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Polaroid Collection: Update 19

Last week, Sotheby’s issued the catalogue of the pending June 21-22 auction of works from the Polaroid Collection. I’ve yet to see a copy, but I’m told it’s a substantial, indeed hefty, publication ― which is only to be expected, given that auction house’s usual scholarly thoroughness in preparing such documentation for its sales.

I advise purchasing a copy, as it becomes automatically a significant contribution to the literature describing this collection. I’ve put in my own order, and will report on it once it arrives.

Sight unseen, it occurs to me that Sotheby’s detailed account of each of the 1260 images its representatives selected from the 16,000 works in the collection constitutes a database of information about those works — and most probably exists in database form. I also assume that the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland, which has housed some 4600 works from the collection since the early 1990s, catalogued their Polaroid holdings in some database format.

The Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris had a deposit of 1500 works from the collection from circa 1990 through 2004, presumably also catalogued in a database. And while the original Polaroid Corporation and the various successive possessors of the Collection never did a thorough cataloguing thereof, there has been at least some partial cataloguing generated over the decades.

In short, it seems likely that approximately half the total collection, if not more, has been documented and catalogued in several scattered databases. Fortunately, this includes everything scheduled for the auction later this month, and thus subject to imminent dispersal.

I propose that the creation of a virtual version of the Polaroid Collection, in the form of a comprehensive annotated database of its contents placed online, should become a priority as we move inexorably toward some disposition of the collection that will certainly include sales of individual pieces (the auction), as well as sales or donations of chunks of the remainder to one or more institutions. This should start with the gathering together of existing databases and other annotated records cataloguing portions of the collection or its entirety.

From the standpoint of the collection’s significance to the history of photography and our understanding of visual culture in the second half of the twentieth century, the production and availability of such a resource would go along way to making up for the dispersal of its analog contents. The existence of such a database would at least make scholarly and critical reference to the collection’s contents possible, regardless of how the actual works get distributed.

Today (June 1) I was interviewed at my home by Anne Kathrin Thüringer, a cultural journalist with the German television station NDR Fernsehen, toward a forthcoming feature on the Polaroid Collection. At the end of the session, Anne Kathrin made several SX-70s of me on my terrace, so that they could make a video of the image of me emerging in one of them. They’ve done this with each of their interview subjects for this piece.

It’s been so long since anyone’s done that (or since I’ve done it) that I’d forgotten the pleasure of working with this technology, watching that image come up before your eyes. Still magic. For this Anne Kathrin used “original” SX-70 film that she’d acquired from someone’s dwindling supply, and left me with several variant portraits that they didn’t video. Probably the last SX-70s that’ll get made of me on that vintage material.

I have posted some newly received documents on the page of this blog where I gather such information. These include a Minnesota Bankruptcy Court order signed by Judge Gregory Kishel, approving the Trustee’s employment as of September 1, 2009 of Barbara Hitchcock to assist with the disposition of the collection. This means that, as of that date if not before, the Trustee had access to someone with two decades’ direct knowledge of the contractual terms on which the collection was constructed.

Innovation/Imagination, traveling exhibition catalogue (Abrams, 1999)

In the process of updating this page, I re-read segments of the 2001-02 bankruptcy proceedings in which “Old Polaroid” got dismantled. While doing so, I discovered that while the Polaroid Corporation provided the court with no inventory or estimate of value for the collection, it did break it down to broad groupings, as follows (see Schedule B):

  • Library Collection: “Approximately 224 objects (primarily photographic prints).” (Note: These are the classic non-Polaroid gelatin-silver works by Strand, Lange, Bourke-White, Weston, et al.)
  • Ansel Adams Collection: “Approximately 400 objects (primarily photographic prints).”
  • Paul Caponigro Collection: “Approximately 525 objects (primarily photographic prints).”
  • Ansel Adams Traveling Exhibition: “Approximately 84 objects (primarily photographic prints).”
  • Innovation/Imagination Traveling Exhibition: “Approximately 82 objects (primarily photographic prints).”
  • American Perspectives Traveling Exhibition: “Approximately 160 objects (primarily photographic prints).”
  • Musee de l’Elysee Collection: “Approximately 7000 objects (primarily photographic prints).”
  • Maison Europeenne de la Photographie Collection: “Approximately 1500 objects (primarily photographic prints).”
  • Polaroid Collection: “Approximately 14,250 objects (primarily photographic prints).”

