of the uniqueness and quality and development of her style,” he says. “In such a short period, she produced a phenomenal body of work–some 3,000 paintings in seven years.”


How does Kngwarreye’s personal story as an artistic late bloomer play into the demand for her paintings and affect their value? “Not particularly,” he says. “It has always been her art that has drawn attention first and foremost.”


What’s the current auction record for a Kngwarreye painting? Does she still hold the record for any Aboriginal artwork at auction? “Her auction record is AUD$2,100,000 [a sum that’s roughly the same in American dollars], for Earth’s Creation 1, sold in November 2017 at Fine Art Bourse in Sydney, Australia. That’s the second highest price for an Indigenous work, and the highest for any Australian woman artist,” he says.


How did you arrive at the estimate for this work? “Considerably smaller examples from this particular period have sold for around AUD$500,000,” he says. “A work on this scale and quality is exceptionally rare.”


Why will Kame-Summer Awelye II stick in your memory? “This grand painting is joyous, beautiful, spectacular, rare, and grounded in the oldest continuous culture on earth,” he says. “Seen firsthand, the painting’s layers of fine overlaid multi-toned yellow pigments give the painting a depth reminiscent of a golden celestial starscape, like an earthly reflection of the heavens.”


How to bid: Kame-Summer Awelye II is lot 38 in Sotheby’s Aboriginal Art auction in London on March 14, 2018.


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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.


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UPDATE: WORLD RECORD AT AUCTION FOR ALMA THOMAS: LAMA’s Fresh-to-Market Canvas by African-American Artist Alma Thomas Sells for Almost $400,000


Editor’s Note: Today is the first anniversary of The Hot Bid. To celebrate, I’m reposting the first entry–a piece on an Alma Thomas painting at LAMA that ultimately sold for a record sum.

Update: Thomas’s Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C. sold for $387,500 at Los Angeles Modern Auctions on Sunday, March 5, 2017–well above its $125,000 to $175,000 estimate. It also represents a world record at auction for the artist.

What you see: Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C., a 1969 oil on canvas by Alma Thomas.

Who was Alma Thomas? She was a member of the Washington Color School, a mid-20th century abstract art movement based in Washington, D.C. that also included Gene Davis and Kenneth Noland. Thomas was under-appreciated during her lifetime, but she was not unknown; in 1972, she became the first African-American woman to receive a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Thomas died in 1978, at the age of 86. Her art gained fresh attention when President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama displayed her works in the White House. Resurrection, a 1966 Thomas canvas that the Obamas chose for the White House family dining room, shares a mandala-like motif in common with Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C.

Why is Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C. so compelling? “It has an intimacy that you only get when you contemplate a solitary blossom,” says Peter Loughrey, director of modern design and fine art at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA). “There’s something Zen and eastern about it. The progression of color draws you in to the center of the work. It really lends itself to a one-on-one, personal interaction.”

How does the painting call to mind Washington, D.C.? “It’s extremely abstracted, but it does reference the cherry blossoms that bloom every spring,” says Loughrey, who grew up in the nation’s capital. “It’s inescapable, that pinkish color in the background. It’s what you remember and walk away with.”

Why is the painting estimated at $125,000 to $175,000? Thomas wasn’t as prolific as other Washington Color School artists, and today’s collectors are keen to own her works. Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C. has never gone to auction before; the consigner’s father bought it directly from the artist in 1969. He was a medical student at the time, and he paid her in installments. The lot includes a handwritten letter from Thomas to the proud young owner, telling him,”I hope you will love the painting. So many of my friends wanted to buy it.”

How to bid: Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C. is lot 323 in the Modern Art & Design Auction that takes place on March 5, 2017 at LAMA in Van Nuys, Calif.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

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A Clear Winner Indeed! Ceruti’s 18th Century Portrait on Glass Sold for $615,000–More Than Double Its High Estimate– at Sotheby’s

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Update: Ceruti’s Portrait of a Young Countrywoman, Half Length fetched $615,000–more than double its high estimate.

