Darius Himes is the International Head of Photography at Christie’s. We talk about the inner workings of the auction world, the emotional dynamics of auction bidding, and some of the treasures that he’s had the privilege to work with.
Himes is responsible for setting and implementing a global strategy for the department and managing the international team. He is based in New York, and brings with him a rich knowledge of the history of the medium, with a keen interest in the contemporary market. Most recently Himes was director of Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. Prior to that, he was a co-founder of Radius Books, a non-profit publisher of books on art and photography, and a founding editor of photo-eye Booklist, a quarterly magazine devoted to photography books. A widely respected lecturer and writer on photography and photobooks, his most recent title, Publish Your Photography Book, was co-authored and published in 2011. He received his Masters of Arts from St. John's College and his Bachelor of Fine Art’s degree in Photography from Arizona State University. Himes also lived in Haifa, Israel, where he oversaw and worked with a permanent collection of over 50,000 photographic objects drawn primarily from the Near and Middle East and dating as early as the 1870s.
We spoke on August 16 at Christie's Beverly Hills.
Paula: How did you enter into the photography world?
Darius: I can't remember when I didn't want to be a photographer. My family wasn't particularly art-focused so it might have been because our grandmother annually gave us a National Geographic subscription. I got a camera and was always outside taking pictures. Then I went and got a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Arizona State University and got to study under Bill Jay and William Jenkins and some of the other professors there in the late '80s. I loved the darkroom and all of the different processes and the history and can totally nerd out on all of that. I haven't been in a darkroom now making things for some years and I miss that. There just hasn't been time.
Paula: You’ve taken a different path but are still in the photography world at Christie's. How do you see the role of the auction house in the art world ecosystem?
Darius: There are a lot of different parts to the art world and to photography, and I really believe in an ecosystem. It takes all of these different parts. There is the educational system where students learn the arts in these BFA and MFA programs, which requires inspiring and gifted professors, then obviously the artists themselves who are nurtured in those environments. There are the non-profit spaces such as places like Pier 24 in San Francisco and Aperture and ICP (International Center for Photography) in New York. Those are places where you, as a young artist and then later as a sophisticated connoisseur of photography, can learn about the history and see old works and also see fresh things. That non-profit component also involves the major museums that have been such a part of the history of photography, from MOMA to SF MOMA and the Art Institute of Chicago, and all of those places.
Then what we think of as the commercial side to the industry is actually quite vital. The galleries and the dealers are key because, in the most theoretical or structural sense, they help artists. They help provide artists with a means of living off of their art, which is a great luxury. To live and work as an artist and be able to pay your rent at the same time is rare, and without dealers and gallerists most artists couldn't continue to make their art. The galleries and the people that run them are as different as every writer is different. They have interests in different artists and different parts of the history of the medium and they build their own network of relationships. They work to not only exhibit work but also to place works by the artists they represent into important collections.
Paula: What's an important collection?
Darius: A museum collection, or a collector who has a large and recognized collection. For instance, in San Francisco you have Bob Fisher from the Fisher family who is known as a serious collector of photography. I could name half a dozen collectors in San Francisco very easily because it's such a photography-centric town and those collectors are often on boards of museums-- there is a great relationship between them supporting the museum and helping with the thing that they love. All of these things make up an ecosystem that is needed for the industry.
I like to refer to the auction world as a tip of the iceberg. The tip of the iceberg is the visible part. It's also the smaller part. The auction industry is visible in the sense that there are public records of what is sold at auction and what those results were, which is different than a gallery. You can't look up online what Larry Gagosian sold yesterday, but if I have an auction today you can look up online what the results were tomorrow. What the galleries do and the amount of work that they do to sell and place work in collections and museum institutions is far larger than what the auction houses are doing. Galleries and dealers are offering things to the market for the first time when they're releasing new work by an artist. That's the primary market. The auction house is a secondary market, so if somebody has a work for a long time and they don't want it anymore for any number of reasons, sometimes they'll go back to the dealers who may or may not want to take it back in, or they'll come to the auction house and we will sell it on consignment. The auction world is a platform. We're not acquiring works so much as offering them. All of those things are related and I think that they all support each other in different ways.
Paula: There's recently been some discussion around whether artists should be compensated for sales in the secondary market. Do you have any thoughts about this?