This yields a total of 23,225 works ― hence, presumably the figure 24,000 earlier in this document, the usual number given out by Polaroid in the ’90s. The accuracy of those estimates remains in question, of course, but it also remains difficult to reconcile this breakdown with the subsequent total of 16,000 works submitted to the Minnesota Bankruptcy Court in 2009.

In a March 17, 2010 article I’ve just discovered online, “Photographers Raise Concern Over Polaroids on Sotheby’s Auction Block,” Jessica Lum of PetaPixel summarizes the objections by such figures as Chuck Close to the forthcoming auction of selections from the Polaroid Collection. Lum quotes briefly from me, citing comments of mine that appeared in the March 11 issue of the British Journal of Photography (previously discussed in this space), in which I provided some background on the issues of copyright and subsidiary-rights licensing as they pertain to the imminent dismantling of the collection.

Retrieved this intriguing bit of info from a recently discovered news brief that appeared on August 14, 2009, in the online source Artinfo: In regard to the upcoming June 21-22 sale and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court’s authorization thereof, “under the deal’s terms Sotheby’s will take 10 percent on private sales but no commission from the auction.” First I’d heard of this, and haven’t yet had a chance to verify it. Given that the anonymous article is titled “Polaroid Asks Sotheby’s to Auction Off Famed Photo Collection,” I question the story’s accuracy, since the auction was sought by the court-appointed Trustee for the creditors of Petters Group Worldwide, not by “Polaroid.” Perhaps someone will check this out and report to me.

A lengthy story by Simon Bradley for, “Polaroid collection faces auction split,” dated March 20, 2010, considers the pending auction from the perspective of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, where roughly 25 percent of the Polaroid Collection has been housed since the early 1990s. On March 6 the Musée opened a show displaying a cross-section of its Polaroid holdings, which will close on June 6.

William Ewing, recently retired from from the directorship of the Musée, still held the helm in March. He curated that show as one of his last efforts at this notable photo museum, and apparently still held out hope for some solution that would allow that institution to retain the 4500 Polaroid prints that remain on deposit there.

Bradley writes, “The trustee [John R. Stoebner] appointed by the [bankruptcy] court to oversee the dissolution of Polaroid is also a ‘very sympathetic fellow,’ said Ewing. ‘He is very happy if the collection stays here, saying the ball is in our court, so if we can figure out how to get the money it’s easier for everyone if it stays here.'” He cites Ewing as discussing The Impossible Project ― the enterprise that has re-started the production of SX-70 film — as a potential donor , one which had already made a bid for the collection on behalf of the Musée.

New York mortuary technician Kaihl Brassfield with friend.

To add, again, some variety to these otherwise solemn (or at least serious) comments, here’s yet another bit of Polaroid-related weirdness: Earlier this year, mortuary technicians in several New York City morgues were caught making macabre SX-70s of themselves fooling around with assorted cadavers and body parts (“parts is parts”) while on the job. As a result of which, several of them became jobless. The image shown here portrays one Kaihl Brassfield holding a severed head, in imitation of the classic Heisman trophy pose. Click here for Chuck Bennett and Ikimulisa Livingston’s “Mortuary technicians play with corpses,” from the February 15, 2010 issue of the New York Post. They write, “[Brassfield] says everyone working in the Staten Island and Brooklyn morgues, from cops to coroners, participated in the gory games.” Ah, that Polaroid fun — and some of right here on Staten Island, where I

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


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4 comments to Polaroid Collection: Update 19

