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Polaroid Collection: Update 13

George H. Singer, Esq.

As a belated Christmas gift, George H. Singer, Esq., of the Minneapolis law firm Lindqvist & Vennum, legal counsel to John R. Stoebner, the court-appointed Chapter 7 Trustee in the PBE Corporation bankruptcy proceeding, sent me a “Notice and Demand” letter dated December 30, 2009, indicating his unhappiness, and his client’s, with some of the reportage and commentary posted here. I responded, and he replied, and I replied in turn, in a full and frank exchange of views. You’ll find our collected correspondence here.

Looking past the obvious bluster, I can see that Mr. Singer sincerely wants to help me improve the accuracy of my commentary. As a result, I’ve made changes (one minor, one major) to two of my previous posts:

I don’t guarantee that these retractions and revisions will please or satisfy Mr. Singer, but I’ve made a good-faith effort to do so. I look forward to his further editorial suggestions, as I’m always keen to get the facts as precisely right as possible.


Meanwhile, further aspects of the backstory of the sell-off of the Polaroid Collection that were first reported by Photocritic International have begun to find their way into coverage of the situation by more widely distributed media, both print and online. For example, a brief February 11, 2010 story in the blog PDN Pulse“Sotheby’s Polaroid Collection Auction Announced,” posted by PDN staffer Conor Risch — includes the following:

“The actual number of items in the Polaroid Collection has also come under scrutiny by photography writer A. D. Coleman, who has pointed out that the collection was once estimated to contain more than 24,000 pieces.” The passage contains a link to the first of the two-part series from December 2009 in which I explored at length the still-unexplained evaporation of one-third of the collection.

It’s good to see this information circulate more broadly. Perhaps that will spark investigation of some of these leads by periodicals with more resources than I have at my disposal to pursue them.


The story on this latest development also appeared — without the byline of its author, Lindsay Pollock — in ARTinvestment.RU, a website published by the Central House of Artists, Moscow. They posted it in both Russian and English. However, the English isn’t the original English; instead, it’s a re-translation from the Russian version back into English, which has created a disorienting Babelfish effect. Pollock might be glad her name isn’t on it.


At the same time, in City Pages, a newsblog from the Twin Cities (where the Petters Ponzi scheme and the Polaroid component thereof have unraveled), Hart Van Denburg has a short post about the auction announcement, “Tom Petters killed Polaroid, making way for massive art auction.” It concludes, “Photo geeks and art critics may be interested in former Village Voice columnist A. D. Coleman’s continuing coverage of the Polaroid fiasco.” Jeez, Louise — I left the Voice almost forty years ago, and I certainly hope the demolition of a major cultural treasure interests people other than “photo geeks and art critics.”


So, factoring in the recent New York Times and articles, the coverage by the mainstream general-audience press has definitely jumped in quality. But where is the art/photo press when we need it?

Let me recap: In April 2009, the Minnesota Bankruptcy Court authorized the sale of all of the Polaroid-related holdings of a shell company except the Polaroid Collection, and supervised an auction thereof. (Counsel for the debtors termed that proceeding “the most extraordinary auction in the history of [bankruptcy statute] 363.” For an account of that auction by Barbara L. Jones, Associate Editor of the Minnesota Lawyerclick here.)

This decision effectively severed that collection from the new iteration of the company that acquired the Polaroid name, IP, and other assets, and is now promulgating the Polaroid brand, thus orphaning the collection. At the same time, Judge Gregory Kishel of the Minnesota Bankruptcy Court ruled that the family could be broken up — empowering the debtors who were left holding the collection to sell it off piecemeal, and selecting Sotheby’s, the noted auction house, to produce an inventory and appraisal as a first step toward its dissolution. In August, Kishel accepted Sotheby’s appraisal, auction terms, and proposed schedule for that event.

Given that this will mean the disappearance of a unique collection of one-of-a-kind photographs, comprising some 16,000 items, the silence on the part of the art and photo world in relation to this eventuality has proved deafening. At a time when notable collections of photographs, including large ones, get acquired intact and respected in their integrity, the lamentable dismantling of an enormous and unique photographic resource has yet to become even a blip on the art/photo world’s screen. This story is now ten months old, and apparently no one in the art/photo press wants to touch it. How come?

Typical of the coverage is “Polaroid’s Last Shot,” by Sheila Gibson Stoodley, at Art & Antiques. In this April 1, 2009 piece, Stoodley spends exactly one paragraph on the status of the collection, devoting most of the article to the discontinuation of production of various Polaroid materials. (It’s a good source on that subject, I should add.)

News usually wicks up instead of trickling down. What starts out as a big story for a narrow sector achieves critical mass and becomes a small story for a wider constituency. The art/photo press seems to have decided collectively to let the Polaroid Collection story work in the other direction. To date, the mainstream press has paid this story much more attention than has the art/photo press; moreover, virtually everything that would qualify as investigative journalism (rather than mere casual commentary) on this subject has come from the mainstream press.

I took the art/photo press to task on that score in a fall 2009 post, using the example of Marion Maneker’s “Polaroid Wants to Go to Auction,” a piece subtitled “No One Offered Privately on the Polaroid Collection. Why?” and published by Art Market Monitor online on August 13th, 2009.

Maneker responded to my challenge in a subsequent post at Art Market Monitor dated November 24, 2009, this one titled “The Polaroid Collection: Why No Buyer?” I appreciate the return of his attention to the subject, but I still think he’s asking the wrong questions — or, to put a finer point on it, not asking the right questions of the right people. Indeed, his problem is that he asks questions only of himself — rhetorical questions, posed to a person not committed to researching his answers. That doesn’t qualify as journalism.