What you see: Portrait of a Young Countrywoman, Half Length, an oil on glass painted in the late 1720s or early 1730s by Giacomo Ceruti, who also went by the name Pitocchetto. Sotheby’s estimates it at $200,000 to $300,000.

Who was Giacomo Ceruti, and why was he called Pitocchetto? He was a northern Italian artist who roamed across genres, painting portraits, still lifes, and everything in between. “Pitocchetto” (pronounced Pee-to-ket-to) translates as “the little beggar,” and refers to his talent for capturing images of the humble people of his day–beggars, chefs, farmers, and the like. He died in 1698 at the age of 68.

Ceruti painted this portrait on glass. Why? Wasn’t glass expensive in the early 18th century? “Glass was expensive, but for the artist, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility,” says David Pollack, a specialist in Sotheby’s Master Paintings department. “Glass is rare compared to canvas or wood panels. You see it much less frequently, but it’s not unknown. The Romans painted on glass. As far as Ceruti goes, there are a few examples of him painting on glass, showing the same model, in the same dress.” (Scroll down and look to the right to see another Ceruti oil on glass.)

Why might Ceruti have attempted a painting on glass? “In this particular case, it’s unclear. We don’t have a record of it being commissioned, but we do have a period inventory,” he says. “There was a taste for works on glass, and works on glass by Ceruti in particular. They were popular in his own day.”

How is painting on glass different from painting on canvas or a wooden panel? “It’s a challenge for the artist,” he says. “Painting on glass has to be done in reverse. You put in the details first, and you really can’t make changes. You had to be a perfectionist or you’d have to start all over. But the payoff is really high. With glass, the colors remain extremely well-preserved as long as it’s not broken or damaged.”

How sturdy is the glass? Is it the same as window glass? “It’s as sturdy as today’s glass, and this glass is really clear,” he says. “When you need a wooden panel for painting, you need one without imperfections. It’s the same for glass. It needs to be smooth and clear. The standard is higher than for glass for drinking out of.”

The portrait doesn’t have a background. Did Ceruti choose not to paint it, or is it unfinished by accident? He appears to have left the background blank on purpose. “Other versions [other Ceruti paintings on glass] are that way as well,” Pollack says. “I’m surmising here, but the focus of the painting is the woman. He’s all about figures. He’s a figurative painter, and he put the focus on the technique, the painting on glass.”

This isn’t like a flat painting on canvas. Is Sotheby’s handling it differently? “On the cover of the physical catalog, we show the painting as we will exhibit it–on a plinth, so you can see it in the round,” he says. “Otto Naumann displayed it with a piece of salmon pink cardboard behind the painting, but not on it. We’ve chosen to display it completely bare. You can walk around it. It’s incredibly modern and totally chic. I think people are really going to react to it.”

Ceruti did at least two portraits on glass, apparently of the same model. Why might he have done that? “It was a popular and commercially successful composition for him, and he returned to it,” he says. “Throughout art history, we see [other paintings that are] not the exact version, but sitting the same model. A patron might have written to Ceruti and said, ‘I want the same model and a similar type of work, but without the basket.’

The model seems to be wearing the same outfit in both paintings. Why would he have wanted her to don those clothes twice? “It’s a combination of it being the type of garb of the day for a woman in her position, and he probably thought the blue, red, and white was pleasing,” he says. “The white folds in such a way that allowed him to play with shadow and light. Same for the blue. If it was one color, he couldn’t show off as much, frankly. With a different-color combo, he’s able to.”

How did you put an estimate on this Ceruti? “We didn’t just compare it to works on glass. We compared it to works by Ceruti in general, and works by Milanese 17th century artists in general, and the market in general–works that are unfinished, quirky, off-beat, nontraditional,” he says. “The market reacts to a simple portrait that’s appealing to the modern eye, be it unfinished or quirky.”

Oh, like the unfinished Anton Raphael Mengs portrait that Otto Naumann showed at TEFAF New York in 2016, which Anderson Cooper bought? “That’s Otto,” he says. “The thing that Otto cares about is not that it’s unfinished or that it’s different. It has to have a story to it. These types of unfinished works give insight into an artist’s working method.”

