A print of Carol Jerrems‘ iconic 1975 shot, Vale Street, has broken the world record for the highest selling Australian photo in auction, with the hammer falling at $122,000.
A bidding war erupted when Vale Street went for auction at Smith & Singer (formerly Sotheby’s Australia) in Sydney last November, where it smashed its estimations of $30-50K and performed remarkably well against other artworks.
‘In many ways this image is the holy grail of Australian photography of the 20th century. It’s such a famous image, and regardless of who the photographer is, Vale Street just speaks to so many people,’ Geoff Smith, CEO of Smith and Singer, told Inside Imaging. ‘What we found really exciting is that people who came in to the viewings, they were just drawn to this work. It’s quite modest in scale, with beautiful black and white tones.
‘The auction was very exciting. We had people calling out, six or seven telephones booked for it. It was deep, strong bidding. It wasn’t like two people – there were many. It was an emotional moment, because I’ve always loved Carol’s work. ‘
Vale Street is an iconic Australian photograph – a perfect portrait of a young confident woman that epitomises the broader bohemian lifestyle of 1970s Melbourne. Yet few pundits would have predicted it to be the most valuable Australian photo. The National Gallery of Australia’s director, Nick Mitzevich, is, for instance, surprised.
‘She didn’t flourish to the level of someone with a 50 year-long career but what I love about art history is you can go back and re-evaluate things based on their influence today, and Carol Jerrems is one of those figures that influenced a whole generation of photographers that came after her,’ he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
The previous record holder is, to less surprise, Max Dupain’s 1937 classic, Sunbaker, which sold in auction for $105,400 in 2016.
While Jerrems was a masterful photographer, who turned the lens on her world – a now-romanticised counter culture era, numerous other factors in Jerrems’ life and career helped generate an immense value for her work in the secondary art market.
Firstly, she only printed her works in editions of nine, or even less; secondly, her untimely death in 1980, at the young age of 30, put an abrupt end to a short career; and lastly, Jerrems’ prints are rare and barely in commercial circulation, as her mother donated an extensive archive to the National Gallery of Australia in 1983. Seven of nine Vale Street prints are held by public institutes.
Smith believes this was the first time Vale Street was offered for public auction; ‘there were murmurings that one may have been offered 20 or 30 years ago, but no record could be found’. So it was challenging to put an estimate on the work.
‘There is nothing out there to compare, certainly nothing by Carol that provides a benchmark or comparison,’ Smith said. ‘So I thought “okay, Australian photography – where are we?”. There’s Max Dupain’s Sunbaker. They’re not uncommon, they do come up a couple times a year or so. And they generally sell for $30,000 upwards. So I put an estimate of $30,000 at the lower end. But I must say I was really pleased.’
Vale Street was lot one in the auction, the first item to go, and was followed by 78 works including paintings by prestigious artists such as Brett Whiteley, Sidney Nolan, and Howard Arkley. Only 20 other works sold for over $100,000.
When Dupain’s Sunbaker cracked the last record, beating the previous Australian ‘secondary market’ record holder by more than three times, former curator at Art Gallery of NSW, Gael Newton, declared it ‘the most significant marker of the maturity of the appreciation of photographic arts in Australia’.
If that serves as a marker, the Vale Street sale must be a stone pillar solidifying this appreciation of Australian photography in the arts.
Photography a ‘risk’ at auction
Photography has historically been hard to sell on the secondary market, compared with first sales the ‘primary market’. For instance Australian landscape photographer, Peter Lik, claims to have sold a print for record-breaking US$6.5 million. Generally, he sells prints in a limited edition of 995 for $4000 and upwards. Yet on the secondary market his photos fetch much less, in some cases just a few hundred dollars.
There are numerous factors why photography doesn’t perform so well in the secondary market, but the obvious reason is prints are typically printed in editions rather than a one-off work. And they can potentially be printed again in the future.
However, photography is slowly gaining more momentum in this market. Shenae and Jade (2005), a print by Australian contemporary photographer, Petrina Hicks, sold for $26,840 in July 2019 at a Smith & Singer auction, considerably higher than it’s estimation of $10-15K.
There is still some way to go and Smith, a photography aficionado, admits photographic prints are a riskier medium in auction.
‘I’m very attuned to not bringing forward photography that there isn’t a big market for. When it works, such as this Carol Jerrems result, it is fantastic,’ he said. ‘It’s provides a deserved profile – it creates strength and power for the medium. There is also the sense that photography is integrated into all of the visual arts, and it’s not cornered into its own area.’
But: ‘We are very sensitive to presenting Australian photography. We take this responsibility very serious, and in the past we have received criticism for not handling it enough,’ Smith said. ‘The reason we don’t is that we could do more harm than good. If we bring forward work by contemporary photographers with reputations on the primary market, and in auction they achieve a fraction of what they do on the primary market, that will damage the value of their work’.
Continuing with the Peter Lik example, art consultants warned buyers against investing in his prints by highlighting Lik’s poor performance in the secondary market. While collectors may enjoy his photos, there is a perception that art is only worth what the secondary market is willing to pay.
Moving on from Vale Street
Smith & Singer is currently showing Carol Jerrems: Portrait of a Decade. At 26 prints it’s the largest commercial exhibition of Carol Jerrems’ work.
The prints were sourced from an anonymous owner in Hobart, and Smith says the catalogue shows that Vale Street wasn’t just a one-hit wonder. One of Smith’s favourites is Boys, a print of two naked men embracing in bed.
‘When you think when this was taken, in parts of Australia homosexuality was illegal. I could only get married two years ago. It’s a pretty remarkable image. It’s tender, romantic, and this sense of two forms converging into each other.’
– Carol Jerrems: Portrait of a Decade will tour Smith and Singer’s Sydney galleries from 26 March – 17 April 2020. Opening hours may currently be affected.