Darius: Ideally it would be great if they did get something. In the music and film industry we have the idea of royalties and if somebody's song gets played over and over they should be compensated for that somehow. Then there's also the issue of private property. If you have a Toyota and you sell it, Toyota doesn't get a cut of that again. I'm no legal expert and I love supporting artists, but there are a lot of complicated issues that get mixed up in the idea of buying and selling property and where the artists land in there.
Paula: How do you work with sellers? What if I want to put my collection on the market?
Darius: We start with assessing your collection. We can do an appraisal and give you some ideas of the value of the prints in your collection, what they're worth on the secondary market and whether or not we think that we could sell them. If we think we can sell them, we will then offer you consignment terms. Generally, Christie's works on a percentage based on the value of what things will hammer for. We’ll set estimates for each item as well as a reserve, which is the price below which we won’t sell.
In the auction room when something is being sold, it's being sold for that moment in time, for example lot number one comes up at 10:00 a.m. and it will either sell or it won't sell in about a minute. Then you move on to lot number two. All of that is pretty fast. For most people there’s an emotional dynamic around an auction. You go to an auction because you think, "Maybe I'll get a deal." Right? Whether it’s an estate auction or you're on eBay, or whatever it is. You're looking for deals. The issue is that there may be other people who are looking at that same object and thinking the same thing. Any number of people can be bidding it up and there's no ceiling. Which is the exact inverse of what happens in a retail scenario like a gallery. You walk into the gallery, there's a picture on the wall, you ask the gallery assistant, "What's the price," and she tells you. She says, "That's $18,000," and that's basically the ceiling. She's not going to ten minutes later tell you it's $19,000. Maybe she'll give you a 10% discount but it can only go down. Whereas in the auction world it can only go up, so you have this inverse dynamic.
I call it an emotional dynamic because it really is that. Some people love the thrill of the auction. Other people detest that. It makes them so nervous and scared and they don't like it. Some people love the retail experience, like if I had a gallery you would come in and say, "I love that Lee Freidlander photograph," and I'd say, "Can I make you a cappuccino, let's talk about it." We'd sit and then you'd go home and ask your husband if he likes it. Then you come back in three weeks and if it's still there, you can buy it. Whereas in the auction world it's like, "Tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. this thing is going to be sold. Do you want to get involved or not?" It's all about that moment in time.
Paula: I get scared sometimes that my hand will accidently go up out of my control. It’s a little nerve wracking and it all goes so fast.
Darius: Exactly. Just like with all things practice makes perfect, so the more you're in the room and are watching the dynamics and have done your research, the more comfortable you become. Let’s say you went to a gallery yesterday and you saw that Lee Friedlander. You know that it was a print made in the '70s, and it's in great condition and it's signed and it's a reputable dealer and he tells you it's $18,000. Then you see in my catalog at the auction that we have the exact same print but it's only estimated at $10 - 15,000. You call me up and say, "Darius, what's the condition of this thing?" I tell you it's in fine condition. I'll send you a condition report. I'll send you a picture of the front of it. You can see the signature and you're like, "I know that is a good deal." The best thing is to come in and actually look at the piece and make sure that the condition really is as good as it can be.
Paula: Are you suggesting we can't trust your condition report?
Darius: No, not at all. We try to be as accurate as possible. At the same time, especially with the more historical the photo is, the more chance that there are issues and so in the condition report it may say, 'Small handling crimp visible only under raking light." Okay, well those are words on a piece of paper. It’s different when you actually hold the object. It’s important to see the thing, I think, or send somebody that you trust.
I would then share with you my expertise and say, "Look, I've handled a lot of the Friedlanders, this really is a non-issue. We would've sold this at Fraenkel Gallery just like this," or I would say, "You know what? That Hiroshi Sugimoto print, yes it has a crimp and I really don't think you should buy that one." Things like that. In my department we really don't like to take in things that are damaged, but the further back in time you go ... for instance, with a Brassai print, if it has zero damage I start to think that it's suspect. All Brassai prints were made in the '30s and they're crimpled half the time. There are all those kinds of issues.
Paula: How do you come up with your estimate?