The lot notes describe the colors of the Ceruti oil-on-glass as being “exceptionally fresh and vivid and, as is the case with this beautiful example, the subject is startlingly life-like.” Are there aspects of the painting that the camera doesn’t fully capture? “It is more vibrant in real life. The best way to look at it is to look at the front cover of the catalog,” he says. “The flesh tones, when you see them in person, are incredibly warm by virtue of being painted on glass. It’s similar to painting on copper. Because they are hard surfaces, the paint sits on top and it stays stable. It’s almost as if it was painted yesterday.”

Why will this painting stand out in your mind? “In a world of Old Masters, the public and even professionals don’t get to see this often, or ever,” he says. “To see a portrait surrounded by transparent glass is such a modern presentation. Being able to view it in the round shifts it from a painting to an object. As you walk around it, it changes with the  light, and with different times of day. It’s really alive.”

How to bid: Portrait of a Young Countrywoman, Half Length is lot 16 in the Otto Naumann sale, which takes place January 31 at Sotheby’s New York.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Old Masters dealer Otto Naumann has a website. He is retiring and has consigned much of his inventory to Sotheby’s.

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N.C. Wyeth’s Dramatic Illustration of Scottish Knight Sir William Wallace Could Command $150,000 at Skinner

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What you see: Wallace Draws the King’s Sword, an illustration that N.C. Wyeth painted for the 1921 book The Scottish Chiefs. Skinner estimates it at $150,000 to $250,000.

Who was N.C. Wyeth? Newell Convers Wyeth was an American illustrator who brought rousing manly-man adventure tales to life like no other. If you were enamored with pirates as a small child, you have Wyeth’s illustrations for Treasure Island to thank for that. While Wyeth’s commercial illustrations made him immortal, he preferred creating fine art. He was the father of artist Andrew Wyeth and the grandfather of artist Jamie Wyeth. He died in 1945, along with his young namesake grandson, after his car stalled on railroad tracks and was hit by a train. He was 62.

How prolific was N.C. Wyeth?  “He did almost 2,000 illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post alone,” says Elizabeth Haff, specialist in American and European Works of Art for Skinner. “I don’t know how much he did for Scribner’s.”

This painting has a Scribner’s provenance–there’s a Scribner’s Magazine label on the back, and it comes to Skinner directly from the Scribner family. Does that add to its value? “I think it does add value. He did some of his most exciting work for those [Scribner’s Illustrated Classics] novels,” she says, adding, “In 1919, he struck a deal with Scribner’s where he owned his paintings, but they kept the copyright. With this, he either gave it to Scribner’s, or they bought it from him.”

How did author Jane Porter recruit Wyeth to illustrate her book? “Scribner used him quite a bit,” Haff says, noting his legendary work for the Scribner’s Illustrated Classics series. “The subject matter was his thing, his niche–heroes.” The book must have been a hit; it went through more than one printing.

So what’s going on in this scene? I take it that the unruly Scots are encroaching on their leader, William Wallace, intending to take him prisoner, and he’s drawing his sword and saying, ‘Back off.’ Yes, pretty much. The painting depicts a scene where Wallace shouts, “He that first makes a stroke at me shall find his death on this Southron steel! This sword I made the arm of the usurper yield to me; and this sword shall defend the regent of Scotland.” As Haff explains, “It’s a distinguished sword. It had belonged to the King of England. In 1297, Wallace turned back the English army and captured the sword.”

Have any original N.C. Wyeth illustrations from The Scottish Chiefs gone to auction before? In October 2016, Dallas Auction Gallery sold Sterling Castle, a 1921 oil on canvas mounted on Masonite that was evidently made as a frontispiece to the book. It fetched $500,000 against an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000.

Why will this painting stick in your memory? “It’s a great painting, and a very exciting painting. The colors are quite rich, very radiant. The tartans and kilts are so painterly and beautiful in person,” Haff says. “And the attackers’ faces are so expressive. The grimaces are so gruesome. He’s caught William Wallace at a moment where he draws his sword–it’s so dramatic, so arresting. It’s jewel-like, and it’s 100 percent N.C. Wyeth.”

