All the Things We Can Learn About Ansel Adams from Sotheby’s Auction Web Site (with Audio)

All the Things We Can Learn About Ansel Adams from Sotheby’s Auction Web Site (with Audio)

In this Episode of the Fine Art Photography Podcast, the Wealth of Information to be Found on Auction Websites

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Full episode transcript:

In this episode, diving into the wealth of information on Sotheby’s auction page set up for the recent Ansel Adams auction


Hey everybody Keith Dotson here, and welcome back to another episode of the Fine Art Photography Podcast. In December 2020, I talked about a previous auction of Ansel Adams photographs from the collection of Texas oil tycoon David Arrington.

Well, believe it or not, there was another huge auction this week — February of 2022 — again from Arrington’s collection. The highlight of the sale was an print of Moonrise Hernandez, New Mexico, shot in 1941.

Now this is an iconic photograph — even Adams was surprised how popular it became over the years. But the printing also transformed over the years. Early prints feature more gray and less blacks in the evening sky — that means there’s more cloud detail and more mid-grays than the dark skies of the later prints.

In this episode, I will talk some about the auction, but mostly I want to talk about the wealth of information you can learn from visiting the auction page. Sotheby’s in particular, provides a huge amount of information online that is fascinating to photography nerds like me — even people who have no financial  capacity to participate in an auction for major prints, can still find value in visiting the auction page. 

But let’s talk about the numbers real quick. I was surprised to see what the photographs sold for. In the previous auction, Adams set an all-time high auction price for his work. This time, many of the prints went for a surprisingly low price.

The big winners on the day were Moonrise, which sold for $100,800, and Adams’ famous photo of the Snake River in the Tetons — which actually set that previous auction high at $988,000 — this time a print of that sold for $201,600. I haven’t dug into the details to see what the differences might have been — is this a smaller print or whatever — but that’s a big difference in price for the same photograph.

A large sepia-toned print of “Whaler’s Cove, Carmel Mission, California” printed in 1955 sold for $119,700. This is a 120-inch print, but as was explained in a Sotheby’s reel on Instagram, and is also described on the auction page, these very large prints are actually several smaller prints mounted in pieces to look like a seamless single print. There is some touchup work along the seams to help hide them.

A small print of ‘Canyon De Chelly National Monument, Arizona’ — and by small I mean 7½ by 9½ in. (19.1 by 24.1 cm.) — that sold for $107,100.

However there are quite a few prints that sold in the $11,000 to #22,000 range, and believe it or not, a handful of prints actually sold for under ten grand.

A lot of two framed prints of Adams gravestone photos shot in Concord Massachusetts sold as a set for $4,032. That was below the estimate of $5 to $7,000.

While I’m talking about these, let me read to you some information from the website to give you an idea of the rich details you can learn. Here, I’ll read the description, then the condition report — where a lot of fascinating behind-the-scenes stuff can be gleaned.

OK here’s the description quoted verbatim from the Sotheby’s page:

“Selected Images (Gravestone Details, Concord, Massachusetts)

2 gelatin silver prints, comprising Untitled (Gravestone Detail with Bird) and ‘Detail, Gravestone, Concord, Mass.’, each mounted, signed in ink on the mount, the photographer’s Carmel studio stamp (BMFA 5) on the reverse, framed, circa 1960, probably printed before 1965; the latter accompanied by a certificate of provenance, signed by Michael and Jeanne Adams (3)

images: the larger 9⅞ by 7¾ in. (25.1 by 19.7 cm.)

Frames: the larger 22¾ by 18⅞ in. (57.8 by 47.9 cm.)” — End quote.

Keep in mind that this text is accompanied by images to help potential buyers understand exactly what they are acquiring.

OK now I’ll read the condition report, again quoted verbatim:

“Condition Report

Please note the colors and shades in the online catalogue illustration may vary depending on screen settings.

These prints are in generally excellent condition. A few scattered deposits of original retouching are visible when examined in raking light. The mounts are faintly soiled and there is minor edge and corner wear.  

‘Untitled (Tombstone Detail)’ (Bird):

The reverse of the mount could not be fully examined because it has been flush-mounted to another board. BMFA stamp 5 is visible through a window cut out of the secondary mount. ‘AA/2085’ and ‘aa 333’ are written in pencil in an unidentified hand.

Karen Haas and Rebecca Senf’s book, ‘Ansel Adams in the Lane Collection,’ publishes the most comprehensive list to date of the studio stamps and labels Adams used throughout his career. Our dating of this print is based upon the authors’ assessment of the use dates of stamp 5: about 1962 through 1963.

‘Detail, Gravestone, Concord, Mass.’ (Face):

The mount is somewhat brighter in a hazy band around the periphery of the image. An overmat is affixed to the upper edge of the mount with a strip of adhesive.

On the reverse is minor soiling. In addition to the photographer’s Carmel studio stamp, stamp BMFA 6 is titled and dated in ink. There is a Michael and Jeanne Adams collection stamp. ‘AA/1640’ and ‘A-34’ are written in an unidentified hand in pencil. The frame measures 20 3/4 by 16 ⅞ in.

Karen Haas and Rebecca Senf’s book, Ansel Adams in the Lane Collection,‘ publishes the most comprehensive list to date of the studio stamps and labels Adams used throughout his career. Our dating of this print is based upon the authors’ assessment of the use dates of stamps 5 and 6: about 1962 to 1963.” — End quote.

That’s followed by a long paragraph of legal language basically saying they are sold as is.

Finally — we get the provenance, which is the chain of custody of the artwork, describing where it has been shown, what collections or previous owners have possessed it, etc. This helps create value for the artwork by proving that it’s important, but also serves to prove its authenticity.

The provenance on these two pieces is pretty basic. It says:

“Detail, Gravestone, Concord, Mass.
Collection of Virginia Best Adams
By descent to Michael and Jeanne Adams, 1980s
Acquired from the above, 2006″ — End quote.

So that gives you an idea of what you can learn about every single photograph in the auction, but on the main overview page, there’s a terrific video about Ansel and the work, and there’s a fascinating slide show that compares various prints of “Moonrise Hernandez, New Mexico” over the years, and includes their auction prices for comparison. In that slide show you can see how the prints look so different over time.

If you scroll down the page, you’ll find an interactive map of Yosemite, which pops up a photograph taken on various locations marked by a red dot.

Below that is a discussion of his very large prints, like the one I talked about earlier. Sotheby’s calls them murals.

Below that is a brief discussion of the various studio stamps that Adams used over the years. The reason that matters is because Adams wasn’t meticulous about keeping records of when he printed what images — but he was meticulous about HOW he printed each one. So, through research and documentation of stamps, experts have learned how to date prints based on the stamps found on the back of the mounts.

An interesting detail from that section: it shows that in this example, Adams mounted the print onto a sheet of Crescent brand Hot Press No. 200 Illustration board. I used that same illustration board in the early days of my graphic design career. It’s a smooth surface art board mostly used by designers and illustrators.

Well, I hope this discussion has helped you understand that if you want to learn very intimate details about the work of the great photographers, auction sites can provide a lot of information that you probably won’t find anywhere else.

As always, you can find a link to the Sotheby’s page in the episode description and on my blog at i catch shadows dot com

That’s all I’ve got for this episode. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you again real soon.

Links and Sources

Sotheby’s. “A Grand Vision: The David H. Arrington Collection of Ansel Adams Photographs.”

Ansel Adams: In the Lane Collection. Karen E. Haas and Rebecca A. Senf. 2006.

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1 comment

  1. Thank you for this! Adams was my inspiration for getting into photography..

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