SOLD! Albert Einstein’s 1935 Passport Photo Commands $17,500 at Bonhams


Update: The 1935 Albert Einstein passport photo sold for $17,500.


What you see: A passport photograph of Albert Einstein, signed and dated May 30, 1935, along with a piece of paper signed and dated by Einstein and featuring a brief goodbye note in German from Einstein’s son-in-law, Dmitri Marianoff. Bonhams estimates it at $8,000 to $12,000.


Who was Albert Einstein? He was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. He came up with the theory of relativity, which upended the fields of theoretical physics and astronomy. He also composed the formula E = mc2 [energy equals mass times the speed of light, squared], which has come to symbolize science and, to some extent, genius itself. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for his work in theoretical physics. After Hitler and the Nazis took over Germany, Einstein, who was Jewish, settled in the United States, gaining citizenship in 1940. A 1939 letter he sent to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sparked the creation of the Manhattan Project, the scientific endeavor that led to nuclear weapons. He based himself in Princeton, New Jersey, where he died in 1955 at the age of 76.


The expert: Ian Ehling, director of books and manuscripts at Bonhams.


Has anything else Einstein-related come to auction that’s similar to this passport photo? Have you seen any other 1930s passports or immigration paperwork connected to Einstein? Not that I know of. I’ve only come across a Swiss passport of his dating back to 1923. This particular photo was always in the possession of the consigner. The way it was was in the 1930s, Einstein was already in the United States. He was working in Princeton, New Jersey, and he decided not to return to Germany. In order to apply for citizenship, you had to be outside the country. So he took his family on a trip to Bermuda and got the ball rolling there. He used a different image on his passport. After Bermuda, I think they came through Ellis Island in New York and turned in their paperwork.


How does the fact that the passport photo dates to the 1930s–when the Nazi regime was imposing anti-Semitic policies on its citizens, convincing Einstein to leave–add to its value? It’s a huge factor in its value. [The choice that the passport photo represents] is just an awesome moment to witness. It was a turning point–a man of the world applying for U.S. citizenship. It represents the very first step [toward that]. This is a very close witness to things that were on his mind at the time.


And he would have sat for the photo in Bermuda? Yes. You can’t tell, but he’s wearing a leather jacket in the photo. In the formal portrait on the paperwork, he’s wearing something else.


Wait, was Einstein wearing THE leather jacket in this photo? The one that Levi Strauss & Co won at Christie’s London in 2016 for $147,000? It’s a leather jacket, but we can’t see enough to say it’s THE leather jacket.


And this is fresh to market? Yes. It comes directly from the person who received it. She was a little girl [at the time], the granddaughter of the innkeeper [at the guest house where Einstein stayed in Bermuda]. She was 13 years old, and she was curious. She engaged Einstein in conversation. He signed and dated the photo and gave it to her, and she kept it all her life. She’s in her nineties now, and she’s decided to sell. I don’t think it was ever published or anything like that.


How did you arrive at an estimate for this? It’s a gut feeling. I feel the photo is incredibly important. It reflects on him becoming a U.S. citizen. The estimate reflects its historic significance.


How have you seen the market for Einstein material change over time? In the 1930s, he was already famous. The photo definitely had value back then. But the Einstein market has changed significantly. I can’t say Einstein items are rare. He would get lots of letters, and he spent a good deal of time every day answering them. The most significant ones are the manuscripts where he talks about scientific things, and certain items that he owned. For example, he was very interested in music and performing with friends; we sold his violin in March 2018 for $516,500. The passport photo is a more iconic thing. Einstein was at a turning point in his life, deciding to become a U.S. citizen. It’s signed and dated, and it shows him the way you expect him to look like. He didn’t get a haircut before the picture was taken.


Why is Einstein the most sought-after scientist at auction? He had the most brilliant mind in physics since Newton, and on top of that, he was not a nerdy scientist. He was incredibly approachable. He didn’t just follow scientific interests. He played the violin, he went sailing, he was someone who enjoyed life.


