Thursday, May 7, 2009

Auction: Photobooks, May 19, 2009 @Christie's London

In the past several years, the photobook market has dramatically changed shape. A sleepy subculture that was once the domain of enthusiasts and bibliophiles has now been transformed into a worldwide market, with much more attention, more auction activity/liquidity, and generally higher prices. This is likely a result of a handful of reference books that made a strong case for the photobook as an art form distinct from photography itself, as well as the wider use of the Internet to match buyers and sellers of scare titles. Auction houses were quick to pick up on this emerging market, and Swann, Bloomsbury, and Christie's are now all battling for market share.

Evidence of this continuing evolution is the Christie's photobook sale coming up in mid May in London. It is a single subject sale of photobooks, not attached as an afterthought to the photography sale, run by the Printed Books & Manuscripts department, not the Photography department. In fact, this sale is scheduled at exactly the same time as the Sotheby's Photographs sale in London, further evidence I think that the Christie's specialists think the buyers of photography and the buyers of photobooks are not necessarily a completely overlapping group of people.

In general, this is a solid looking sale, with a wide variety of material. It has a total of 191 lots on offer, with a total high estimate of £558900. (Catalog cover, at right.)

Here's the breakdown:

Total Low Lots (high estimate £5000 and below): 172
Total Low Estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): £298900

Total Mid Lots (high estimate between £5000 and £25000): 17
Total Mid Estimate: £165000

Total High Lots (high estimate above £25000): 2
Total High Estimate: £95000

One of the things I continue to wonder about is how the publication of certain photo book reference guides has influenced this market. So I went through this catalog and counted the number of books on offer that are mentioned in the handful of the best known guides. Here's what I found, with the title of the book, followed by the number of lots in this sale found there:

The Photobook, Vol. I: 63
The Photobook, Vol. II: 43
101 Books: 38
The Open Book: 58

Given that there is no overlap between volumes I and II of The Photobook series, more than 55% of the lots in this sale are referenced in those two books combined, many of the lots also mentioned in one or both of the other books. To me this is evidence that either this market is very concentrated, or that collectors are somewhat uncertain about how to approach this market and are taking guidance from these expert driven reference volumes.

As we have mentioned before, we are first and foremost photography collectors, with books providing a much needed reference library for our activities. As such, there are plenty of books in this sale that are missing from our shelves that would be welcome. Some of them would include:

Lot 8, Karl Blossfeldt, La Plante
Lot 14, Emile Otto Hoppe, Deutsche Arbeit
Lot 59, Yoshikazu Suzuki and Shohachi Kimura, Ginza Kaiwai
Lot 81, William Klein, Tokyo
Lot 87, Shomei Tomatsu, 11:02 Nagasaki
Lot 90, Ed Ruscha, Thirtyfour Parking Lots
Lot 111, Ed Ruscha, Dutch Details
Lot 125, Shoji Ueda, Sketch Album
Lot 150, Paul Graham, A1. The Great North Road
Lot 179, Ryuji Miyamoto, Kobe 1995. After the Earthquake

If you think these books cost an arm and a leg, a review of the sale at 5B4 (here) is worth a look.

One other final question for the audience: I have recently been asked several times what the total size of the photo book market is. I have no idea. If anyone can provide an answer with some decent logic or facts behind it, please put it in the comments.

The complete lot by lot "ecatalog" can be found here.

May 19th

85 Old Brompton Road
London SW7 3LD

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