This news broke today in stories in the New York Times and Bloomberg.com. Here’s a link to the first, “From That Instant Thrill, Enduring Art, Now for Sale,” by Carol Vogel. And here’s a link to the second, “Controversial Auction Sells Warhols From Polaroid’s Collection,” by Lindsay Pollock. Both stories carry February 11, 2010 datelines. (There’s also a solid piece with the same dateline, “Sotheby sells prestigious Polaroid collection,” at Photography News, an online publication. Produced by an anonymous writer, it doesn’t address the whys and wherefores of the auction, but provides useful details about the origins and development of the collection.)
Vogel’s story doesn’t mention the protests I’ve detailed since June 2009 in posts here at Photocritic International. However, she does quote Chuck Close as follows: “[The Polaroid Collection is] an amazing body of work. There’s really nothing like it in the history of photography. . . . [T]o sell it is criminal.” Vogel then adds, “While [Close] and other artists would have liked the collection kept intact in a museum’s holdings, John R. Stoebner, the court-appointed trustee for Polaroid, said he had talks with several museums, including the Fogg Museum at Harvard University, but was never able to reach a deal.”
Vogel gets one substantial fact dead wrong when she writes, “To pay off creditors, a bankruptcy court in Minnesota is forcing Polaroid to sell a portion of its collection at Sotheby’s in New York on June 21 and 22.” The Minnesota Bankruptcy Court is definitely not “forcing Polaroid to sell a portion of its collection at Sotheby’s.” The Minnesota Bankruptcy Court has merely endorsed the debtors’ fervent plea to allow this sale to go forward; it didn’t require it of them. In short, the current holders of the collection initiated this sale, not the court; the fact that this will happen under a ruling known generically as a court order should not get interpreted as the court requiring reluctant parties to conduct a fire sale. In this case, the sellers can’t wait to get rid of the stuff, in which they have no interest outside of its cash value.
It’s also important to point out that the entity selling off the collection is neither the original Polaroid Corporation nor the company now marketing products under the Polaroid brand name. It’s PBE Corporation, formerly known as Polaroid Corporation, a segment of the husk of Petters Group Worldwide, which got dismantled as a result of the collapse of a Ponzi scheme that operated under the name Petters International. (Petters has now been tried and convicted for that crime.) I know this gets arcane, but as journalists we need to exercise great precision in using the name Polaroid to identify a legal entity at this juncture, given that it applies to two now-defunct corporations and can also get construed as referring to the current holders of that brand name. In point of fact, no extant legal entity now goes by the name Polaroid Corporation.
“For six days before the auction Sotheby’s plans to put the images on public view in an exhibition expected to take up its entire York Avenue headquarters,” Vogel continues. “This is likely to be the first and last time the cream of Polaroid’s collection will be seen together.” She also points out that “What Sotheby’s is selling is just a fraction of Polaroid’s holdings however. There are still more than 10,000 images in a Massachusetts warehouse that could end up in a museum in the future, Mr. Stoebner said. There are also photographs from the collection on loan to the Musée de L’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland.”
This last sentence leaves ambiguous the status of the works deposited at the Lausanne institution, and does nothing to clarify the issue of the mysterious and substantial inventory discrepancy between the 24,000 works claimed for the collection by Polaroid for decades and the current official total of slightly less than 16,000 pieces. The Musée de l’Elysée holds roughly 4600 prints, deposited there on permanent loan, as I understand it, after the original Polaroid Corporation dismantled its European Collection. If these prints have been counted as part of the collection’s current inventory, then 8000 have still gone missing; if they’re separate from that count then only 3400 have strayed.
That John R. Stoebner, the court-appointed trustee for PBE Corporation, “said he had talks with several museums” that didn’t pan out doesn’t sound to me as if the collection is in the hands of someone who has any deep interest in its survival. At the same time, it’s heartening (yes, I grasp at straws) to hear that trustee Stroebner still thinks it possible to deposit the bulk of the collection in a responsible and appopriate institution. Even with the cream skimmed off for the Sotheby’s extravaganza, that would mean the bulk of the collection would find a safe haven and a permanent home. We can but hope.
