Ahead of two concurrent Pride marches—the official (and corporatized, some have said) parade and the alternative Queer Liberation March—on Sunday, two New York auction houses held queer art sales to honor the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, offering up books, letters, paintings, photographs, posters, and more.
The first, held on June 20, took place at Swann Auction Galleries, and was billed as being the first of its kind at a major auction house, with a portion of its proceeds benefiting the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in SoHo. And this past Thursday, Sotheby’s held its own Pride sale, titled “Bent,” with portions of its proceeds to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York.
At Swann, the sales total of $950,833 fell squarely within its presale estimate of about $865,000 to $1.29 million, with a 75 percent sell-through rate by lot; at Sotheby’s, the sale total of $1.15 million was below its presale estimate of $1.4 million to $2 million, with a 64 percent sell-through rate by lot.
(All sale prices reported include buyer’s premium. For Swann, that premium is 25 percent of the hammer price up to and including $100,000; 20 percent of any amount in excess of $100,000 up to and including $1 million; and 12 percent of any amount in excess of $1 million. For Sotheby’s, it is 25 percent of the hammer price up to and including $400,000; 20 percent of any amount in excess of $400,000 up to and including $4 million; and 13.9 percent of any amount in excess of $4 million. Estimates are calculated sans premium.)
Swann’s sale was packed with bidders and onlookers, and was front-loaded with letters and rare books, interspersed with a few works of early photography and works on paper. Among the most anticipated lots early on was a copy of Walt Whitman’s Memoranda During the War (1875–76), which the American author and poet inscribed to his romantic partner Peter Doyle “with his love.” (The 200th anniversary of the Transcendentalist’s birth is currently the subject of various shows, including ones at the Morgan Library & Museum and the New York Public Library.) The book sold to an online buyer for $70,000, just shy of its high estimate of $75,000. A similarly inscribed copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) sold at Sotheby’s a week later for $87,500 to a phone bidder.
Both sales featured work by some of the biggest (and most market-friendly) queer art stars, including Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz, and Peter Hujar. The top lot of Swann’s sale was one of Hujar’s brooding photographs of his one-time lover and friend Wojnarowicz. After a battle between two phone bidders, the print from 1985 sold for $106,250, demolishing its high estimate of $25,000 and setting a new record for the artist at auction. Meanwhile, at Sotheby’s, a Hujar photograph of a nude HIV/AIDS activist and writer at the beach went for $27,500.
Also on offer at Swann were several lots related to Hujar’s iconic 1969 image used to publicize the 1970 Christopher Street Liberation Day, commemorating the one-year anniversary of Stonewall. A test print of the photograph, which was featured on posters that encourage people to “COME OUT!!,” sold for $10,000, or $4,000 more than its high estimate of $6,000.
Examples of some of Mapplethorpe’s most controversial images were also on offer at both sales, among them images from his “X” portfolio, which shows BDSM acts, and his “Z” portfolio, which shows images of black men and which some critics have alleged are fetishistic. At Swann, a print of Mapplethorpe’s famed photograph Jim and Tom in Sausalito, which shows one subject urinating into the mouth of another, went for $25,000 (another print of it is currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York), while a complete suite of the “Z” portfolio pictures sold for $47,500. Sotheby’s had four prints from the “Z” portfolio, each carrying an estimate of $6,000 to $9,000; three sold for $5,000 each, and the fourth failed to find a buyer.
Also on offer at Sotheby’s was a set of four images that Mapplethorpe had made in 1986 for his patron and partner Sam Wagstaff, whose collection of early photography heavily influenced Mapplethorpe. In the first image from the cycle, titled Arthur Rimbaud. A Season in Hell., Mapplethorpe dons devil horns, while the final image is a nude self-portrait, shot from behind. The piece sold for $15,000, well above its high estimate of $5,000.
The 19th-century gay poet has also figured prominently in Wojnarowicz’s work, and both Sotheby’s and Swann had a photo from his famed “Arthur Rimbaud in New York,” which sold for $12,500 and $3,500, respectively. Surpassing both of those was a 6-by-5-inch postcard announcing a Michelle Stuart exhibition that Wojnarowicz painted over with one of his signature silhouetted figures in red; it sold for $17,500.
Both sales had early Warhol drawings that were similar to those seen at the beginning of the artist’s recent Whitney Museum retrospective, which is now on view at the San Francisco Museum of Art. At Sotheby’s, two alternately colored screenprints of a man’s nude lower half each sold for $106,250 to the same telephone bidder, making them the top lots of that sale.
As with most auctions, the sales were dominated by the art of men, but work by queer women also hit the block at both auctions, which included Leonor Fini, Annie Leibovitz, Catherine Opie, and more.
A 1920s-era work on paper by Danish illustrator Gerda Wegener, the first woman to undergo gender confirmation surgery, was one of the top 10 lots; it sold for $20,000. At Sotheby’s, Fini, a Surrealist who had a career retrospective at the Museum of Sex last year, had an oil painting titled Narcisse Incomparable that sold for $56,250, just below its low estimate of $60,000. (A photograph by Lissa Rivera, who curated the Fini retrospective, sold for $3,750 at Sotheby’s.)
Photography by women was popular at both sales. A Leibovitz picture of Keith Haring, nude with his body painted white and black to match his iconic figure drawings, sold at Swann for $18,750; a portrait of Bette Milder in a bed of roses sold for $15,000. An Opie photograph of a woman’s back with “DYKE” tattooed on her neck, set against a blue patterned background, sold for $22,500, though a self-portrait of the artist with a mustache and butch attire failed to find a buyer. Several works by Joan E. Biren (JEB), who currently has the window installation at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, were offered a Swann. Her 1977 image of the feminist artist collective the Furies sold for $3,000.
The two sales included a great deal of work by artists featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s recently-closed exhibition “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern,” which focused on the titular patron and gay man who was instrumental to the early development of the museum. Among the artists overlapping MoMA and the sales were George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus, Jean Cocteau, Jared French, and the collective PaJaMa (an abbreviation of the initials of lovers Paul Cadmus and Jared French, along with his wife Margaret French).
Some at Swann applauded when a Cadmus sketch for a lithograph of a locker room scene titled Horseplay sold for $47,500. Meanwhile at Sotheby’s, a suite of PaJaMa photographs sold for $18,750, a new record for the collective, and a Jared French painting of a nude man from three vantage points went for $10,625.
Of the two sales, Swann was the less starry one—and also the more well-attended. It offered a broader range of artists from various eras, including work by Ray Johnson, Jack Smith, Haring, Glenn Ligon, Nan Goldin, Jimmy De Sana, Duane Michals, JEB, Hugh Steers, Jack Shear, Candy Darling, and the Silence = Death Collective.
While the 275-lot affair at Swann dragged at points, there were moments where the energy among bidders was palpable. At one point, a letter signed by the late Harvey Milk—the first openly gay elected official in California—when he served as acting mayor of San Francisco on March 7, 1978, hit the block. Selling for $11,250, the letter marked a new record for Milk’s autograph, just one of many signs that the growing interest in queer works, from museums and the market, might just be more than a fad. In this context, Milk’s note held particular significance. It reads, in part: “thought you should have a memo from the 1st up front gay mayor of any city—it’s for real!!!”