How to bid: Wallace Draws the King’s Sword is lot 375 in Skinner‘s American & European Works of Art sale on January 26, 2018.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Skinner.

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RECORD: The Story Quilt that Oprah Winfrey Commissioned from Faith Ringgold for Dr. Maya Angelou’s Birthday Sold for $461,000 at Swann

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Editor’s note: With the approach of the holidays, The Hot Bid shifts its focus to world auction records. 

What you see: Maya’s Quilt of Life, a 1989 narrative quilt by artist Faith Ringgold, who Oprah Winfrey commissioned to make it as a birthday gift for Dr. Maya Angelou. At Swann Auction Galleries in 2015, it sold for $461,000–a record for a narrative quilt by the artist.

Who is Faith Ringgold? Born Faith Willi Jones, she is an African-American artist who has worked in several media but is best known for her paintings and textile works of art. She grew up in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance and is an activist who fights sexism and racism. She began creating narrative quilts in 1980, in part because she had trouble interesting publishers in her autobiography. To date, she has created almost 100 narrative quilts. Ringgold is 87.

What makes Maya’s Quilt of Life a strong example of Ringgold’s work? “It has all the elements she incorporates in her story quilts. They’re called story quilts because they tell a story–they have a narrative,” says Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department. “This scene has text taken from Maya Angelou’s writings. It’s an unusual work, but it’s instantly recognizable as Faith Ringgold’s work. It’s a special piece for a special occasion.”

It looks like Ringgold used the Angelou texts like columns that frame the painting. Is that typical of her work? “That’s not the only way she does it. They could be at the top, or the sides. Sometimes they wrap around,” he says. “The important thing is it’s Angelou’s writing. It’s not just the visual creativity of the artist, it’s the voice of the artist and the women involved.”

It strikes me that with Maya’s Quilt of Life, we have an extraordinary black woman, Oprah Winfrey, commissioning a second extraordinary black woman, Faith Ringgold, to commemorate a third extraordinary black woman, Dr. Maya Angelou. Are you aware of anything other artwork that’s quite like this? “I thought that was pretty cool,” he says. “It’s a great testament to the fiercely independent spirit of Maya Angelou, and a testament to what she inspires in people, and in artists like Faith Ringgold and cultural figures like Oprah Winfrey. It was an affinity between all three women, a great coming-together. It was a birthday present [for Angelou], and it was the prize piece in her art collection.”

This was the first narrative quilt by Ringgold to come to auction. Why was it consigned? “Because Dr. Angelou died [in 2014], it was consigned as part of a single-owner sale. It came from Dr. Angelou’s estate,” he says. “This is the way the family wanted to distribute a large part of her estate.”

How did you arrive at the estimate of $150,000 to $250,000? “Ringgold narrative quilts are very precious, and owners don’t give them up easily. They’re certainly prized objects,” he says. “Many artists we handle don’t have auction records. We looked at gallery prices and what would be a fair market value. Of course we had to know how to factor in the specialness of the piece, but enough was out there to be able to make a reasonable estimate. Like a lot of contemporary artists, Ringgold’s market is just developing. We had to start somewhere. We were just fortunate to start with a really fantastic one that sets the bar high.”

Were you in the sale room for the auction? “It was a packed room. It was almost the perfect auction. Only one piece didn’t sell,” he says. “It was a moment to savor. I was in the back of the room. People applauded when things went high. And Faith Ringgold was there! She and I posed in front of the quilt. It was quite an event. Everyone left happy.”

Were you surprised that the narrative quilt sold for $461,000? “Yes, because it was uncharted territory,” Freeman says. “We knew we had something really wonderful. She’s an important American artist. Her work is in a lot of museums already. But you never know on a given day how the market will respond. We knew it would do well. We didn’t know how well.”

Do we know who bought Maya’s Quilt of Life? “It ended up going to the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Arkansas,” he says. “They made it public shortly after the sale. Faith Ringgold gave a talk there subsequently. That’s always a terrific outcome. It was a win-win-win.”