  • Mike Doukas

    I have to say, you’ve got my attention on this subject. Thanks for covering it. As to your question of verifying the claim made in the Artinfo piece, it is defined in the contractual terms that the debtor filed as:

    It states:
    Sotheby’s will not charge the Debtor any fees or selling commissions for items it sells at auction (an “Auction Sale”). Instead, Sotheby’s will charge the prevailing bidder of an Auction Lot (each, a “Buyer”) a premium (the “Buyer’s Premium”) based on the hammer price for each Auction Lot sold and retain such amount for its account. The Debtor shall have no liability to Sotheby’s for any Buyer’s Premium.
    26. In the event it is determined by the Debtor and Sotheby’s that the value of the Collection can be maximized through a possible private sale by the Debtor of items in the Collection to an institution, whether all or in part (“Institution Sale”), no selling commission of any kind will be due Sotheby’s in connection with such transaction. Any Institution Sale will be subject to approval by this Court after further notice and hearing.
    27. In the event that any item or lot is offered at auction and fails to reach its reserve and is bought-in, Sotheby’s may attempt to sell such item or lot privately for a period of 60 days and any such sale will be for a price that will result in the Debtor receiving not less than the agreed reserve price (a “Post-Auction Private Sale”). The Debtor’s obligations under the Consignment Agreement are the same as if such items had been sold at auction. Because such sales result in the Debtor receiving the agreed reserve price, such sale(s) do not require further Court approval and no further notice will be provided. In other words, items in a Post-Auction Private Sale conducted by Sotheby’s will consist of items offered for sale in one or more auctions conducted by Sotheby’s and are subject to this Motion and the relief requested herein.
    28. In the event that it is determined by the Debtor and Sotheby’s that the value of certain items in the Collection is too low for them to be successfully offered for sale at public auction (i.e. the items in the Collection not consisting of Auction Items) (the “Other Items”), Sotheby’s may conduct private (non-auction) sale or sales. If any of such private sales are conducted by Sotheby’s, other than a Institution Sale as described above, Sotheby’s will be compensated through a ‘selling commission’ equal to 10% of the gross purchase price of the Other Items sold by Sotheby’s (the “Private Sale Commission”). The Debtor will receive an amount equal to the gross purchase price of such Other Items less Sotheby’s selling commission (the “Private Sale Proceeds”). Subject to further mutual agreement on terms and conditions set forth in a separate agreement, Sotheby’s has agreed to act as agent on the Debtor’s behalf with respect to communicating with landlords, vendors and museums relating to the disposition and removal of the Other Items. The Debtors and Sotheby’s agree that any private sales of items not offered for sale at auction will be subject to further order and approval of this Court.

  • Hi,

    I’ve been reading your columns with great interest these past few months. I’m personally affected in the upcoming sale as I have 3 prints in the Polaroid Collection (my wife Helen Rousakis has 2 or 3), and it is heartbreaking that this totally unique body of images will be dismantled. Although I don’t think our photographs will be sold at Sotheby’s, it pains me that such an extraordinary and diverse collection will be broken up. It is a historic process, one that almost any leading artist of the second half of the 20th century put their hands on.

    One thing I just cannot understand, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that to acquire the entire collection, an institution or a collector would have to pay only $12 million. How is it possible that none of the major museums/institutions cannot find a donor who would come up with that money? In today’s art market, this sum seems like a bargain, especially with such a significant amount of images done by many famous artists. I’m asking myself every day, how come none of the museum, especially the ones that have a significant interest in photography would not want this unique and prestigious collection. In the history of photography, this process has been a very important chapter and should be preserved as is. I cannot think of a more significant body of photographs anywhere on this planet.

    I wanted to thank you for keeping up the fight and keeping the issue alive!

    Andreas Rentsch

  • Without in any way diminishing the significance of the collection, there are a number of practical reasons an institutional buyer might not decide to purchase this collection. I went into some of these in an earlier post at my blog. Scroll about halfway down this post, to the italicized segment.

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