Monday, October 20, 2008

Question on Berenice Abbott Prices

A reader posted a question about the prices of the work of Berenice Abbott on last week's auction results post and I thought it made sense to answer it here, since the question begs a longer answer than just a quick comment and perhaps there are other readers out there who are interested in this topic or can add their own information to the thread.

Trying to get a feel for prices is always a tricky thing, as there is always meaningful variation in not only subject matter, but also size, print quality, and condition. We very much like Abbott's work and have a handful of her prints in our collection (see here). So we have spent some time trying to better understand the market for her work, and as such, have at least some opinions on the matter.

I think the first thing to take into account in trying to get a handle on Abbott prices is the wide variety of subjects she made pictures of, and the resulting variation in interest of specific images. Beyond the well known images of New York, she made some great portraits, some ground breaking scientific photographs, and many strong images from all across America. Within her New York genre, there are standout iconic images and quiet, simple, more documentary shots that are less remarkable, so depending on your interest, the prices are going to vary dramatically with subject matter.

A second thing to keep in mind is that Abbott made a large number of later prints of her best images in the 1970s and 1980s. These were made in editions/portfolios of 40, 60 and even 100, and generally have her Maine credit stamp on the back. A number of these later prints are nearly always available in the auction market in any given season, and would generally be priced under $5000, except perhaps for New York at Night and one or two others. Later prints of lesser known images can run as little as $1000-2000, and can be even be found on Ebay from time to time.

In our experience, vintage work is much harder to come by, and there are many more condition issues to consider. In general, at auction, we think that you will do well to find a strong Abbott vintage print for under $10000, with the famous images being priced up from there, all the way up to the $50000 range. There are, of course, lesser known New York works and works of other subject matter that will be much less, so it is hard to make a generalization about these prices. As an example, there was a vintage Murray Hill Hotel in the recent Christie's various owner sale. It was estimated $7000-9000 and sold for $7500, and it had a significant tear visible in the upper part of the image (which had been repaired but was still obvious); I imagine it would have gone higher had it been in better condition. Another tool to use as a gauge for prices is the 2002 sale at Sotheby's of Abbott vintage prints from the Museum of the City of New York. Most images in this sale went for under $10000, a few as low as $2000, and a few over $50000.

A few other Abbott resources to consider:
  • The Abbott estate is owned/managed by Commerce Graphics (website here) and can clearly be of assistance in searching for specific images.
  • There are 27 different dealers/galleries on artnet (here) that claim to have Abbott material available.
  • A great resource for prices in general is the series of annual volumes called The Photographic Art Market: Auction Prices (website here). We just got the 2007 volume a week or so ago and it's full of good data.
  • There is a terrific documentary film on Abbott called Berenice Abbott - A View of the 20th Century, published by Ishtar Films, 1992, that is well worth seeing.
  • There is a new 2 volume Abbott monograph that was recently released (we don't have it yet). You can find it on Amazon here.
It always seems a bit crass to talk so glibly about prices of a certain artist's work, when the focus should really be on the quality of the work and how it moves you. That said, collectors have to make trade offs and prices do matter in these decisions, so I think it is a natural part of collecting to get down into these details and try to puzzle through them. We certainly would welcome further comments on this topic, so we can all be more educated about Abbott's work and its value in the market. And if there is anything above that seems patently wrong or way off base (certainly possible), please do let everyone know.

As an aside, we're happy to go off on tangents like this one and answer questions/moderate discussions (to the best of our ability) on various subjects of interest to collectors, so feel free to leave them in the comments section.

1 comment:

Payne said...

Thank you very much for your indications. They are of great help. There is a photography l of Abbott that I like specially. It is an armory with the advertisement of a pistol in the front. I see her often in the auctions.

Thank you again.

Best regards