Darius: An estimate serves two purposes. It's an indicator of value and it also has a touch of being a marketing device, meaning it's meant to be attractive. With works that are still being sold in the gallery or where there may be a retail price against which somebody could measure, we always estimate on the lower side. For instance, with an artist like Hiroshi Sugimoto or even Lee Friedlander, there are set retail prices and we don't want to be above that because that would be silly. If you call around you can find out that it sells for this amount so the estimate needs to be on the lower side of that.
Then there are things that come to us, like historical objects for which something comparable may not have been sold in a long time. Then you're not sure. Then you are making an educated guess. You could say, "Alright, well, nothing like this Tina Modotti platinum print has come up for 30 years in the public record.” There may be other Tina Modotti prints and you know that they've sold for several hundreds of thousands of dollars, and so that's where you really are making your best estimated guess. In the case of a rare Tina Modotti platinum print, any image of hers could easily be in the $200,000- $500,000 range. You basically are setting this thing out into the auction world. You might write an essay saying there are only two known examples of this print or whatever your research has revealed and talking about the condition of it. Then we put a pretty broad range in terms of an estimate on it and we let the market decide.
Another financial component to the auctions beyond the hammer price is what is called the premium. You're in the room and the auctioneer is going along and he's at $8,000, $8,500, $9,000, $9,500. You raise your hand at $10,000. Nobody else raises their hand, so we're at $10,000. "I'm about to close, is there any more bidding?" $10,000, and then smack--the gavel comes down and that's the hammer price. All of the auction houses add what is called the premium onto that, which is essentially a fee for their services. The $10,000 generally is what's going to the seller, and then the premium is what's going to the auction house for their services. That premium is 25%, which is enough that you really have to take that into consideration. It hammered at $10,000 but you're going to get a bill for $12,500. When you look up the auction results online it will say that the piece sold for $12,500 because that's what you actually paid for it. The estimate has to take that into consideration.
Paula: Is your goal simply to get the highest price possible for your seller?
Darius: Of course. Always. Whether you're selling a bushel of corn or seized government property, the goal is just to move the property. You’ve got property and you’re letting people buy it at what they think is reasonable. We try to be as scholarly as possible. We market it as much as possible. We reach out to known buyers around the world before the auction and we try to get everybody engaged so that it has the chance to make as much money as possible.
Paula: The market is really global now. Technology has also changed the auction experience. You don't have to be in the room. How has the auction world changed over the past number of years?
Darius: The fascinating thing is that Christie's, the company, is older than America. It’s a very, very old world and established company, but it has also really capitalized on the fact that we are a globally connected world. The art world is very global.
The Christie's app on your phone allows you to register and bid right from it. We have an amazing website. On the other hand, the auction world still makes mail order catalogs. You can bid in four different ways. You can come in the room and you can raise your hand when that lot comes available. Or, you can call me up and leave an absentee bid. You can say, “I'll go up to $15,000." You can also bid by phone. Then the last option, which all of the auction houses do now, is you can bid from the comfort of your home online and click a button and bid live during the auction while watching a livestream of the auctioneer.
Paula: Does that accessibility translate to higher prices because more people are in the room whether literally or virtually?
Darius: Definitely. There’s also an impact because Christie's is such a global brand and such an art market leader. Because of our marketing and the press that we've done and because of our results we have an amplified voice, which is exactly what we want, and our clients want that. That's what we utilize. For the photographs department, we hold auctions in New York, London, and Paris. Then the company has two dozen regional offices around the world. We’re sitting at the Beverly Hills one. Then we have offices everywhere from Milan to Hong Kong, to Shanghai, to South America, all over. The directors of the regional offices are not specialists. They are really there to nurture client relationships in terms of both the sellers and the buyers.
Paula: Sometimes when I see your catalog you emphasize that objects are from an important collection. What's the value of that? Is it a matter of provenance? Is that part of your evaluation?
Darius: The provenance and the collection it is coming from may be a known quantity. For instance, some years ago the collection of Maggie Weston was sold. She was the great dealer from California who was part of the Weston family. She was a very known collector, and so buying something out of her collection carried real weight. We are about to auction the collection of Diane and Tom Mann who were not all that known but they bought from many well-known collections. You will see in their provenance history that they have been buying from some of the best dealers and out of some of the auctions of great individuals as well. Under their name then that brings its own weight.
