015: Timothy Leary's Missing Book

And other auction house stories featuring Madonna, Neil Armstrong, Picasso, Thomas Jefferson, a Conehead, Bob Dylan, Johannes Gutenberg and a Koch Brother.

My first photography job after arriving in New York in 1997 was shooting auction catalogs for one of the big auction houses. Now, more than twenty years after I left that job, I still think back on some of the things that passed through my hands. A lot of items went from one private collector to another, and were seldom seen by the public except at auction.

My very first day, I saw a Picasso sitting in a bin waiting to be photographed. “Oh, wow!” I thought. “I can’t believe I’m this close to a Picasso!” By the time I left, my perspective had changed considerably. I knew it was time to quit when I thought, “Oh, great. Another Picasso.”

Shooting catalogs meant that I worked with every department in the auction house, so I handled fine art, movie memorabilia, historical documents, ancient artifacts, and learned from the experts how to identify porcelain maker’s marks, spot signs of repaired damage on paintings, etc. It was quite an experience, and I got some good stories out of it.

Some of these are the kinds of stories that might get people in mild trouble, so for the sake of plausible deniability I’ll just say that my memory of events 20+ years ago may be imperfect, and things may not have happened exactly as I remember them. With that caveat:

Timothy Leary’s Missing Book

Not long after Timothy Leary died, some of his belongings were sold through the auction house. The sale included a few unique items, plus things that weren’t really all that important except for the fact that he owned them, like a book by comedian Don Novello. All the items came to the studio in bins, were photographed for the catalog, and then returned to the department handling the sale. Or so we thought.

At some point, a good six months after the sale took place, we found the Don Novello book in a drawer in the studio. Somehow it hadn’t made its way back with the rest of the lot and never went up for sale. I don’t remember the pop memorabilia department ever saying there was an item missing, and I don’t think anybody ever told them we found the book. So it just sat in the drawer. Occasionally someone would pull it out to read on their lunch break. For all I know, it’s still there.

Mark McGwire’s Baseball

During this time, Mark McGwire was in the middle of his home run streak, and his 50th home run ball came through to be auctioned. We may have casually tossed the ball around the studio that day. And then it sold for $46,000.

Madonna’s Diary

There was an entertainment memorabilia auction where one of the items for sale was an old day planner that belonged to Madonna. It had appointments written in like “Christmas with Sean’s family” which must have meant Sean Penn, and “Call Mike and Robin” — which I assumed meant Mike Tyson and Robin Givens — with a phone number. It was full of famous people’s private details. And I remember “work out” was written in every day. I really couldn’t fathom how Madonna’s day planner came to be in someone’s private possession. Maybe it was stolen or fake? Or maybe it wasn’t really hers, but an assistant’s? Sure enough, for some reason, the item was pulled from the sale. I don’t know what the story was there, but I’ve always been curious.

The Shattered Chandelier

Photographing crystal chandeliers was annoying because once we got them set up, we had to wait a bit for them to stop moving before we could photograph them. There was a photographer who had a brilliant idea: at the end of the workday, he would hang up a chandelier for the next morning. Then when he comes in, all he would need to do is tiptoe into the studio so he doesn’t create a breeze, turn on the studio lights, and take the first picture of the day. But overnight, the weight of the chandelier was too much for the hook it was hanging on. So when he arrived the next day, he found the chandelier shattered on the floor in pieces.

The Time I Broke A Picasso

The only thing that ever broke under my watch was a ceramic plate made by Picasso. It was from late in his career when he was selling “multiples” — limited editions of physical objects where he made one original, and then copies were made which he just signed. So it wasn’t one-of-a-kind, and the estimate on the plate was “only” around $5,000 - 7,000. Since it didn’t merit a photo on its own, I photographed it in a group with several other plates propped upright on a large table-top set. Right after I took the photo, the Picasso plate came loose and shattered onto the ground.

I felt terrible about it. I had seen some things break and get repaired with impressive results, but this was far beyond repair. The department that handled it said not to worry; that’s what insurance was for. By definition, since it was up for auction, the person who owned it didn’t want it anymore, and insurance would pay the mean on the estimate. All that was left was to clean up the debris. I gathered the big pieces and returned them to the department.

Then I swept up the remaining pebble-size pieces which I keep in a Ziploc bag labeled “My Picasso”.