How long do you think the auction record will stand? “It’ll stand for a good while. It was a really great piece, and Faith Ringgold is a great artist,” he says. “If one of her early large canvases–a significant part of her work [came to auction]–that could give this record a run for the money. But you don’t see many at auction. I’m going to enjoy it while it’s a record. It’s a wonderful piece, and the story behind it is great.”

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Swann Auction Galleries is on Instagram and Twitter.

Nigel Freeman is on Twitter. Faith Ringgold has her own website.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, an exhibit that originated at the Tate Modern in London, features the work of 60 black artists, including Ringgold. It will appear at Crystal Bridges from February 3 to April 23, 2018.

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

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RECORD: Heritage Sells Patrick Nagel’s 1980s Painting, Bold, for $200,000

Patrick Nagel (American, 1945-1984). Bold World Record $200,000 Heritage...

Editor’s note: With the approach of the holidays, The Hot Bid shifts its focus to world auction records. 

What you see: Bold, a circa 1980s painting by Patrick Nagel. Heritage Auctions sold it on October 13, 2017, for $200,000–an auction record for the artist.

Who was Patrick Nagel? He was an American commercial illustrator who gained fame for his portrayals of beautiful dark-haired women. His best-known works are like Bold–images that focus on the woman’s face. Nagel (pronounced to rhyme with ‘bagel’) did commissions for Playboy and is probably best known for creating the artwork for the cover of Duran Duran’s 1982 album, Rio. He died in 1984 of a heart attack that might have been caused by a congenital heart defect that was first noticed during his autopsy. Nagel was 38.

Did Nagel have a specific woman who he relied on as a model? “He did use models, specific models, but he would alter them so they’re not portraits, they’re idealized,” says Ed Jaster, senior vice president at Heritage Auctions, adding, “In May, we sold a Nagel titled Joan Collins, #411, for $100,000. [If you know its title,] you say, ‘Oh, yeah, I can see it,’ but if you just saw it [without knowing the title], you wouldn’t think it was Joan Collins.”

Why, or for whom, did Nagel make this painting? “In the 1980s, he hooked up with Mirage Studios, and they had him do paintings on spec,” he says. “Bold is from that body of work. He only did them during the last two or three years of his life.”

Why is it called Bold? “In general, Nagel didn’t title his paintings,” Jaster says. “To the best of my knowledge, there wasn’t a title for this painting. It was [named] by me or the cataloger. If we’re going to coin a title, it’s nice if it’s based on information we have. If we know who the sitter is, it’s obvious.”

How rarely do original works by Nagel come to auction? “Paintings rendered on canvas are a little more rare,” he says. “The untimely nature of his death–he died a young man–means they are very limited, maybe along the lines of 40 to 50 paintings for Mirage Studios. If we’ve sold 20 of them, which is about right, we’ve probably sold half of his body of work from that period.”

When did the secondary market for Patrick Nagel gain momentum? “The earliest Nagel [auction sales] I can find in our records are in 2008,” he says. “From 2008 to 2012, we sold a fair amount of Nagel, but they were all illustrations, not paintings on canvas. We had one in 2012 that brought $56,000 and one in 2013 that brought $158,500. The first on canvas, to the best of my knowledge, was October 2012. From that point on, every one on canvas got [at least] $50,000, but probably the average is more like $125,000.”

Why did Bold do so well? Why did it set a new record for Nagel? “She’s got a very alluring, very hypnotic gaze. Very typical Nagel,” he says, adding, “It was a timing thing. If two people want something, it gets a high price. Sometimes it’s predictable, sometimes it’s not.”

How long do you think the record will stand? “I hope not too long,” says Jaster, laughing. “I’m being a little cheeky, but it’s a strong piece, and it deserves to be the record-holder. It’s quintessential Nagel.”

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

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SOLD! This Casually Perfect 1951 Henri Cartier-Bresson Shot From Italy Fetched $30,000–Double Its High Estimate–at Phillips


Update: Cartier-Bresson’s Scanno, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy sold for $30,000–double its high estimate.

What you see: Scanno, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, a photograph that Henri Cartier-Bresson shot in 1951. This gelatin silver print was made later, however. Phillips estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.

