At Auction: Richard Avedon’s Photos

©The Richard Avedon Foundation

Collectors are buzzing over the blockbuster sale of photographs from the Richard Avedon Foundation this fall.

When Richard Avedon’s remarkable six-decade career came to an abrupt end in 2004—he died from a stroke while on assignment in Texas for The New Yorker—he left behind a vast archive. From his influential fashion photographs shot for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar to his penetrating portraits of celebrities, politicians and artists, Avedon created some of the most memorable images of the last century.

After his death, I was given special access to his private residence above his studio for a story in New York magazine. The building, on East 75th Street, was one of the most fascinating spaces I have ever seen. Hanging, unforgettably, at the studio’s entrance was the largest exhibition print ever made of his mythic Dovima with Elephants. Now, as the foundation established by Avedon’s estate raises money to fund its philanthropic activities and process his archive, that storied Dovima print and dozens of other works by the photographer are headed to the auction block at Christie’s Paris on November 20. Estimated at $500,000 to $700,000, Dovima is the star of the 65-lot sale, which is expected to total upwards of $4.5 million.

“It is the first time a single auction has been devoted to his photographs,” says Paul Roth, the foundation’s director. “Since his death, there have been five major books on his work, three major exhibitions and two smaller ones. The sale seems like a natural follow-up, not only to give buyers the opportunity to acquire some of Avedon’s work but also to introduce the public to the foundation.”

The sale represents a cross section of Avedon’s career, from his early fashion work, like his 1956 image of Suzy Parker roller skating with Robin Tattersall on the Place de la Concorde (estimate $30,000 to $50,000), to the Beatles portfolio in psychedelic colors he shot for Look magazine in 1967 ($350,000 to $550,000). There are many iconic portraits, including a unique vintage print of his 1957 photograph of Marilyn Monroe ($100,000 to $150,000) looking so profoundly lost.

For me, of all the works that speak to the thrilling genius of Avedon’s eye, one stands out: Dorian Leigh, evening dress by Piguet, Helena Rubinstein’s apartment, Ile St. Louis, Paris, August 1949. The image, which was included in the 1978 Early Paris Fashion Portfolio ($100,000 to $150,000), shows Leigh scrutinizing herself in a powder room mirror. Might she add one more finishing touch? She is perfect. But does she know that? Avedon’s works suggest a bigger picture, a world beyond the frame, as if he is a movie director and has extracted this critical moment. Whereas Dovima is an enchanting Venus (casting a spell on those elephants), Leigh is an everywoman caught in a reflective moment, dreaming, perhaps, that beauty can make a fairy tale of her life. “Beauty can be as isolating as genius or deformity,” Avedon once remarked. He also said that photography for him had always been “a sort of double-sided mirror. One side reflecting my subject, the other reflecting myself.” One wonders, then: Who is Leigh really looking at in the mirror?

The sale of photographs from the Richard Avedon Foundation will be held on November 20 at Christie’s Paris salesroom; christies.com.