This is not a photograph of the plates in question. It’s just some dinnerware set I photographed at some point. But I don’t have the Picasso plate photo, so I’m showing it as an example of the kind of photo I was taking when the Picasso fell. Each of these plates was attached to an acrylic block with some Blu-Tack to make it stand up. I never had one fall until The Picasso Incident.

I Got Yelled At By The Met

All of the photographers received art handling training, and we took that part of the job very seriously (except when it came to baseballs, I suppose). We were touching fine art every day, but it quickly stopped feeling like a big deal. It was just part of the job. Psychologically, it helped not to think of something as a multi-million dollar piece of art and just think of it as an object to handle with care.

There was a particular kinetic sculpture by George Rickey that was perhaps ten feet tall. It arrived disassembled and we had to put it together. It was intended to be installed outdoors and had large panels that would move in the wind. I spent some time moving the panels into their most aesthetic position for the photo, and it looked pretty nice, but not as cool as it looked in motion.

Around a year later, I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a friend. And wouldn’t you know it, there was the exact same sculpture on an outdoor terrace! Perhaps whoever bought it had loaned it to the Museum, or it might have been a very similar piece by the same artist. But sadly, there was no breeze that day and it remained still.

I tried to explain to my friend how cool the piece was when it’s moving. “Here,” I said, “let me show you” and, forgetting for a moment where I was, I gave the panels a push to get it moving.

Immediately, security was on top of me. What do you think you’re doing? Why would you touch the art at a museum!? I was so embarrassed. What could I say? “You don’t understand, just a year ago I was taking this out of a box and putting it together” didn’t seem like the right answer. I apologized profusely and left quickly.

Neil Armstrong’s Space Suit

One of my favorite sales was a space memorabilia auction, and one of the star items of the sale was Neil Armstrong’s A5L Apollo spacesuit. It wasn’t the suit he wore on the moon (that one’s at the Smithsonian) but it was used for training.

The department handling the sale needed the suit photographed first so they could use the photo to begin promoting the sale. So they dropped off the suit in the studio and said they’d come pick it up the next day.

And, friends, it’s entirely possible that several people in the studio tried on Neil Armstrong’s space suit that day.

It sold for $178,000.

Thomas Jefferson’s Wine That Wasn’t

Not every shoot happened in the studio. Sometimes we would go to the home of some wealthy individual with a large collection and photograph their items there. And that’s how I found myself in the wine cellar of one of the Koch brothers.

The Koch brothers you think of first are probably Charles and David, who fund a lot of conservative causes. But they have two other brothers, and this wine cellar belonged to Bill Koch.

Bill Koch is a businessman and a sailor. He won the America’s Cup race in 1992 and a few years later sponsored an all-women sailing team. I visited his wine cellar in Martha’s Vineyard. The room adjacent to the wine cellar was designed to look as though you were inside a boat; it even had porthole windows with fake daylight behind them, even though it’s underground. It was weird.

Mr. Koch wasn’t there that day, and I worked with his wine cellar staff. I photographed some of the bottles that would be going up for sale, and I took some photos of his wine cellar.

Way in the background, almost in the center of the photo, there are four bottles of wine that are lying down with their bottoms facing the camera. Those bottles, the wine staff told me, belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

The Jefferson wines were among the most expensive bottles of wine ever sold, and Bill Koch had four of them.

The single most expensive wine bottle ever sold was a Jefferson wine bought by Malcolm Forbes for $156,000. Proud of his purchase, he put it on display in the Forbes Magazine Gallery. The hot lights dried out the cork, which fell into the bottle, ruining it. Oops.

I used to end this story by saying, “And that’s the time I photographed Thomas Jefferson’s wine.” But now it has a much better ending:

In a cruel twist of fate, it turns out that none of the wine bottles attributed to Thomas Jefferson were actually his. They were all counterfeit. Oops again.

It’s a fascinating story. You can read more about this in the 2007 New Yorker article The Jefferson Bottles, or in the book The Billionaire’s Vinegar.

Look At These 2,300 Year Old Earrings

I think about this specific pair of earrings often. They are from the Hellenistic period, circa late 4th - 3rd century B.C. Each one is just 4.3 cm tall.

Look at the crazy amount of fine detail. To think that the techniques existed that long ago to create something with such minute detail, and representing the human figure so well, just blows my mind. I tend to think of ancient art as things like Egyptian hieroglyphs. But these look like they could have been made yesterday by someone with an Etsy shop.

