Published: May 10, 2011
New York City was a world filled with glamour during the Roaring Twenties, and few of the things seen there were more glamorous than the world viewed through the eye, and lens, of Manhattan-based photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston. Employed by the one-time king of glamour, Florenz Ziegfeld, Johnston lived a charmed life as the photographer of the Ziegfeld Follies from 1919 to 1939.
Nearly a century after recording thousands of photographs of the glamorous showgirls, along with additional advertising and film company images, Johnston’s photographs achieved glamorous prices when items from his willed estate were hotly contested at Nest Egg Auctions on April 16.
Johnston was regarded as the “photographer of the stars,” recording portraits and nudes for New York City socialites. Among his friends and neighbors, Norman Rockwell lived next door and Charles Dana Gibson was a family friend who encouraged pursuit of Johnston’s artistic talents from a young age.
Johnston, who attended the National Academy of Design, shot advertisement photographs and illustration art for a variety of period magazines, film companies and advertising agencies, yet it was the thousands of showgirls that he photographed that brought him fame.
It was in the 1960s that Johnston, who was in his late 70s, attempted to donate his entire studio and all of his photographic work to museums in New York City and Washington, D.C., yet he was unable to find interest in his collection. Upon his passing, the collection was left to friends, Arthur and Martha Sias, who lived with his photographs, props, books and art for more than 40 years.
The Johnston collection attracted international attention, according to Nest Eggs’ principal and auctioneer Ryan Brechlin. “There was interest from all over the world,” stated Brechlin, “We had a lot of European, English and French collectors participating in the auction, along with a lot of New York City galleries, people from the Midwest and from Florida, too. There were two people that flew in from Italy to bid on the pair of Lenci figures,” he said.
While the telephone, absentee and Internet bidders were plentiful, the majority of the major lots sold to buyers in the gallery. One lot that went to the telephone bidders, the top lot of the auction, was the Alphonse Mucha oil on canvas from the Johnston collection. The work, executed as cover art for the May 1922 issue of Hearst’s International Magazine , had been laid down on board and was signed “Mucha” in the lower right. It had a silver medallion painted in the lower corner as well. The image depicted a partially clad young man with his arm around a shirtless young lady amid apple blossoms. Brechlin took a moment to reflect on the painting as the lot was about to cross the auction block, stating that “after you go into the house and see all the sculptures, you look over in the corner and see it [the Mucha] and say to yourself, ‘no.'” That “no” turned out to be a yes.
The auctioneer booked a flight for London to have the painting authenticated by the Mucha Foundation and humorously described his trip aboard a double-decker bus with the painting, making sure that the painting enjoyed the sights as much as he did&†”And there is London Bridge” he said as he gestured holding the painting up so it could see. “And there is Buckingham Palace,” he said with a laugh.
Nest Egg estimated the Mucha at $100/200,000, and as the lot crossed the auction block, three telephone bidders were ready for action. Brechlin opened the lot at $50,000 and after a few moments hammered it down with just the single bid, going to a telephone bidder. “It is going home,” stated the auctioneer, “that is the best possible outcome.” Brechlin later confirmed that the painting had in fact sold to the Mucha Foundation, who he said was “happy to see the painting; they knew of the magazine cover, but did not know what had ever become of the painting or its whereabouts.”
The first group of Alfred Cheney Johnston photos to cross the block consisted of eight framed snapshots, including some nudes, which sold reasonably at $632. A few lots later, a photo of a model with a cigarette on a fence rail did well, realizing $2,300.
Several images of film stars were sold individually, with a 9-by-12-inch silver print of a Ziegfeld girl bringing $2,550, a 10-by-13-inch print of Clara Bow going out at $2,990, a silver print of Martha Graham realizing $3,450, and a photo of Barbara Stanwyck fetching $4,140.
A large lot of snapshots by Johnston soared past the $600/800 estimate, knocking down at $6,325, while another large group realized $10,925.
One lot that came as a big surprise to the gallery was a lot of 25 advertising photographs dating from 1940 to 1960. Estimated at $100/200, the lot was actively bid, climbing to $13,380.
The top lot of the photographic items came as a group of 1,700 glass and film negatives was offered. Ranging from large format nudes to 5-by-7-inch negatives, the negatives had been discovered boxed in an unheated garage. Condition varied from well-preserved to damaged by the elements, and the gallery had estimated the lot at $300/500. A bidding war broke out in the gallery, with a final price of $32,200 paid for the lot.
Props that Johnston had used also attracted serious bidding, with a small hand mirror that ladies were often posed with sold at $2,990. An ottoman with faux leopard fabric that appeared in numerous Johnston images sold at $548, a chair that many a glamorous woman posed in realized $920, and a battered cloisonné vase prop brought $805.
Three telephone bidders were lined up and ready for action as a Chana Orloff marble sculpture of a fish was offered. The Sias family did not think much of the piece that had occupied a spot in their home for numerous years; neither had their dog for that matter, who often stood in front of the fish sculpture and barked at it. Bidders showed their appreciation, however, with the lot opening quickly at the high estimate of $10,000. Bids bounced back and forth between the telephones, selling to one of them for $29,900. A marble bust by William Couper also did well, bringing $6,325.
The bidder that flew in for the auction from Italy chased two Lenci porcelain figurines. The first of the lots to be offered was a Don Quixote figure that, despite sustaining minor damage during preview, brought $5,750, going to the Italian buyer. Confronted with stiff bidding for the next lot, for a clown measuring just under 15 inches tall, the Italian buyer finally prevailed, taking the lot at $14,950.
Prices include the buyer’s premium charged.
Nest Egg Auctions conducts regular Monday night sales where consignors can bring in items to be sold that night and get paid that night, as well. For information, 203-630-1400 or www.nesteggauctions.com .
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