DAVID COHEN, Editor           



On Wednesday, February 15, 2006, Robert Frank's gelatin silver print "Indianapolis" from his influential "THE AMERICANS" series (1955-56) sold at Sotheby's for $102,000. Twenty-two months previously, a different print from the same negative sold for $33,600 at the same auction house. I sent out the following stats and a print comparison comment to a number of photography specialists and eleven experts weighed in. Below are their responses in the order of which they were received.

Robert Frank Indianapolis (from "THE AMERICANS", 1955-1956) printed circa 1977
gelatin silver print, 9-¼ x 13-5/8 inches
Courtesy Sotheby's

PETER GALASSI - Chief Curator of Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York.
"Unexpected auction results are just one of God's many ways of keeping our lives interesting."

ALEX NOVAK - sole proprietor of Vintage Works Limited a fine art photography dealership - editor of www.iphotocentral.com
"If all we talk about is money, we are handing over the business to charlatans, cretins and sharks. Keep it in mind. It is easy and even exciting to do (reporting on spiraling price increases), but every once in a while try to take a few steps back and recognize this stuff for what it is. Money is not a criteria for quality and excellence. And wealth does not bring connoisseurship to the collector or insight and importance to the artist. I am afraid that the art world (and photography, which is clearly now a part of the same market) is heading for some rocky times down the road. I say this to you as someone who lives in the same glass house."

PAUL SACK - one of "ARTnews" TOP 25 PHOTOGRAPHY COLLECTORS - the holdings of Prentice & Paul Sack were recently exhibited in one of the largest photography exhibitions in SFMOMA's history - "Taking Place"
"I have been thinking that the prices by Robert Frank over the past few years would make a good subject for an economics dissertation on the subject of monopolistic competition. Frank signed up about the time to be represented by a dealer who, having control of the biggest source of Frank's work, multiplied his prices by 2.5.

In the cases you cite, there may also be included in the higher price a factor for the provenance, but it is certainly not a multiple of 2.5."

STUART ALEXANDER - Senior Specialist, Photographs - Christie's Auction House, Rockefeller Center, New York
"It is true that Robert Frank's prices at auction have been climbing at an accelerated rate over the past five years. Each season brings another record for good vintage, or near-vintage prints from "THE AMERICANS". Prices have also increased for later prints of images from "THE AMERICANS", but they have always remained considerably lower than vintage or older prints. Meanwhile, vintage prints from other groups of his work still sell for relatively low prices, some in the $4,000-$6,000 range. Unfortunately, I was not in the room to see the Metropolitan collection print sell, so I can only guess from the extremely high results that the bidders got carried away by the prestige of the provenance and the momentum of the sale. Later prints selling at more than double the record high prices for vintage prints a couple of years ago is something that could only happen in the context of an extraordinary sale such as this one.

Perhaps more significant, and perhaps more gratifying for the artist, is that Lot #107, "Andrea", (1977), one of his later multiple-image Polaroid pieces climbed to his 10th highest price ever at auction selling for $96,000 with premium. His previous highest price for one of his later works was $18,000."

MARLA HAMBURG KENNEDY - photo publisher/Picture This Publications - photo consultant/HK Photo, New York
"The prices are not all that surprising given the scarcity of any Robert Frank "THE AMERICANS" work on the market - vintage or later prints for that matter. His prints have not been offered on the primary market through a primary dealer for over a year, and there are virtually no key images on the secondary market. Moreover, Frank, like Arbus, Winogrand and the other post-war photographers, continue to gain in importance in the larger context of the art market and his legacy broadens as does his influence on the entire second half of the 20th century. "THE AMERICANS" continues to be a hallmark body of work that helped shift the entire agenda and vision of photographers of his day and later.

There is a tremendous demand for his work by seasoned photography collectors and more recent art and photography collectors; hence it seems a propos vis-à-vis this equation that prices would be high. Of course add to this supply and demand situation, the prestige and aura of the MET sale and that would give added premium to prices realized.

I would anticipate key images by Frank - "34th Street", and any iconic images from "THE AMERICANS" to continue to rise in time, commensurate with the lack of prints, and the continued appreciation of his reputation and genius. Seems like the prices mimic those currently realized by Arbus Selkirk prints that have risen exponentially over the past year or two."


THEA WESTREICH - art advisor/Thea Westreich Art Advisory Service, New York
"I would like to address this excessive response around market performance in the photographic sector. I simply cannot embrace the fact that this is really new as it pertains to the art market. And, since I have always considered work made in the photographic medium art, it makes perfect sense to me that once others operating in the market came to the same conclusion, that the results would be exactly as they are revealing themselves to be.

Money has always driven the art market, not news. So why would this moment in time be any different? Rich people buy art and they buy art for lots of different reasons. But the fact is that they are rich, and that they can afford what they perceive to be the best, even if it is not. What is interesting to me is that time sorts out most of it and what is great in the history of art stays expensive - though often by the standards of taste at particular times in that history."

BRIAN WALLIS - Chief Curator/International Center of Photography (ICP), New York
"The big jump in price you notice, even for a later print seems to indicate both the increasing scarcity of examples of Robert Frank's key photographs on the market and a huge scramble for Frank's work over the past two years. To my mind, in relation to other works on the market, Frank's work has always been undervalued."


PETER HAY HALPERT - private photography dealer and writer in New York, Philadelphia and Colorado
"Provenance increasingly counts for a great deal. The market recognizes and acknowledges the connoisseurship of Howard Gilman and the scholarship of Pierre Apraxine, Curator for the Gilman Paper Company Collection.

Also, Robert Frank's prints may be undervalued, and the market perceives that it may become more and more difficult to get prime examples of his work.

Then again, this may also reflect a degree of auction fever. Time will tell whether this particular purchase is a smart buy or represent a buyer over-paying. As with a number of landmark sales (the Sotheby's London Man Ray sale comes to mind), a number of pieces fetched prices that they would be hard-pressed to achieve a day later, once cooler heads prevailed. BUT, a few years later, the values proved to be solid."

PETER BUNNELL - the David Hunter McAlpine Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art/Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University
"I do not have a great deal to say about the sale of the two Robert Frank images. There are so many questions to be asked - who says when each image was printed? What is the condition of each image? What is the significance of the image in terms of content/style, and as part of "THE AMERICANS", etc.? In a market driven economy, where money is an issue not only of exchange, but an indicator of significance, then when someone wants something bad enough, and has the funds to pay for it, subtle (meaningful) criteria are frequently ignored. I agree with others who have written you that the Met sale was something special, and certainly generated a buzz for ownership (not unlike the Jammes sales a few years ago) that would cause cautious sentiment to take a back seat. It finally comes down to a question of making your own decision of what something is worth based on your considered evaluation of the work, and the facts behind it, and what you are able to pay.

Museum curators and individual collectors function in different arenas. Some years ago the Princeton Art Museum set the record auction price for a work by the Bechers. It was not our intent to do so; we admired the picture and researched it carefully, set a target value, and had the funds available to pay for it up to the limit we set. In retrospect, like most of these things, it is now considered a bargain price."

HOWARD GREENBERG - owner of the Howard Greenberg Gallery, fine art photography dealership, New York
"All I can say is that auctions are a strange and sometimes dangerous business. I thought most of the Frank prices in the Met sale were out of touch with current gallery and other auction prices, given the specifics of these particular prints. Perhaps this will permanently change the Frank price landscape, which was already significantly higher than anyone might have predicted. I think, however, we won't see these prices for many comparable prints for a while to come."

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