15 Minutes With a Price Database Power User: The Head of Photographs at Artnet Auctions on the Evolution of the Market
We chatted with our own Susanna Wenniger.
There is only one tool trusted by art world insiders to buy, sell, and research art: the Artnet Price Database. Its users across industries—from auction houses to museums, galleries, and government institutions—represent the art world’s most important players. We’re taking 15 minutes to chat with some of the Artnet Price Database’s power users to get their take on the current state of the market and how they’re keeping up with the latest trends.
Susanna Wenniger was born into the art world. Growing up in New England with two artist parents who ran a small gallery business in Boston, she was raised with a knowledge, in particular, of printmakers and printmaking.
Despite her early experience, which included running a branch of Wenniger Graphics in Provincetown, Massachusetts, during the summers of her college years, it was not until after graduation that Wenniger, now head of photographs at Artnet Auctions, discovered a passion for photography.
“I didn’t encounter fine art photography until I came to New York City after college and worked for Twining gallery, in the late 1980s,” Wenniger said. “[It] was all totally new to me and inspired me to go to graduate school in the history of photography.”
Nowadays, Wenniger curates high-profile photography sales on Artnet Auctions, including “Modern and Contemporary Photographs,” which is live now through June 30.
Read on to learn about Wenniger’s experience as a founding specialist at Artnet Auctions, and her most recent search in the Price Database.
You served as the director of Laurence Miller Gallery for nine years. What was your proudest or most memorable moment there?
That was about 25 years ago! But one of my proudest moments as the director of Laurence Miller was when Larry let me curate some shows on my own. I wanted to bridge the gap between the art and photography worlds by doing an exhibition of photographs by sculptors. I included photographs by Sol LeWitt, Kenneth Snelson, Petah Coyne, Ana Mendieta, and Hannah Wilke. Another exhibition I curated in the early 1990s was of young artists who staged their images. I remember Peter Galassi, a curator at MOMA, came to the opening which totally surprised me. Another surprise came when one of my best clients took me out for coffee one day and said that, if I could come up with a good business plan, he would back me if I wanted to open a gallery myself. That was an amazing vote of confidence, but I knew how a gallery business becomes your life and I wasn’t ready for that.
You were one of the founding specialists when Artnet pioneered its online auctions in 1999, and when they relaunched in 2008. What was it like to be at the forefront of this major endeavor? How have Artnet Auctions developed over the years?
It was incredibly exciting to be at the forefront of online art auctions in 1999. I was home with a six-month-old at the time, and I quickly found a nanny and threw myself into Artnet Auctions, calling all the photography dealers I had worked with over the years. They were our first consignors. In the beginning, it was just about finding as much salable inventory as possible, and getting as much online as we possibly could. Over time we have become much more discerning in terms of the quality of the work we sell. We have also become tougher about pricing works so that we are competitive with the big auction houses, and most of the material we sell now comes from private collections. I remember when it was a very big deal for us to sell a photograph in our online auctions for $10,000. Now we regularly sell photographic works between $10,000 and $100,000 in every auction we do. Plus, in 2020 Artnet Auctions’ photography department ranked number five against all auction houses, both in-person and online in total sales value sold!
You develop various themed photography auctions each year. Do you have a favorite auction that you have worked on? A favorite artwork that has sold?
An early print of William Eggleston’s Red Ceiling was certainly the most memorable piece I sold privately while working at Artnet. It’s a very important piece. It has all the qualities of a great piece by Eggleston: a little bit menacing, a bit southern gothic, and of course brilliant color and composition. I was really thrilled to be able to offer it to a collector I had become friendly with. It came from a relative that had recently gotten divorced. It couldn’t have had better provenance. I was so excited that I had negotiated a price everyone was happy with. But the buyer was abroad and his lawyers kept asking me for more and more documentation, and finally, they even asked me to FedEx them the original divorce documents! I couldn’t believe it. But they still bought the piece.
What is your proudest accomplishment as head of photographs at Artnet Auctions?
One of my proudest accomplishments over the past few years was to create a very lean and efficient team in the photography department. This year has been the most successful year that we have ever had since we restarted the auctions in 2008. Last fall our “Important Photographs” auction was our highest revenue-generating photography auction in the past 13 years.
As the curator for two important private collections, and an advisor to countless photography collectors, what is one piece of advice that you would give to a first-time collector?
I grew up with the mantra that you should buy what you like. I would refine that to “buy what you like, but if you care about the work as a long-term investment make sure the artist has a strong secondary market.” Some photographers only have certain works that do well long term. They are often their most sought-after iconic images, or “signature works” (which is actually the theme of the auction I am currently organizing!). I would do my research in the auction database before buying if I wanted to buy as a long-term investment.
Do you collect any art? If so, what is your favorite item in your collection?
I grew up with too much artwork all over our house, so I am actually not a very acquisitive person. I prefer to help other people collect, and I get vicarious enjoyment from that.
What was the last thing you searched for in the Price Database?
I was just researching an early Alfred Eisenstaedt V-J Day print in the auction database that was made before the Time Life edition, and is slightly larger than the editioned prints. It will be a highlight of our next auction of “Signature Works.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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