Why will this Einstein passport photograph stick in your memory? The personal connection. It shows him being open and approachable and talking to a 13-year-old girl in Bermuda. And it’s consigned directly by that person. It’s special. It’s two degrees of separation–the consigner, and then Einstein. That’s what makes it so beautiful and significant.


How to bid: The Einstein passport photograph is lot 76 in Bonhams‘s June 12, 2018 Fine Books and Manuscripts sale in New York.


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


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SOLD! An Exceptional Circa 1921 Print of Lewis Hine’s Powerhouse Mechanic Fetched $81,250 at Swann Auction Galleries

M36463-1_5 001

Update: Lewis Hine’s Mechanic at Steam Pump in Electric Power House sold for $81,250.

What you see: Lewis Hine’s Mechanic at Steam Pump in Electric Power House, a photograph printed circa 1921. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $70,000 to $100,000.

Who was Lewis Hine? He was an American photographer who used his camera to document society in hopes of changing it for the better. He captured images of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island; child laborers in Southern cotton mills; and the workers who constructed the Empire State Building. Hine died in 1940 at the age of 66.

Where does Mechanic at Steam Pump in Electric Power House rank among Hine’s most iconic images? “It’s probably one of his most important, if not his most important. It’s a significant photo,” says Daile Kaplan, vice president of photographs and photobooks at Swann Auction Galleries.

Why is it such a strong image? “The visual appeal of the photo is rather direct and stunning,” she says. “It has harmony, it has visual balance, and at the same time, he positions the worker in a way that he’s controlling the machine. It reflects a new visual vocabulary that addresses the machine age, but it privileges the person with the machine.”

To what extent did Hine shape the appearance of this image? “The idea of the photographer arranging the subject is to some extent, to me, a specious issue,” she says. “Hine used a Graflex camera, a handheld camera that predated the 35 mm camera. It had technical aspects that may elude the 21st century viewer. The images are not easy to make. The Graflex is not a cell phone camera. It’s not on a tripod. It’s made of wood. It’s heavy. In all likelihood, flash powder was required for illumination. The image appeared in ground glass, upside down. It takes a bit of mental acuity just to frame the photograph. There were very different handling issues. Capturing an image in an informal manner was extremely difficult with a Graflex camera.”

Hine made several attempts at photographing a laborer using a wrench on a machine. Why did this particular one succeed so well? “The elements of the machine are writ large in this image, and the physicality of the laborer is very beautifully defined. And it shows how prescient Hine was,” she says, noting that he shot the image around 1921, when the phrase “machine age” was yet to be coined. “He was essentially visualizing a cultural idea, and was at the forefront of articulating it in a pictorial fashion. He understood and saw the trend before it was verified or confirmed.”

This print was made circa 1921–exceptionally early. Just how rare is it? “This is a very rare, very rare print, a stunning image,” she says, noting that it’s the first she’s handled a Mechanic photograph of this vintage. “In the body of work he produced during this time, it’s uncommon to find a stamp by Lewis Hine [the stamp mark reads ‘Hine’s Interpretive Photography, Hastings-on-Hudson’]. It’s extremely uncommon and rare and it has all the beauty of the finest photographs.”

There was no collectors’ market for photographs in 1921, and there wouldn’t be one for at least 50 years. Why might Hine have had this print made then? “Photographers are always making prints from their negatives,” she says. “Sometimes they give them to their family members or colleagues. He was important in the social welfare community, the progressive community. Undeniably, he would have been proud of this image. This picture is a real winner.”

Are there other prints of this image made at later dates? “I’ve seen others, but nothing as beautiful as this,” she says.

What makes this print so beautiful? “The detail, the clarity, the ability to coax out the middle tones of the black and white–I think this print really sings. It stands alone,” she says. “It’s in excellent condition. It’s a stunning representation of the image, and the print itself is gorgeous.”

