Christie’s Hopes to Shatter a Decade-Old Photography Record With This Major Man Ray Lot. Here’s What Makes It Special
We plunged into the Artnet Price Database to figure out the artist's auction history.
Last week, Christie’s New York announced it would offer a remarkable Man Ray photograph from the estate of New York fashion executives Melvin Jacobs and Rosalind Gersten Jacobs in a live, single-owner sale in May.
The photograph is a seductive image of a nude Kiki de Montparnasse, the French bohemian model whose hourglass figure Man Ray decorated with f-markings, like a violin. The work’s naughty title, which translates to “Ingres’s Violin,” is a French expression meaning “hobby”: a reference both to neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s penchant for the string instrument, and the fact that Montparnasse (who was Ray’s mistress) was a similar pastime for him.
The headline-making news is the work’s estimate. At a whopping $5 million to $7 million, it is the highest ever price expected for a single photograph at auction. If achieved, it will shatter the standing auction record for a photograph, which was set at Christie’s in 2011 when a 1999 river view by Andreas Gursky sold for $4.3 million.
Will anyone be willing to pony up for the Dadaist masterpiece? We took a journey into our own dark room—Artnet’s Price Database—to check out what’s been developing in the surrealist artist’s market of late.
Auction record: $5.9 million, set at Sotheby’s New York in November 2013
Man Ray’s Performance in 2021
Lots sold: 394
Bought in: 85
Sell-through rate: 82.2 percent
Average sale price: $25,629
Mean estimate: $11,049
Total sales: $10,097,858
Top painting price: $197,116
Lowest painting price: $13,200
Lowest overall price: $88 for a sculptural edition of his iconic readymade work The Gift, part of an edition of 5,000
- Crash Course. Man Ray’s auction record was set in 2013, when an oil painting entitled Promenade sold for $5.9 million. The following year, a record 525 lots were offered for sale, but 34 percent failed to find buyers. Total sales peaked in 2017 at $14.6 million (with $11.5 million accounted for by the top 10 lots). In 2018, sales plummeted more than 70 percent, and have been slowly recovering since. By 2021, the market was approaching heights last seen in 2012.
- Demand for Painting. While Man Ray is best known for his pioneering experiments with photography, his highest prices have historically been achieved for paintings. While 14 of his works have sold for more than $1 million, just three of these were achieved by photographs. Barring one sculptural assemblage, the rest were paintings.
- Most Seductive Lots. The top price for a Man Ray photograph was achieved at Christie’s Paris in 2017, when a gelatin silver print of one of Man Ray’s best known photographs from 1926 fetched $3.1 million. The iconic Noire et Blanche depicted Kiki de Montparnasse posed with an African mask. Trends among his other top-performing photographs include similarly seductive models from the bohemian set, single editions, or those with special interventions such as hand coloring.
- Declining interest. Interest in Man Ray has been on the decline in recent years, with just 3,688 users searching for the artist through Artnet’s Price Database in 2021, marking a 44.7 percent drop off since 2019.
- Room for surprise. Despite this, Man Ray’s second-highest result at auction was achieved in 2020, when $5.8 million was spent on a 1915 oil painting titled Black Widow (Nativity). Data also suggests the market was somewhat undervalued in 2021, with 69 percent of lots selling for more than their high estimate. Interestingly, the market’s performance in 2021 was driven more by volume than an availability of trophy lots. Unlike in previous market booms for Man Ray, the top 10 lots accounted for just 24.9 percent of total sales.
Le Violon d’Ingres is one of the Surrealist’s best-known images, and has been reproduced in printed editions, some of which are on view in the Centre Pompidou and the Getty in Los Angeles. One of them (part of an edition of eight) sold at Christie’s New York in April 2021 for $475,000.
But this particular photograph has a lot going for it to justify the high presale estimate. First, it has excellent provenance, having been in the same collection since the artist sold it to Jacobs in 1962. Secondly, in keeping with the highest-performing photographs, this image was handled by the artist, who added the violin’s f-markings manually in the dark room. Finally, the art world’s growing appetite for Surrealism—with a blockbuster show at the Met and Tate Modern this year, and a surrealist bent to Cecilia Aleman’s 2022 Venice Biennale—could make the perfect set up for records to fall this spring.
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