They sold for $79,000, which was $1,000 below the estimate.

Gutenberg’s Eyebrow Hair

[I’ve told this story before, so if you’re a superfan who’s already read it, feel free to skip ahead.]

A complete edition of the Gutenberg Bible is very rare. Only a couple dozen are still known to exist. But some copies were broken up and sold piecemeal over the years, so individual pages are not as rare and are occasionally sold at auction.

One year, a particularly interesting Gutenberg Bible page came up for sale. While it was being prepared for auction, someone noticed a tiny hair resting on the page. It had been embedded beneath the ink, and there was a clear line left behind on the page from where the hair had lifted the ink when it became dislodged.

This meant that the hair had been there since the ink was put on the page.

What if it was Johann Gutenberg’s hair? Could you imagine what that would mean for the value of this page?

This is how it was described in the auction catalog:

Eyebrow hair, 12 mm, COMPLETE with bulb at one end and natural taper at the other, blond or white, [middle of the 15th century]. Soiled with printer’s ink over a segment approximately 2 mm in length.

Provenance: The present hair was formerly adhered to the surface of this leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, where it was held to the paper by the printing ink. It lay under the ink when the leaf was received by [the auction house] and was inadvertently dislodged in the course of cataloguing for this sale. The impression left by the hair in the surface of the paper is clearly visible at II Cor. 7:10, as is the furrow of white across the first letter “t” of the word tristitia, where the ink which lay over the hair came off with it.

The hair must have dropped onto the forme after it was inked and before the page was printed. It is therefore presumably a body hair, probably an eybrow hair, from one of the pressmen in Gutenberg’s shop — conceivably from the master himself.

The estimate for the page including eyebrow hair was $10,000 - $15,000. The final price was $64,625.

Entertainment Memorabilia

Okay, this is not much of a story. Just a humblebrag, I suppose. I always enjoyed the entertainment memorabilia sales. Movie props and costumes didn’t always sell for very much but it was beyond cool to handle all these things in person.

I photographed a decapitated Conehead, Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments tablets, a Staff of Ra medallion, Edward’s scissorhands, a set of Bob Dylan’s used harmonicas, costumes from Terminator 2, Twelve Monkeys, Robocop, Aliens, and so much more.

Early Digital Studio Photography

This last story is for the photography nerds.

In 1997, the photo studio I shot in was already almost entirely digital. Shooting high-end catalogs digitally was practically unheard of at the time, and a lot of other studios visited ours to see what our setup was.

We shot mostly on 4x5 large format cameras with digital backs made by Dicomed and Leaf. Each one had a 4 megapixel sensor that only shot black and white. There was a color wheel in front of the lens that rotated between Red, Green, and Blue filters, and you actually had to take three photos to get one color picture. The camera was tethered to a computer, and the software controlled the color wheel then composited the three images into a final color photo. The quality was analogous to a modern 12 megapixel image, because modern sensors use an array of pixels that is each sensitive to only Red, Green, or Blue — with roughly 4 megapixels dedicated to each color. (Not exactly, but close enough for this story).

This meant we could only shoot things digitally that weren’t moving, or the three images wouldn’t be in alignment. So things like chandeliers and kinetic sculptures were still shot on 4x5 film. We also shot film when we traveled, or when we needed to send an image to an outside expert for analysis, as most art experts were still accustomed to getting large format transparencies for evaluation.

Being a digital studio made it easy to do some digital clean-up with Photoshop in-house. For example, in the images above: I digitally erased the stand holding up the Conehead; I added the glowing rays behind the ten commandment tablets (but only for the catalog’s back cover; inside the catalog it remained as photographed); and in the photo of the spacesuit, I digitally changed the feet of the pedestal from curly and decorative to something straight and clean.

When doing retouching for an auction house, I never wanted to deliberately hide a flaw in an item. I wouldn’t retouch a blemish. The same thing was true for how I chose to position or light an object. I always wanted to present an object as closely as possible to how a person would see it if they came to a viewing in person. Some people would bid by phone based on what they see in a catalog. With so much money at stake, I didn’t want them to be surprised by what they receive.

Thanks for joining me on this trip down memory lane of my first real photography job. I hope you enjoyed it. I have a ton more stories, but I needed to end this newsletter at some point!

Be well. See you next week.

David

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