Why else will this Hine photograph stick in your memory? “It’s such a privilege to handle a photograph like this. In some ways, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Kaplan says. “I’ve published two books about Lewis Hine. It’s an extraordinary privilege.”

Is it the finest Lewis Hine photograph you’ve ever handled? “When you work in an auction house, everything you handle is your baby,” she says, laughing. “Let’s say I recognize the integrity and the value of this image.”

How to bid: Lewis Hine’s Mechanic at Steam Pump in Electric Power House is lot 60 in Swann’s Icons & Images: Photographs & Photobooks sale on February 15, 2018.

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

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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 consigner 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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Oh Snap! An Uncropped Version of Weegee’s Most Famous Photo Could Sell for $15,000 at Christie’s

WEEGEE The Critic, 1943

What you see: The Critic, an image shot in 1943 by Arthur (sometimes given as Usher) Fellig, who was better known as Weegee. Christie’s estimates the ferrotyped gelatin silver print at $10,000 to $15,000.

Who was Weegee? He was a Ukranian-born photographer who excelled at capturing visions of life in Manhattan. His uncanny ability to pop up at crime scenes–sometimes even before the police got there–earned him the nickname “Weegee,” a phonetic spelling of Ouija, the name of the board used to summon spirits. Weegee had something better and more reliable than a Ouija board: he fitted his car with a police radio. He died in 1968 at the age of 75.

Time magazine chose The Critic as one of its 100 Most Influential Images of All Time. The Photography Book, published by Phaidon, placed it second on a list of photos that changed the world. The image is in the collections of The Whitney, The Getty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. What makes it such an important photograph? “I think the reason people respond is there’s a lot going on in it,” says Rebecca Jones, a photographs cataloguer at Christie’s. “It’s very graphic, very confrontational. The women going to the opera look directly at the camera, and the viewer. We have the disheveled onlooker at the right. We have the onlookers at the left. And the types of people in the image are very New York–high society people, the people on the left hoping for standing room tickets, and the bitter character on the right, all together in the scene in fortuitous imagery.”

We now know that The Critic was not organic. Weegee had his assistant recruit the woman at the right from a local bar, and had him move her forward on his signal when the two socialites emerged from their limo to attend the Metropolitan Opera’s Diamond Jubilee celebration. Any photographers who followed his example in 2017 would be fired and shamed. Why was Weegee able to get away with it? “It was the start of tabloid journalism. He was the first to do it, so he kind of got away with it,” she says. “The ethics were not fully developed on the issue because it was so new.”

Weegee printed this image in the late 1950s or early 1960s, before there was a secondary market for photographs. Why would he have created more prints of The Critic after it was published in Life magazine around 1943? “In addition to being a successful photojournalist, Weegee was unique, because he was recognized by the fine arts community,” Jones says. “He was known to print works in addition to this one, possibly to sell, possibly for an exhibition, or possibly to give to people.”

When Life magazine ran The Critic, its editors cropped it to show just the three women. The version at Christie’s is the full version, which shows the middle class people at the left who are hoping to buy standing room tickets. Weegee released more prints of the cropped version than the full version during his life. Does that mean he preferred the cropped version? “It’s hard to say which he preferred. What’s more likely is since the three were in the original version used, it became the more iconic image,” she says, adding, “What also complicates his practice is he had no consistency to the way he marked his prints. The only way we knew this was from the late 1950s or early 1960s is it’s marked with an address we know he moved to in 1957.”

What else makes this Weegee image special? “It’s interesting to pull out from the cropped image to see what was going on in the photographer’s eye. We get the flavor of the particular moment,” Jones says. “And it’s a scene you could still see in New York today.”

How to bid: Weegee’s The Critic is lot 32 in Visionaries: Photographs from the Emily and Jerry Spiegel Collection, which takes place October 10 at Christie’s New York.

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