Photocritic International Covers the Crisis of the Polaroid Collection
The break-up and sale at auction of the Polaroid Collection has many ramifications, none of them positive. With no pre-planning, in June 2009 this blog became action central in an eleventh-hour effort to save the collection. This effort, which had only limited impact on the dissolution of the collection, concluded on January 25, 2011, with the dispersal of the remaining segments of the collection.
This section of Photocritic International will remain online as a permanent record of the Polaroid Collection’s sad last days. Links to pertinent posts in this blog, which in turn contain links to pertinent documents, news stories, and other related information, can be found here:
- Polaroid Collection: Update 26 (3/25/12). Continuing the denouement of the devolution of the Polaroid Collection to date, with emphasis on Minnesota Bankruptcy Court Trustee John R. Stoebner’s peculiar (because now entirely unnecessary) published insistence that the photographers represented in the collection got duly compensated for their contributions thereto.
- Polaroid Collection: Update 25 (2/28/12). In which I summarize the devolution of the Polaroid Collection to date, synopsizing the dispersal of major chunks thereof, to set the stage for the imminently forthcoming dispersal of the last remaining bits and pieces at Swann Auction Galleries in New York City via both public and private sales.
- Guest Post 8: Bill Ewing on Polaroid at the Musée de l’Elysée (5/8/11). In which Ewing, former director of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland, sets the record straight on the Musée’s two decades of involvement with a portion of the Polaroid Collection.
- Polaroid Collection: Update 24 (4/19/11). In which I dissect the press release from WestLicht Schauplatz für Fotografie crowing over its acquisition of the portion of the Polaroid Collection that used to reside at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland, surgically separating the numerous factoids publicly presented by Westlicht’s director, Peter Coeln, from the actual facts.
- Polaroid Collection: Done Deals (2/2/11). In which I report on the final disposal of the two largest groups of works left over from the auction, and try to suss out what the last remaining batch, the “Sotheby’s Assets,” might include.
- Polaroid Collection: Update 23 (1/26/11). In which I consider the possibility that the ghost of J. P. Morgan took belated revenge on the medium of photography for Steichen’s famous portrait of him by destroying the Polaroid Corporation and the Polaroid Collection, through the agency of JPMorgan Chase & Co. With a review of press coverage of the June 2010 auction.
- Polaroid Collection: They’re Closed (1/20/11). In which I summarize what was known about the bidders and bidding process for the remaining portions of the Polaroid Collection, just hours after the deadline for bidding had passed.
- Polaroid Collection: Urgent Institutional Alert 2 (1/13/11). In which I discuss the likely destination of the 10,000-piece lion’s share: a showroom in 20 Exchange Place, a high-end residential-commercial building in Manhattan’s Wall Street district.
- Polaroid Collection: Urgent Institutional Alert 1 (1/10/11). In which I relay news of the imminent sale of the remaining portions of the collection, and provide documentation and contact information enabling pursuit of any intent to bid on same. With whatever information I could piece together quickly on the two separate bidders for two of the three portions, some of it speculative.
- Guest Post 6(e): Stephen Perloff on the Polaroid Auction (7/24/10). In which Perloff contemplates the post-auction future of the remainder of the Polaroid Collection.
- Guest Post 6(d): Stephen Perloff on the Polaroid Auction (7/22/10). In which Perloff considers issues relating to the condition of some of the murals and color works included in the auction at Sotheby’s, and offers an analysis of the results of the sale.
- Guest Post 6(c): Stephen Perloff on the Polaroid Auction (7/20/10). In which Perloff discusses the controversy surrounding the auction at Sotheby’s, and the attempted intervention therein instigated by A. D. Coleman.
- Guest Post 6(b): Stephen Perloff on the Polaroid Auction (7/19/10). In which Perloff concludes his detailed lot-by-lot coverage of the June 21-22, 2010 auction of selected items from the Polaroid Collection at Sotheby’s in New York.
- Guest Post 6(a): Stephen Perloff on the Polaroid Auction (7/18/10). In which Perloff, editor of The Photo Review and The Photograph Collector, begins his detailed lot-by-lot coverage of the June 21-22, 2010 auction of selected items from the Polaroid Collection at Sotheby’s in New York.
- Polaroid Collection: Update 22 (6/29/10). In which I chat in the auction room with colleagues, including several former curators of the collection, and then spend a few hours watching the first 55 lots get sold on the aftrnoon of June 21.