Paula: There was a seriousness about what they were doing.
Darius: Exactly. For instance, in those catalogs we often write an essay about the collection and about their collecting activities to help give context to how these things were gathered. People really connect with those stories. Christie's recently sold the collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller, a huge name in the history of America. People were spending crazy amounts of money on things. For instance, there was a gold money clip that was like an R for Rockefeller and people spent way more than you would on just a money clip because it was from David Rockefeller. Things like that. Which are obvious but fun.
Paula: Talk a little bit more about the research aspect of what you do. I think there's more scholarship in what you guys do than people understand.
Darius: There is. We are not a museum, nor do we call ourselves curators, but we try to put out as much information about the things that are being sold as possible. The more important or historical the thing is, the more scholarship is required, and rightfully so. If you're asking for half a million dollars for something, you need to know some thing. Who owned this? Where did it come from? What are the associations? Why are you saying it's worth this much? What are other things that have sold near this value? Why is this one so special? All of that. We're not telling you the story of who Edward Weston is. We assume you know that much. But we are telling you the history of this print. This particular piece of paper and everything about it, even to the point where we're trying to identify things like, is this the earliest version of this print? If not, how many earlier ones are there? Are there any other known ones from this time frame? Where did those other ones exist? Are they in public institutions, or are there any others in private hands? Sometimes you'll see phrases like, “This is the only known example in private hands.” Which means you could now own it before a museum gets it and then there are no more, you'll never, ever own it.
You want to give people reasons as to why they should emotionally engage and financially invest in something. If you leave that too open, people might think, "Well there are probably five or six of these, or 25, or 30." With photography there’s a myth of infinite reproducibility, which is truly a myth. There are not thousands of things. Even within an edition of prints the number can vary. All of that means that as a serious photography collector there is a level of sophistication that comes with it and I find that really exciting. When you have studied and learned about something and then come across an example where you know from your own research and your own conversations with people that, that thing right there I'm looking at is really, really rare, that's really exciting.
Paula: What's the picture that came through your hands that you got most excited about?
Darius: The favorite child question. It’s so hard. There are honestly like 100.
Paula: It's interesting to know that exciting things regularly come across your desk.
Darius: For instance just this past spring we sold a Box of Ten, which was Diane Arbus' great consummation of her career at the end of her life. She was producing boxes of ten pictures and we sold a complete one of those. While I had seen one before, sitting and holding it and looking at it…and we set a world record for her public auction results with that piece. That's super exciting. Arbus is one of my favorite artists and it coincided with an exhibition at the Smithsonian that was about that box of ten. It was a really cool moment. A year before that, we held a platinum palladium print by Westin from 1926. It was a nude of a dancer and it was just her back and torso. A platinum palladium print is so subtle in the tones, there's no gloss to the surface and you see all the fibers. It was such a subtle print, an absolute museum piece. Holding that and looking at that and researching that was really exciting.
Paula: Do you have any advice for someone who's nervous about attending an auction or bidding? How do you make that leap?
Darius: I think you start by doing a lot of looking. Go to the fairs, come to the auctions and just look and talk to people. There are so many great books out. The history of photography is now 180 years old and there are so many different parts to it. There's the whole 19th century. There's the beginnings of photography and there's the pictorialist period and the birth of modernism. Just like in the rest of the art world you've got the post-war period and contemporary, there are schools of thought and schools of artists. Just let yourself move where your natural attractions are. If you're totally into the Bauhaus and interested in that period then you should look at Maholy-Nagy and look at all of the other artists that are happening at the same time and see how their work fits in. The 20th century is so rich. Rich for the sciences, rich for the arts, rich for society. There's so much to discover and you just have to put the energy in.
Then really look at the objects and find somebody that you enjoy talking to and you will start to respect and trust their opinion and get their thoughts on it. We play that role all the time. The dealers do too. There are a lot of ways to learn and it's really a matter of starting to identify your own attractions. If you say to yourself, "God, I really love that artist," then you just get on the mailing lists of the different auctions and learn when their auctions happen. Then just browse their catalogs and you'll find stuff. Then you'll say, "That one. I saw that at a dealer’s booth and they had it for twice as much. Okay, maybe I’ll make a bid."