Who was Henri Cartier-Bresson? Born in France, he was the king of the candid photographers, and he’s regarded as a father of street photography. He co-founded Magnum Photos, a cooperative photojournalists’ agency, in 1947. His images of the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 cemented his reputation. He died in 2004 at the age of 95.

Do we know anything about the lead-up to this photo–how long Cartier-Bresson stood there, and how many other photos he might have taken at this spot? “Here, he’s standing at the top of the stairs. For Cartier-Bresson, he would sometimes stay for a few minutes. He wouldn’t have stayed for a long amount of time. He would shoot and keep walking,” says Rachel Peart, specialist and head of sale for Phillips. “Cartier-Bresson was famous for not wanting to crop his photos afterward. He was very deliberate about what he put in his lens.” Subsequent research of auction records revealed a few iterations of the image appearing for sale in the late aughts and early teens.

I look at this photo and it reminds me of a game of Jenga–pushing the boundaries of how much can you add before the whole thing topples and falls apart… “I think that’s what makes Cartier-Bresson such a great photographer,” she says. “When it comes to composing an image, it’s technically perfect. The railings lead your eye through the picture plane and also divide it. He continued to draw throughout his lifetime, and the fundamentals of composition are evident in all of his work.”

How does this 1951 image illustrate Cartier-Bresson’s concept of “the decisive moment” in photography? “It’s not something he staged or posed. He waited for the moment when everything lined up,” she says. “Here we have the women going about their day. He was able to freeze the moment and hold them in time.”

Why was he in the Italian town of L’Aquila in 1951, and where was he in his career by then? “He was on assignment for Harper’s Bazaar,” Peart says. “He had founded Magnum by this point, he was on assignment for many publications, and he was very much a household name.”

This image was printed after 1951, but probably before the rise of the formal secondary market for photography. Why would he have had it done? “What we predominantly see in the Cartier-Bresson market are later prints, and after 2004, none are made–there are no posthumous prints,” she says, noting that Cartier-Bresson never did the actual printing himself, but he did supervise and approve the output. “A lot of them would have been printed for collectors or for exhibitions. Unless people requested the image, he didn’t make prints of them. There are other pictures of his that you see at auction more frequently [because people asked for them].”

How many prints of Scanno, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy were made? It’s hard to tell. Perhaps 30 exist in the 17 5/8 inch by 11 3/4 inch size, and one of them fetched $10,625 at Christie’s in 2011. A similar image taken from the same vantage point and printed at a smaller size has appeared at auction at least twice (the name of the photo is not standardized, which makes it difficult to confirm how often it and its variants have gone to auction). One sold in June 2015 at Westlicht, a Viennese auction house specializing in photographs and vintage cameras for €4,800 ($5,400), and the other sold at Swann Galleries in November 2016 for $6,500.

The lot notes say the photo was acquired directly from the artist. But acquired by who? The consignor is Peter Fetterman, who runs an eponymous photography gallery in Santa Monica, California. “He was working directly with Cartier-Bresson as a dealer and it turned into a friendship,” she says. “He would buy from Cartier-Bresson and for himself as well. There’s one Sam Tassa portrait of Henri Cartier-Bresson, but otherwise, they’re all from Peter Fetterman, who got them directly from Henri.”

Why is Fetterman selling these photographs now? “Cartier-Bresson is obviously an artist he loved and very much respected, and he loved building the collection. But he felt it was the right time to put it out into the world,” Peart says.

What else makes this Cartier-Bresson image special? “It’s Henri Cartier-Bresson doing what he does best, taking this moment from a town in Italy and making it so compositionally dense and rich,” she says. “You can revisit his images over and over, and this one really epitomizes that.”

How to bid: Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Scanno, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy is lot 37 in Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Eye of the Century, taking place at Phillips New York on December 12.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Phillips.

A note: In 2009, L’Aquila was near the epicenter of an earthquake that measured as high as 5.9 on the Richter scale. It killed more than 300 people and damaged thousands of buildings. It’s unclear if the vista that Cartier-Bresson captured in 1951 survives, but it was pretty much intact in 2008. More than seven years after the quake, the Italian city is still recovering from its effects.

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