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Polaroid Collection: Update 17

Chuck Close, "9-Part Self Portrait"

Continuing her detailed coverage of the crisis of the Polaroid Collection, Charlotte Burns in the April issue of The Art Newspaper reports that a considerable number of artists and photographers with work in the collection stand ready to participate in a legal effort to intervene in its imminent dismantling. In her article titled “Polaroid row hots up,” she specifically identifies Chuck Close as having committed himself to fighting the planned June 21-22 auction of the cream of the collection at Sotheby’s in New York. (The article is subtitled “Artists join campaign to stop sale.”)

The auction includes three works by Close, all self-portraits: two single 20×24 pieces, and one composed of nine 20×24 images. Sotheby’s has specifically emphasized Close’s works in its publicity for the auction, in its February 11, 2010 press release on the planned sale and at the special section of the Sotheby’s website dedicated to this event.

Quoting the New York-based Close as asserting that his opposition to the sale is “absolute,” Burns adds, “‘These were not Polaroid’s works to sell,’ said Close. ‘I gave my best work to the collection because it was made clear that it was going to stay together and be given to a museum.'” Burns goes on to state that Close “is one of 56 artists willing to be plaintiffs in the motion for a rehearing which campaigners hope to file to the same Minnesota bankruptcy court that awarded sales rights to Sotheby’s last year.”

Judge Sam A. Joyner

According to Burns, the legal case against the sale of the bulk of the collection has evolved under the guidance of Sam Joyner, a retired U.S. Magistrate Judge based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (For a brief biographical note on Judge Joyner, click here.) Joyner told Burns that, in addition to Close, the list of prospective plaintiffs to date includes four others with work in the auction, representing a total of 203 of the 1260 pieces slated for the June sale.

Burns’s story continues, “‘According to the photographers, some of the works were placed in the collection with promises of no commercial use, and perpetual access to the image by the photographers,’ said Joyner. He believes ownership is dependent on the language used by Polaroid in their original agreements with the artists. ‘We would like the court to [balance] what we were promised against the rights of the people who lost money when Polaroid went bust,’ said Close.”

For a more elaborate but preliminary opinion on the case by Judge Joyner, published here last September, see this Guest Post. Note: Joyner’s interest in the case is not just legal; he’s also an accomplished photographer himself, represented by the M. A. Doran Gallery of Tulsa. (Joyner can be reached for further comment by email: samjoyner [at] mac [dot] com.)

Andy Warhol, Farrah Fawcett, unique Polacolor Type 108 print

Margaret Mathews-Berenson of Art Today, meanwhile, has announced a guided pre-auction tour of Sotheby’s selections from the collection, billed as a “a special tour with experts from the Photography Department of Sotheby’s” and scheduled for June 17, at a price of $50 per head. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the extraordinary photographs in this collection before it is dispersed and, of course, to consider the purchase of a piece with impeccable provenance,” reads the press release. “Our tour will bring you in direct contact with the experts who can answer all your questions about the history of this collection as well as the history and condition of individual pieces.” The announcement concludes, “Although sadly, the collection has become a victim of 20th-century corporate takeover and avarice, this is nonetheless a wonderful opportunity for you to see some of the best examples of this epic collection and possibly take ownership of a piece of this history by participating in the auction.” Ms. Mathews-Berenson can be reached at 212-535-7050 (office)/917-690-0965 (cell); for email, click here. (Note: On April 15, Ms. Mathews-Berenson informed me that this tour has been cancelled, for reasons she did not feel at liberty to disclose, though she assured me it was not due to lack of interest.)

William Wegman, "Avalanche," unique large-format Polacolor print

A summary by me of the current situation of the Polaroid Collection appears in Agenda: Photography News and Notes from Ag Magazine, the blog of the British quarterly Ag: The international journal of photographic art & practice. It bears an April 12, 2010 dateline. This report — titled (by Agenda/Ag editor Chris Dickie) “Do you have work in the Polaroid Collection?” — is a strictly factual synopsis of the two bankruptcies involving the collection, the pending auction and sale, and the upcoming challenge thereto discussed above.

I’ve received some possible clarification of the relation to the current official inventory (just shy of 16,000 pieces) of the works lent by “old” Polaroid to La Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris (ca. 1500 pieces) and the Musée de L’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland (ca. 4600 pieces).

According to a comment left here by Bernd Oehmen, he was informed by the Maison Européenne de la Photographie that the material deposited with this Parisian institution in the early ’90s got returned to the parent collection in Somerville, MA, sometime in 2004. Meanwhile, the material lent to Lausanne remains there. Per the following story, “Swiss museum puts Polaroids ‘in peril’ on show,” by Alix Rijckaert (AFP), dated March 6, the Musée de L’Elysée has mounted a show drawn from those holdings, and now actively seeks a donor who would purchase this material outright to ensure its permanent location within that museum’s collection.

Seemingly, therefore, the current official inventory does include the material retrieved in ’04 from Paris, but not the material in Lausanne. I’ve had no luck reaching the director of either institution for confirmation; nor have I managed to track down the person or persons who created the inventory list. More to come, I’m sure.

Tom Petters mug shot, October 2008

On another front, Ponzi schemer Tom Petters, convicted on December 2, 2009 of the massive fraud that landed the Polaroid Collection in the soup, got sentenced to 50 years in prison on April 9. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. For the account from the Christian Science Monitor, click here. No news yet on the filing of an appeal.

As I pursue this strange tangle — definitely more a hypertext (or a hairball) than a saga — assorted bits of sometimes related, sometimes random information build up in my files. So, just in case anyone wondered, I am not related to Deanna Coleman, who was Tom Petters’ secretary and then later office manager for PCI, Petters’ Ponzi scheme — the collapse of which brought on the crisis that has befallen the Polaroid Collection. Ms. Coleman blew the whistle on Petters in September 2008, becoming a government informant and making secret incriminating tapes that served as central evidence in his trial.