For example, Maneker wonders “why the collection has not found a buyer since the bankruptcy court cleared all title to the works. . . . [W]hy haven’t the Whitney, Getty or Houston museums returned to buy the collection as a whole? . . . Why hasn’t a single collector emerged to pay the ‘reasonable’ price for the collection and donate it to an institution?” Well, let’s see. David A. Ross, former Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, has been on record since August 27, 2009 as to why the Whitney didn’t take the collection when it was offered to them as a gift during his tenure in the ’90s. Maybe he’d elaborate if Maneker picked up the phone and dialed him. The departments of photography at the Getty and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston are listed in the phone book; Maneker could try giving Judith Keller and Anne Tucker each a call.

William of Ockham

I don’t take seriously Maneker’s original answer to his question, which proposed that no one in the world had USD $12 million to spend on a massive, historic collection of mostly one-of-a-kind photographs. (That $12 million is Sotheby’s high-end estimate of what the cream of the collection might bring at auction.) Given the recent, vastly higher-priced purchase of the Magnum press-print archive, we know that Manaker’s answer is simply silly. So, applying once again the principle of Occam’s Razor, which holds that the simplest answer is usually the right one, numerous likelihoods present themselves:

  1. We don’t know that no institution or collector has bid on the collection as a whole since the court authorized its sale. No logic or evidence sustains Maneker’s assumption that this is the case. We know only that, de facto, no bid has yet been accepted. Neither the debtors nor the unsuccessful bidders would feel inclined to publicize a private bid that got rejected.
  1. The Minnesota Bankruptcy Court’s decision to allow the auction to proceed got announced in late August 2009 — a season in which the art and photo and academic communities are essentially on vacation and least likely to be au courant with the latest news. Whether deliberate or coincidental, the timing of that hearing virtually dictated that its outcome would go unnoticed, at least for some period of time, in the communities that have the greatest vested interest in seeing the collection remain intact. Indeed, six months later, people are still hearing about it for the first time, as I can attest from the startled emails I receive here at Photocritic International on a regular basis.
  2. The art and photo press have mostly failed to inform their constituencies that this is even happening. (Obviously, I exempt Maneker and Art Market Monitor from this charge.) Indeed, the only consistent tracking of this story has come from Photocritic International, which has a comparatively small subscriber base. This means it’s perfectly possible that, with the story of the approved forthcoming auction only six months old and widely unreported until earlier this month, and the auction dates announced only last week, potential buyers may have only just learned that the entire collection’s for sale.
  3. The debtors clearly believe that they’ll realize the maximum profit off this collection by vending it piece by piece. Even with the collection now legally free and clear of all encumbrances, according to two bankruptcy courts, they’ve indicated no energetic interest in pursuing sale to a single buyer since last spring. We have no hard evidence that they’re open to such an offer, save for Trustee Stoebner’s assertion that he’s conducted unsuccessful “talks with several museums,” including the Fogg Museum (this from the New York Times story of February 10, 2010). Nor have we any indication of the Trustee’s starting price for negotiations on the collection as a whole, which would let us evaluate whether it was realistic.
  4. In August 2009 the court authorized Sotheby’s to proceed to the auction stage (presently planned for June 21-22, 2010). The court, in its order approving the auction, did not empower Sotheby’s to negotiate the private sale of the collection to a single buyer. Moreover, Sotheby’s has no interest in doing so, as it will receive maximum profits from the auction process. Presumably, any such behind-the-scenes bid for the complete collection would have to get approved by the debtors.
  5. Regardless of the Minnesota Bankruptcy Court’s clearing the collection for sale (and the Delaware Bankruptcy Court doing the same in 2002), some version of droit morale surely applies here; the selling off of the works in the collection will breach hundreds of contracts with hundreds of photographers and artists. It’s quite possible that potential bidders have opted to steer clear due to ethical concerns.

Any of these possibilities seem more likely than the absence of available cash. All of this is speculative on my part, as Maneker notes in his response to my critique. I do what I can here, in my available unpaid time, to track down the principals so I can ask such questions, and locate their existing public statements and other documents to substantiate my analyses. But where are ARTnews, Art in America, Artforum, American Photo, Photo District News, Popular Photography, et al, with their paid staffers, in pursuit of this as it develops?

Do they simply not care what happens to the Polaroid Collection? Would the art mags similarly ignore the dispersal of a famous collection of drawings, etchings, lithographs, or paintings? Does their turning a blind eye to this situation reflect the perpetual second-class-citizen status of photography in the art world? And does the ignoring of this crisis by the photo-specific periodicals symptomatize the photo world’s chronic inability to act in its own enlightened self-interest?

The Polaroid Collection is not only an irreplaceable repository of photography’s own history, and a unique intersection of the art world and the photo world in the second half of the 20th century. Its contents pertain to such other, broader territories as visual culture and material culture. Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?

For an index of links to all posts related to this story, click here.

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5 comments to Polaroid Collection: Update 13

  • I have written about the Polaroid sale (including Sotheby’s comments) on my CultureGrrl blog, here.
    Lee Rosenbaum, CultureGrrl

  • Thanks for the link, CultureGrrl, and the post. I point out, once again, that neither the Delaware Bankruptcy Court in 2002 nor the Minnesota Bankruptcy Court in 2009 actually examined Polaroid’s complex contracts with the hundreds of photographers whose work entered the collection prior to making their respective rulings.

  • What an interesting story about Polaroid. If one only knew what to collect and start early.

  • An interesting article about the Polaroid Collection. I have read several other articles and wonder when it will be settles.

  • Andrea Borja

    Hi, you have a very interesting article. I can understand why some of the auctioned photos from the polaroid could amount to 12 million. You said it yourself, these are history captured in a single shot. The diverse collection of works fetched over their estimated price. But I think it didn’t amount to the price for a lost visual and culture material.

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