The Evolution of Photo Catalogues at Swann

A lot has changed over the course of our 75-year history here at Swann, from adding new departments to expanding our exhibition space. One small but crucial metamorphosis has been the evolution of our sale catalogues. From simple, printed pamphlets containing written descriptions of each lot to the glossy illustrated volumes of today, there is perhaps no better example of the vast changes in style and design than the catalogues made for our Photographs & Photobooks department. 


The First Complete Auction of Photographica in America


On Valentine’s Day, 1952, Swann Galleries held the first American auction dedicated to Photographs: A Panoramic History of the Art of Photography as Applied to Book Illustration From Its Inception Up To Date: The Important Collection of the Late Albert E. Marshall of Providence, R. I. The image above is of a facsimile of that 1952 catalogue, printed in 1978. In the foreword of the reprint, Swann Galleries’ first Director of Photographs David Margolis noted, “Relatively little note was taken in 1952 when Swann Galleries issued the catalogue … certainly no one realized collecting history was being made.”

No one realized collecting history was being made.

The catalogue included no photographic illustrations of the lots being offered, instead, according to Margolis, “working with Mr. Marshall’s notes, a copy of Taft’s Photography and the American Scene, and little else, [Edwin V.] Halbmeier created an accurate, interesting (and now historically important) catalogue … this photographic incunable created a vivid picture of the ‘pre-explosion’ period in the collecting of photographic literature and images.”


The First Complete Auction of Photographica in America


The above sample page from the interior of the catalogue shows Halbmeier’s intensely researched lot descriptions. The facsimile edition was appended with prices realized from the sale (seen below). Despite the sale being “heavily attended; some of the buyers later became synonymous with the field of Photographica: Beaumont Newhall, S.R. Strober, Louis Shipley, and Willard Morgan,” according to Margolis, some of these amazing pieces sold for amazingly low prices (even when adjusted for inflation). Note that the catalogue gave no pre-sale estimates, a convention that carried on into the 1980s. Looking at the prices realized, it’s also clear that the sale was an everything-must-go style of auction: lots went for as low as $3.00 and the sale boasted a 100% sell-through rate.

The top lot of the sale was Lot 238, a collection of more than 1000 plates from Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion, 1887, which sold for just $250 (the equivalent of $2,235 today), an amazing price when you consider that a collection of just 125 plates from Animal Locomotion sold for $81,000 at Swann in 2009, 57 years after that inaugural sale. Single plates from Animal Locomotion regularly sell for thousands today. The complete list of prices realized can be seen below, and as Margolis noted at the close of his foreword, photography collectors today will probably “Read ’em and weep!”


Results from The First Complete Auction of Photographica in America


Sixty-four years after holding America’s first photo sale, our Photographs Department is still innovating. Their most recent catalogue, for Art & Storytelling: Photographs & Photobooks (at auction February 25) experiments with some pretty cool technology. In addition to every lot in the catalogue being illustrated and even more elaborately described, now select pages of the catalogue can be scanned via the Layar app, linking viewers to videos or additional images of particular lots. 


Wilson A, Bentley

Here’s one of the scannable pages from the catalogue. The logo on the bottom corner of the page lets you know there is more to see for this lot. Click the image above to see the video. 


For our Photographs & Photobooks department and beyond, catalogues continue to be a vital and evolving element of Swann. In addition to our still-beloved print catalogues, our website now features the complete catalogue as well as a digital flipbook of the print version. You can also check out our website to see the last 15 years worth of Swann catalogues from all of our departments.