Iconic Avedons on the Block

An auction of the legendary lensman’s work, to benefit his foundation, comes on the heels of the arrest of its accountant, Ken Starr. Claire Howorth on Avedon’s intriguing fiscal life after death. Plus, see photos for sale, including a Marilyn Monroe worth $100,000-$150,000.

10.13.10 12:51 AM ET

When Richard Avedon died in 2004, he had just started his own foundation, to which he bequeathed tens of thousands of fine prints, about half a million negatives, and photographs by some of his most esteemed peers. Next month in Paris, Christie’s will host a sale of Avedon photos, some iconic, some extremely rare, in the foundation’s bid toward extending its philanthropic reach. But the $6 million the Richard Avedon Foundation could make is just another detail in Avedon’s fascinating fiscal life after death.

News of the sale follows just months the after criminal allegations against Ken Starr, money man to such starry names as Al Pacino, Bunny Mellon, Annie Leibovitz—and the Richard Avedon Foundation, which listed almost $30 million in assets and Starr’s defunct address on its 2009 tax returns.

Coincidence, according to the foundation’s executive director, Paul Roth, who said the genesis of the sale had nothing to do with any financial problems caused by Starr. “It is not related to that other thing,” said Roth, who added that he was not able to comment on any issues related to Starr and avoided even saying the accountant’s name, pending outstanding legal decisions.

Roth, who came to the foundation from Washington’s Corcoran Gallery last winter, said the decision to generate money originated before the Starr saga unfolded. “We wanted to create an endowment—just money set aside that we do not touch.” The Christie’s sale should free up millions to do just that, if estimates hit their high marks. “We’re still trying to work out the specifics” of the philanthropic mission, said Roth, but “generally, we want to support the field of photography, and the use of photography to do good in the world.”

Generosity, after all, was a virtue of Avedon’s. “Dick gave gifts all the time. Hardly a month goes by when you don’t see something he gave to someone pop up for sale,” said Roth, citing a June sale of William Saroyan’s family photos, which Avedon shot and had bound in gilt-edged leather albums; Aram Saroyan put them up for sale through a rare book dealer, for $110,000. The foundation rarely tries to buy back such items.

Gifts are actually at the heart of a curious story involving Avedon and the photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Dominique Nabokov, widow of the composer Nicolas Nabokov. According to a 2007 New York State Supreme Court ruling, at some point in the 1930s, Cartier-Bresson gave Nicolas Nabokov four gelatin prints he had taken. By the 1970s, the photos had made their way, by unspecified means, to Avedon, who, throughout the 1970s insisted he could not find them, finally declaring that they had been lost. Nabokov died in 1978.

Gallery: Richard Avedon’s Prints for Sale

But when Avedon died in 2004, the same year as Cartier-Bresson, he included them in his will and left them to his foundation, which later put them on display. Dominique Nabokov saw them at an exhibit and filed a lawsuit, but ultimately lost in the countersuit. Roth said he was not aware of the lawsuit when The Daily Beast spoke to him; he later said the Cartier-Bresson photographs had been sold but that he didn’t know to whom or for what amount. The prints are now likely worth more than $15,000 apiece.

Many of Avedon’s are worth almost the same, and some are worth far, far more, like the $500,000 “Dovima with Elephants.” Christie’s, according to Josh Holdeman, who is overseeing the sale, “sees a real growing market in continental Europe”; that the sale falls during the Paris Photography Festival was a happy coincidence. The buyers will be “totally international” at the evening auction (more prestigious than one conducted during the day), held in a room that seats several hundred.

“We had a very successful sale of Irving Penn’s photographs that reached three times the high estimate,” said Holdeman, who noted that photography has been a booming arena for Christie’s recently, with images from 1950 and later closing in on the Post-War and Contemporary Art sales that have been so successful.

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Claire Howorth is the Arts editor at the Daily Beast.