Lindsay Pollock’s piece for Bloomberg.com starts out by terming the sale “controversial” in the first paragraph, as reflected in the story’s title. Toward the end of the piece, Pollock offers the following: “Some photo historians and photographers oppose the sale. ‘The collection is going to be dispersed, which is against promises made to the photographers,’ said photography critic and historian A. D. Coleman, who says photographers were told the collection would remain together for public viewing and study. Coleman said the artists were promised access to the images for copyright enforcement and subsidiary right licensing — all of which would be difficult if the prints are sold to anonymous buyers. ‘These were never sales, they were exchanges,’ said Coleman. ‘This was permanent custodianship for Polaroid, with visitation rights for the photographers.'”
Pollock concludes with a lament from photographer and filmmaker Neal Slavin, who has 76 pieces in the Polaroid collection, including 60 images from his book Britons: “What a disservice to a piece of history.”
These two reports, appearing on the same day in two major publications, signal a new level of journalistic attention to the sale, and (in the case of Pollock’s piece) to the dispute attending it. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, if the sale does go through as planned and on schedule, it will take place well after the spring art-market season has come and gone and the art and photo worlds have closed up shop for the summer — not to mention in the midst of a deep global recession that has hit the art market hard and the photo market especially hard, with no immediate improvement on the event horizon.
Realistically, then, the timing couldn’t be worse, even if thereby Sotheby’s fulfills to the letter its agreement with the court (which included a sale by that date). Whatever my position on the auction itself, I have no desire to see this work do poorly if it does go on the block. That would damage the subsequent market for the specific photographers whose works Sotheby’s has chosen, and could damage the market for photography.
Speaking of which, the possibility of filing a Motion for Rehearing of the August 27 Minnesota Bankruptcy Court decision approving the auctioning off the Polaroid Collection remains under consideration by interested parties with standing in this case. I’ll report on this as soon as a decision gets made, one way or another.
Back in August — in an article for the Art Market Monitor titled “Polaroid Wants to Go to Auction” and subtitled “No One Offered Privately on the Polaroid Collection. Why?” — Marion Maneker asked, rhetorically, “Does the photography market lack deep pockets willing to buy a big collection?” And he answered his own question thus: “[N]o one had the money or wanted to take the [financial] risk in buying so many photographs.”
What I proposed last fall as the foolishness of that claim has now received verification from that supposed “photography market lack[ing] deep pockets.” MSD Capital LP, the investment firm headed by Michael Dell, has just acquired some 185,000 vintage photographic prints from the Magnum Photos agency. (Basically, this represents Magnum’s file of press prints.) The sale price remains undisclosed, but, according to knowledgeable sources, the collection has been insured for over $100 million. It has moved from New York City to Austin, TX, where it will reside for the next five years at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas, Austin. Click here for Lindsay Pollock’s coverage at Bloomberg. com.
So much for the shallow pockets of the photography market. The auction sector may be skittish, but that’s only one component of the market. As I wrote in November, “the current meltdown notwithstanding, there’s more than enough money afloat in the art world to make acquisition of the plum Polaroid Collection by some truly interested party easily affordable at its estimated auction value of $8-12 million USD.” Photocritic International eagerly awaits an explanation from Maneker and Art Market Monitor of how in August ’09 the photography market couldn’t afford $8-12 million for 16,000 works of photographic art — at the very moment Magnum was successfully negotiating with MSD Capital for the purchase of 185,000 press prints for $100 million or so.
The obvious explanation: There’s something about the Polaroid Collection that impedes its outright sale as such, and it’s not the price. That’s been my contention all along, and the supporting evidence continues to accumulate.
Those of us immersed in the trials and tribulations of the imperiled Polaroid Collection deserve some comic relief. But who would have expected it to come in this form? Lady Gaga has been named Creative Director for a “specialty line” of Polaroid Imaging products by the latest incarnation of the brand. According to the January 4, 2010 press release, “The partnership brings together one of the world’s most iconic brands with today’s fastest rising musical artist and cultural trend setter, known for her string of smash global hits including Paparazzi, Bad Romance and Poker Face, her fashion forward design aesthetic and her exceptionally close connection with her fans.” I for one can’t wait.
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