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An Ansel Adams Trove Is Scheduled for Auction

Posted By Administration, Friday, March 7, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

Of the hundreds of art photographs coming onto the market in April — at galleries; sales at Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips; and the Association of International Photography Art Dealers fair in New York — one offering stands out.


On April 11 Christie's is scheduled to sell about 200 silver-gelatin Ansel Adams prints from a corporate collection in California. It is among the largest Adams collections in private hands.

Many of the photographs date from a period when Adams furnished images for the Fremont General Corporation, a financial services holding company. In 1969, just before the company moved into a new building in Santa Monica, James A. McIntyre, then chief executive officer, wrote Adams to tell him he wanted to use his photographs to decorate the headquarters. This began a close collaboration that lasted from 1970 to 1975.

"Adams went to the offices to inspect them and even wanted to dictate the colors for the walls," said Laura Paterson, a photography specialist at Christie's. "He involved himself with the framing, lighting, placement and spacing of his images.

"The collection includes every single significant piece in his career, including photos taken before Adams decided he was going to be a photographer. He was considering becoming a professional concert pianist until he photographed 'Monolith, the Face of Half-Dome' in 1927. The grandeur of nature had a real creative impact on him."

The portfolio from the 1920s entitled "Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras" and some of the other portfolios in the sale are vintage prints — that is, prints made fairly soon after the creation of the original negatives.

"A print made 20 years later is not a vintage print," said Robert Mann, the owner of a Manhattan photo gallery and an Adams specialist since 1977. "Vintage prints only come up for sale from time to time, and they often have more personality, because Ansel would have spent time on them getting the results he wanted. Today seasoned collectors want the earliest rendition of an image."

So-called later prints were created in multiples. The majority of prints at Christie's were printed between 1970 and 1975, specifically for the company.

"Most prints are later prints, which is not a problem," Mr. Mann said. "It is often the case, especially with enlargements or mural prints."

The sale at Christie's includes 23 mural-size prints of popular Adams works like "Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite Valley," "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" and "Aspens, Northern New Mexico." In 2006 Pirkle Jones, a former assistant to Adams, consigned a "Moonrise" print from 1948 to Sotheby's; it sold for $609,600, a world auction record for Adams. The estimate was $150,000 to $250,000. (Coincidentally, on April 8 Sotheby's is selling two smaller prints of Adams's "Clearing," both made from a negative from around 1938.)

Ms. Paterson calls the mural print of "Clearing Winter Storm" "the jewel in the crown" in her sale. (The estimate is $250,000 to $350,000.) Measuring 40 by 54 inches, the image captures a storm as the weather begins to change, with the foreground clear of clouds.

Adams wrote about it in 1983 in his book "Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs": "It is a fairly strong negative and looks like one that would be easy to print. It is not. A certain amount of dodging and burning was required to achieve the tonal balance demanded by my visualization."

Ms. Paterson said the high definition of surface detail in such a large print was what made it remarkable. "There is very little of the fuzziness one might expect," she said. "It's sparkling and has texture." Mr. Mann, who has seen the work, was equivocal. "Mural prints are pretty rare," he said. "Those in good shape tend to do well. I found the 'Clearing' unusually grainy."

Andrew Smith, a dealer in Santa Fe, N.M., who has specialized in Adams prints for 33 years, said the graininess might have been intentional. "Ansel liked a variety of final outcomes," he said. "He could change the range of tones or pick a different exposure. He was a master technician."

The consigner in the Christie's sale is anonymous, but several dealers said it was Fremont General, which moved its offices to Brea, Calif., in February. A spokesman for the company would not comment on the provenance of the images.

Can the market absorb so many Adams prints at one time?

"Almost no museums have Adams collections as broad as this," Mr. Smith said. "This sale has 50 to 60 of the lesser-known images, which are not commonly collected."

Mr. Mann said, "Works by Adams are blue chip, and this collection will have a strong appeal to individual collectors because there is so much of it."

Estimates start at $8,000. The presale view begins April 4 and ends April 8.

Maastricht Fair

The 21st European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, the Netherlands, runs from Friday through March 16. Many of the Americans among the approximately 70,000 annual visitors to the fair come because about 100 of the 227 exhibitors specialize in antiques and decorative arts, more than at any other international fair.

For example, this year George Laue of Munich has 45 German collectors' cabinets made in the 16th and 17th centuries. H. Blairman & Sons of London has a William Burges Gothic Revival cabinet with a portrait of Dante. Philippe Denys of Brussels has an Arne Jacobsen vintage leather Ox chair from Denmark. And the longtime British dealer Peter Finer has a dazzling set of finely embellished and polished steel field armor, dated 1549, from Brunswick, Germany.

"The Brunswick armor etchers of the mid-16th century were artists of the highest order," Mr. Finer said. "Their characteristically rich and busy style involved an unusual mixture of biblical, classical, sporting and heraldic subjects." An inscription on the breastplate, translated, reads: "What God gives, no envy can take away; what God does not give, no effort can gain."

"It's the best set of armor we've ever had," said Mr. Finer, who is asking "in the high six figures" for it.

By Wendy Moonan
For The New York Times

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