Though we have no blood relation, I happily welcome Deanna into the Honorary Coleman Clan, which, in addition to me and now Deanna, includes musician Ornette (known to us all as “Uncle O”) and our favorite prodigal son, actor and all-around scamp Gary. We like to think that William Coffin Coleman (known to all as W. C.), who started the lantern company bearing our name that now also produces campstoves, coolers, and a range of other items, watches over us all protectively.

Over dinner on March 11, the eve of the opening of Houston Fotofest International 2010, Linda Benedict-Jones told me that she’s surprised no one from the major media has called her about the crisis of the Polaroid Collection. She’s been expecting the phone to ring, but it hasn’t — which explains why her voice has been oddly silent until now in the current situation.

In December 2008 Benedict-Jones became the first curator of photography in a new department of photography at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. Prior to that, Benedict-Jones had been the executive director of Silver Eye Center for Photography on Pittsburgh’s south side since 1999. But from 1989 to 1993, Benedict-Jones was curator of the Polaroid Collection, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and from 1984 to 1989 she served as director of the Clarence Kennedy Gallery, Polaroid Corporation, also in Cambridge. (The Kennedy Gallery was an earlier incarnation of the Collection.)

Polaroid 20x24 studio

Polaroid 20x24 studio

In 2006, while still in her role as executive director of Silver Eye Center for Photography, Benedict-Jones brought in a William Wegman Polaroid show, and, in a September 21, 2006 interview with Kurt Shaw of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, she reminisced about the barter program under which those images got made:

“When we invited people to use the camera it was a wonderful win-win situation,” Shaw quotes Benedict-Jones. “The photographer would get to use the camera for a day, which would cost the corporation $5,000. The photographer could make 30 exposures through the course of the day. If they want to make any additional exposures, it was $500 per exposure. But at the end of the day, Polaroid would get to keep one of the prints for the collection and the photographer gets to take the other 29 prints with them. So, we built the Polaroid collection like that.”

She adds, in regard to the 20×24 camera and its output, “There is no negative, there is no other print, this is it. These are all in an edition of one, because the negative is a disposable negative. It’s not a usable negative.”

This marks the first time I’ve ever heard the 29-to-1 ratio in the Polaroid Collection’s exchange program. Can anyone out there corroborate or contradict that? The number I’ve heard more frequently for the 20×24 studio is one out of every five as Polaroid’s share.

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

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7 comments to Polaroid Collection: Update 17

  • Actually the ratio was 4:1, a photographer would shoot 32 exposures and Polaroid would pick 4. The daily cost was well below $5000 per day to Polaroid and film exposures probably retailed at $50.00 each during that period. (film prices increased with time, ending at $75.00 in 2008). For someone like Chuck, making multi-panel pieces that were generally far more valuable than most pieces, we made one for him and one for Polaroid, and the exposure limit was generally waived.

  • I correct my statement above, that would be a 8:1 ratio. Sorry for the error. I generally do not write so early in the morning.

  • Ok, if you do the math, the artist keeps 28, Polaroid 4, so that is 7:1.
    It should be understood that within those 28 were tests to get to final prints. If there was a technical flaw in the film, it would not be counted.

  • hi allan. you really are amazing keeping all the threads of the polaroid story. I always learn something of the subtlety of the rights of the photographers when i read yr post.

    When i worked w/ barbara hitchcock she ALWAYS took two out of ten of my images and she always took the BEST and no matter how i begged her, she just did it!!

    My work is in the B group [not in the auction, but in the remainder of the collection – ADC] and i am praying i can buy back my portraits of Allen Ginsberg. I cant believe that people cdnt have found an angel buyer the way magnum was able to find someone to buy its archive.

  • Rick Hock

    As an artist whose work is included in the Polaroid Collection and who very much agrees with you and Chuck Close, how, where, and with whom do I register my concern? What legal avenues are there? Is anyone considering class action? If you can point me in the right direction I’d appreciate it. And thank you for championing opposition to this obvious scam.

    • Rick — per stories in The Art Newspaper synopsized in my last several posts (click here and here), a group of some 56 photographers with work in the Polaroid Collection, 6 of whom have work in the Sotheby’s auction, plan to file a Motion for Rehearing shortly in the Minneapolis Bankruptcy Court. Presumably they will also file in New York for an injunction preventing the auction itself. This would not constitute what you refer to as a “class-action” suit, as I understand it, but simply a legal move by the photographers who have signed on as plaintiffs.

      According to the Minneapolis Court, as made clear in the August 27, 2009 hearing, to have “standing” — that is, to be entitled to participate in this motion — you need to have work in the auction and/or in the collection, as indicated in Schedules A and B of the court document to which I’ve linked here. Schedule B certifies that you have 8 works in the collection, which gives you standing.

      Anyone with standing can sign on as a plaintiff, according to Sam Joyner, a retired U.S. Magistrate Judge based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who has elected to spearhead the legal team that will file this motion and develop the case to support it. Joyner has indicated that he can be reached by email: samjoyner [at] mac [dot] com.

  • AD –
    re Linda Benedict-Jones –
    I beg to differ on her point about the negative. I kept a number of my negative sheets. They are quite interesting. I showed them at Freidus Gallery in New York and else where. Like all beauty it’s in the eye of the beholder.

    The agreement about the numbers is what I recall as well.

    Keep up the good work. If I could find any paper work I’d join in as well.

    Robert Fichter
    Curator of All Previous Art Forms.
    Life without images? How Taliban

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