What you see: David Wojnarowicz: Manhattan-Night (III), a 1985 silver print by Peter Hujar. Estimated at $15,000 to $25,000, it commanded $106,250 and a new auction record for Hujar during the first Pride Sale at Swann Auction Galleries on June 20, 2019.
The expert: Deborah Rogal, associate director of photographs and photobooks at Swann Auction Galleries.
Is his name pronounced HOO-jar? Yes.
How often do Peter Hujar photographs come to auction? I would consider them rare. As his work becomes more recognizable by collectors, more will come to the market. About 15 to 20 per year reach the auction market and they attract a lot of attention when they do.
How many prints did he typically make of an image? As far as I know, Hujar did apply edition numbers to his prints, but “four of 15” didn’t mean “four of 15.” It meant he was happy with the print, and generated interest in the print by adding a number. Photography is a young market, and at that time [the photograph dates to 1985], it was incredibly young. There was awareness among photographers of numbering in the print market, but it was not applied. He was not unique in that sense.
How many copies of David Wojnarowicz: Manhattan-Night (III) did he make? As far as we know, this is one of three examples of this image.
Do you know where the other two are? I don’t.
Was this the first print of the three to go to auction? There have been other images of David Wojnarowicz by Hujar at auction, but not this particular image.
Did Peter Hujar typically sign and date his photographs? Typically, yes, but not as a rule.
How involved was he in the process of printing his photos? Did he usually do most or all of the darkroom work? I believe he did do most or all of his own work. Part of the mentorship with David Wojnarowicz involved working in the darkroom together.
Was David Wojnarowicz involved with the production of this particular silver print? I couldn’t say with authority whether it could be true. If it is true, it’s impossible to prove.
Do we know how many portraits Peter Hujar took of David Wojnarowicz? He made several well-known portraits of Wojnarowicz. It was an incredibly close relationship. There are many images.
Are Hujar’s portraits of Wojnarowicz sought after? The result demonstrates that they are. Both are sought-after artists. [The photo] represents a rare opportunity to acquire an object that represents both of them. Hujar was known for taking portraits of figures of the downtown art scene. This is a stellar example of that type of image.
Do we know why Hujar named this photograph David Wojnarowicz: Manhattan-Night (III) ? I don’t. The title was supplied, in this case, by his estate.
The lot notes say this photograph went from the artist to the collector to you. Is that a typical trajectory for a Hujar? Yes. Much Hujar material we see coming to the market doesn’t have a long [provenance] history at all. The work has been held in collections by the first owners. Some were friends or colleagues of Hujar.
The portrait photograph measures 19 3/4 inches by 15 3/4 inches. Is that considered large for Hujar? If it is large, did that fact play a role in the final price? Many of his photographs are on a sheet like this. In the larger photographic market, it [oversize photographs] are often a factor. But much of his work has the same presentation. I don’t think the size was a factor in this case.
What is it like in person? Are there details that the camera doesn’t pick up? We do our best to capture the depth and lustrous qualities in the catalog, but nothing compares to seeing a print like this in person. Hujar is very subtle, very elegant, very rich. This has deep, velvety blacks and it’s rather moody. There’s a lot of detail in the lighter grey and white values. It’s so much more stunning in person. His work is characterized by sensuality–he draws it out of the figures he photographs. It’s one reason why [his work] is so prized by collectors today.
What was the previous auction record for a Hujar? It was set in 2015 at Christie’s by Candy Darling on her Deathbed, 1973. It sold for $50,000.
What was your role in the auction on the day of the sale? The Pride Auction involved almost all the departments at Swann. Sale day was all hands on deck. It was a really exciting moment. Most of the staff worked the phones. I think the whole room was holding its breath watching the phones battle it out [to see who would win the Hujar].
How was the photograph chosen for the Pride Sale? We were actively looking for material for the sale throughout the entire season. The Pride Sale was the right context for the work.
Does the creation of the Pride Sale predate the consignment of the Hujar photo? As I recall, yes, it did. We worked on the sale for quite some time.
Does Swann have plans to hold another Pride Sale? We do plan to hold another next year.
How did the context of the Pride Sale affect the final result? Would the Hujar photograph have done as well in a standard photography sale? I do think the context is really important to the work. The Pride Sale tells a specific story, and helped it [the photograph] gain a level of attention. I have no way of knowing [if it would do as well in a standard photography sale], but I hope so. The quality of the work and its rarity are very high.
Were you surprised that it sold for $106,250? I was. I think we all were very happily surprised at the results.
So you weren’t expecting it to break six figures? I was not. It was pretty stunning. I think everyone in the room was surprised. We knew how important Peter Hujar’s work is, and how stunning it is. It’s the moment we wait for–when something like this just takes off, it’s thrilling.
How long do you think this world auction record for Peter Hujar will stand? What else is out there that could beat it? One of the exciting and beautiful things about the auction market is you don’t know what will turn up tomorrow. I think the Hujar market will certainly grow as more collectors become aware of his work.
Deborah Rogel spoke to The Hot Bid previously about a circa 1865 tintype of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker wearing her Medal of Honor.
Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.