Sunday 21 February 2010

The Sale of Polaroid's Collection: The End of a Photography Era

The art market is one of those esoteric worlds that I can only appreciate from afar, if at all. It takes on a particular curiosity when intertwined with bankruptcy and court-ordered sales of multiple works of renowned artists. All of this will come together on June 21st and 22nd, when numerous instant photographs taken by such famous artists as Andy Wharhol and Chuck Close, as well as prints from such photo masters as landscape photographer Ansel Adams, will be sold at a controversial public sale at Sotheby's in New York City.

According to a recent news report by Lindsay Pollack on, entitled "Controversial Auction Sells Wharhols from Polaroid's Collection", the sale is part of the bankruptcy of Polaroid, the leader in the once instant camera business. The tale of the Polaroid demise is itself a riveting tale of a company that once dominated a technology that was later superseded and then went through two bankruptcy proceedings during the past decade, the second time as a result of an alleged Ponzi scheme by its then owner, Petters Group Worldwide.

As a result of the bankruptcy, the Polaroid name and assets were acquired last year for approximately $88 million dollars. However, the company's photo collection was not part of the previous sale, and it the auction at Sotheby's is expected to fetch between $7.5 million to $11.5 million dollars. The collection was amassed in the 1970's is one what is described as an "acquisition and barter" arrangement. The company offered artists free cameras, film and studio time; in exchange, the company received free prints, which ultimately numbered over 16,000 works.

So where is the controversy? It appears that the problem arises not in the instant camera photographs assembled in the 1970s under the acquisition and barter" arrangement, but rather the photographs assembled for Polaroid 20 years before by the legendary Ansel Adams at the request of Polaroid's founder, Edwin Land. Adams apparently purchased a large number of works from famous photographers of the time, including Edward Weston, Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange (whose photo from the Depression era--"Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California"--is valued at $80,000).

And here is the rub. According to photography critic A.D. Coleman, "[t]he collection is going to be dispersed, which is against promises made to the photographers." Coleman claims that the photographers would remain together, primarily for the purpose of enabling the public to view and study them. Coleman also claimed, in the words of the article, that "the artists were promised access to the images for copyright infringement and subsidiary right licensing--all of which would be difficult if the prints are sold to anonymous buyers." Coleman says that the photographs were in fact never really "sold" to Polaroid. Rather, in his words, "[t]his was permanent custodianship for Polaroid,with visitation rights for the photographers."

I am not certain what to make of Coleman's comments. It would be an interesting legal question if permanent custodianship by Polaroid was a bailment over rather than a transfer of ownership of the works. However, the article does not mention that any of the photographers involved are challenging the sale of their works. One photographer, Neal Slavin, simply lamented that it is "a disservice to a piece of history," but he does not suggest that a legal claim will be mounted against the sale", where the individual works "will go out into the ether."

Moreover, while there may be cultural and aesthetic reasons to claim that a collection can take on a collective identity of its own, it is difficult to see how that can translate into a legal argument in favour of maintaining it intact. So I guess the sale will go on as planned. Still, if I find myself in New York City around the time of the summer solstice, maybe I will try to gain access to the sale--just to observe, of course.

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