- Polaroid Collection: Update 21 (6/27/10). In which I summarize my June 21 visit to Sotheby’s to view its selections from the Polaroid Collection in the hours preceding the commencement of the sale thereof. With the official statement by Sotheby’s and Trustee John Stoebner specifying the nine lots withdrawn from the sale due to protests from the photographers.
- Polaroid Collection: Update 20 (6/20/10). In which I contemplate the imminent auction at Sotheby’s of portions of the Polaroid Collection, consider the catalogue thereof, and gather some useful bits and pieces of relevant information from other sites.
- Polaroid Collection: Update 19 (6/1/10)
- Polaroid Collection: Update 18 (5/4/10)
- Polaroid Collection: Update 17 (4/10/10)
- Polaroid Collection: Update 16 (3/12/10)
- Polaroid Collection: Update 15 (3/3/10)
- Polaroid Collection: Update 14 (2/25/10)
- Polaroid Collection: Update 13 (2/20/10)
- Polaroid Collection: Update 12 (2/11/10)
- Polaroid Collection: Update 11 (12/14/09)
- Polaroid Collection: Update 10 (12/09/09)
- Polaroid Collection: Update 9 (11/27/09)
- Polaroid Collection: Update 8 (11/23/09)
- Polaroid Collection: Update 7 (11/20/09)
- Polaroid Collection: Update 6 (11/6/09)
- Polaroid Collection: Update 5 (9/26/09)
- Polaroid Collection: Urgent Photographer Alert #2 (9/15/09)
- Guest Post 5: Federal Judge Sam Joyner on Polaroid (9/15/09). In which a retired Federal judge, also knowledgeable about photography, opines that the photographers with work in the Polaroid Collection were legally short-changed in both bankruptcies of the former Polaroid Corporation.
- Polaroid Collection: Update 4 (9/6/09)
- Polaroid Collection: Update 3 (8/28/09)
- Guest Post 4: George Slade on Polaroid (8/27/09)
- Polaroid Collection: Update 2 (8/26/09)
- Polaroid Collection: Urgent Photographer Alert (8/21/09)
- Polaroid Collection: Update 1 (8/13/09)
- Polaroid Collections: Another Ponzi Fatality? (7/16/09). My first probe of this story, when the fate of the collection first came before the Minnesota Bankruptcy Court. I couldn’t have imagined then how, in Stephen Leacock’s words, this journalistic effort would “ride madly off in all directions.”
The relevant documents I’ve managed to gather are posted here:
- The April 17, 2009 “Revised Notice of Prevailing Bidder” from the Minnesota Bankruptcy Court, authorizing the sale of all Polaroid assets held by Petters International and validating the exclusion of the Polaroid Collection from the list of acquired assets. Attached to it is Schedule 1.2(q), which itemizes the 15,934 works then in the collection.
- The current holders’ motion for permission to sell the collection at auction, and Sotheby’s inventories and estimates of the values of the works.
- Schedule B from that motion, which lists all the photographers with work in the collection (alphabetical by first name, for some reason), and the number of works by each that the collection holds. Use this list to find out if you’re officially in the collection and thus have legal standing in this case. (Note: this list includes approximately 1500 names, which verifies Barbara Hitchcock’s estimate of its scope in a May 2007 interview.
- Schedule I from that motion, which lists all the photographers with work in the auction (alphabetical by last name), and the number of works by each that the planned auction will vend. Use this list to find out if you’re officially in the auction.
- The Minnesota Bankruptcy Court’s decision approving the sale of the collection at auction, from August 27, 2009.
- The Debtors’ response to the August 2010 objections to the auction and sale raised by myself, Bea Nettles, and others.
- My August 21, 2009 letter to the Hon. Gregory F. Kishel, Chief U.S. Bankruptcy Judge, District of Minnesota, warning the court of potential problems in the anticipated approval of the motion to go forward with this sale.
- My August 21, 2009 letter to Denise Bethel of Sotheby’s, warning that auction house of potential problems in the anticipated approval of the motion to go forward with this sale.
- 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 direct access to someone with two decades’ direct knowledge of the contractual terms on which the collection was constructed.
- Communication between myself and 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. This includes Mr. Singer’s “Notice and Demand” letter dated December 30, 2009, threatening me with a lawsuit on behalf of his client, and warning me of another on behalf of Sotheby’s, if I pursue my investigation of and commentary on the dismantling of the collection.
- The December 17, 2001 “Schedule of Assets and Liabilities” filed in the original Polaroid Corporation’s Delaware Bankruptcy proceedings, Exhibits A-B. This includes a brief and vague one-paragraph description of the Polaroid Collection in clause 9, followed by an only slightly more detailed breakdown of the collection (in Schedule B), which mentions only the names of Ansel Adams and Paul Caponigro among those represented in the holdings. These holdings aren’t itemized, merely broken out into 9 categories with their locations indicated. This schedule reiterates the estimate of 24,000 items in the collection.
- The December 17, 2001 “Schedule of Assets and Liabilities” filed in the original Polaroid Corporation’s Delaware Bankruptcy proceedings, Exhibit C.
- The December 17, 2001 “Schedule of Assets and Liabilities” filed in the original Polaroid Corporation’s Delaware Bankruptcy proceedings, Exhibit D.
- Assorted letters of agreement and releases covering works acquired by the Polaroid Collection over the years.
- Additional letters of agreement and releases covering works acquired by the Polaroid Collection, 1972-91.
- Yet more letters of agreement and releases covering works acquired by the Polaroid Collection, 2005-06.
- Fact sheet dated 1/20/86, spelling out the terms of usage for the 20×24 camera in Boston. This indicates that it was housed at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, reiterates the standard exchange terms, and also indicates that some of the images made in Boston were designated for the International Collection, not the U.S. collection.
- Barbara Hitchcock’s 1998 listing of 451 photographers in the Polaroid Collection as published in the final print edition of International Photography: Index to Photographers, Collections, and Exhibitions (GK Hall, 1998).
- Barbara Hitchcock’s 2010 Backgrounder and Fact Sheet about the collection.
- “The Polaroid Collections,” by Jean Caslin. A useful history of the evolution of the collections through 1984, from The Polaroid Newsletter for Photographic Education, Fall 1984.
Comprising somewhere between 16,000 and 24,000 images made with Polaroid cameras and films between 1948 and 2004, the collection constitutes a unique and irreplaceable repository of creative work. Selling it off piecemeal (Sotheby’s is the designated auction house) will end its function as a resource for artists and scholars doing research on Polaroid as a distinctive medium of photography. It will also terminate its function as a source of material for books and exhibitions of work done with these tools and materials.
Beyond that, much of the work in this collection entered the collection not by purchase or donation but via barter and, in some cases, on long-term loan from the artists. Unencumbered title to these works was never formally transferred to the Polaroid Corporation by these picture-makers. Most of the letters of agreement gave photographers the right to borrow their work from the collection for exhibition and reproduction purposes “in perpetuity.” Selling these works to private and institutional collectors not bound to abide by those terms will certainly breach the spirit of contracts made between the Polaroid Corporation and hundreds of artists.
In August 2009 I used this blog as a platform the photography and art communities could utilize, in a last-ditch attempt to persuade the Minnesota court to disapprove the motion to allow sale of the collection to go forward. That attempt failed. For a report by George Slade on the August 27 court decision confirming the permission granted to auction the collection at Sotheby’s sometime in June 2010, click here. As of that date, officially forbidden to pursue the matter further, I abandoned my own efforts at direct intervention in the case before the court.
However, heartened by the analysis of federal judge Sam Joyner, in mid-September 2009 I resumed the campaign to interrupt the progress toward dispersal by auction of this irreplaceable resource. From what Joyner said, this wasn’t automatically a done deal. Please read my advisory of September 15, and lend a hand.
During that brief, intense effort in August, the following individuals wrote to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court of the District of Minnesota, and to Sotheby’s in New York, objecting to the proposed sale. I want to thank them for lending their voices to mine by recognizing them here. if a Motion for Rehearing does get filed, and the opposition to the sale intensifies, it will be because they stood up with me to raise a ruckus.
Photographers and Artists
Erica H. Adams (Boston, MA)
Eileen Cowin (Santa Monica, CA)
Judy Dater (Berkeley, CA)
John Divola (Riverside, CA)
Jeff Dunas (Los Angeles, CA)
Chris Enos (Santa Fe, NM)
Wendy Ewald (Amherst, MA)
Sandi Fellman (New York, NY)
Toto Frima (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
Barbara Jaffe (New York, NY)
Joan Lyons (Rochester, NY)
Mark Power (Silver Spring, MD)
John Sexton (Carmel, CA)
Sharon Smith (New York, NY)
Melanie Walker (Boulder, CO)
Critics, Historians, Curators, Scholars, and Others
A. D. Coleman (Staten Island, NY)