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The rest is art history

A 20th-anniversary exhibition at the Getty celebrates the stunning formation of its photography collection.

March 28, 2004|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

It wasn't just the money. The $20 million the J. Paul Getty Trust reportedly -- but never admittedly -- paid in 1984 for 18,000 photographs was an astonishing sum in a photography market that was stuck in a recession. But the price really wasn't all that high for the fabulously rich organization that would build a $1-billion cultural complex on a Brentwood hilltop and spend $70 million on a single painting by Titian.

What dropped jaws in the art world was that the trust's museum -- a bastion of Greek and Roman antiquities, French decorative arts and pre-20th century European painting and sculpture -- had plunged into a relatively modern medium. And that it had made the move so dramatically.

In one stroke, the museum acquired the two best private collections of photography in the United States -- those of New Yorker Sam Wagstaff and Chicagoan Andre Crane -- and combined them with seven major European holdings and smaller groups of works from other collectors, creating a cache of rare or unique images bigger than the photography collections of either the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art in New York. At the same time, the Getty hired Weston Naef, the Met's photography curator, to head its new department and established a powerhouse of photographic scholarship and connoisseurship in Los Angeles.

Twenty years later, this improbable tale is part of art history. "Photographers of Genius at the Getty," an anniversary exhibition of 158 images by 38 artists, offers a pointed reminder that much has changed in the field of photography since the museum made its stunning debut. The Getty's collection of photographs has grown more than fivefold and prices have risen dramatically.

The record auction price for a photograph in 1984 was $67,100 for a 1939 work by Charles Sheeler; today, the record is $916,126 for an 1842 daguerreotype of an Athenian temple by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, similar to one of his works in the Getty's collection. Forty photographs of Yosemite shot about 1878 to 1881 by Carleton Watkins -- whose work is held in depth at the Getty and featured in the exhibition -- will go on the block April 28 at Sotheby's New York, with an estimated market value of more than $1 million. A private collection of 43 modern photographs, to be sold the same day at Sotheby's, is expected to bring at least $1.6 million.

One of the most surprising aspects of the Getty's coup in 1984 was that the news didn't leak to the press until five days before the Getty planned to announce it. Working with John Walsh, who directed the museum from 1983 to 2000, New York photography dealer Daniel J. Wolf orchestrated the sales without disclosing the buyer's name or telling prospective sellers that he was simultaneously negotiating with other collectors.

"It just fell into place," Wolf said recently at a private preview of the anniversary exhibition. "Every night I would go to bed thinking of something we needed, and the next morning I would get a call saying it was available."

Assembling the package couldn't have been that easy, but the time was right. The collectors were ready to sell, and the photography market was at point where the sellers could cash in handsomely and the Getty could still get a good deal.

"It was the last moment when something like that could happen," San Francisco dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel said.

"Whatever they paid, it was a bargain," said Arthur Ollman, director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego.

Among the highlights of the Getty's instant collection were an album of experimental work by French pioneer Hippolyte Bayard; the best group of photographs outside France by Nadar, the most popular portraitist of the Parisian elite during the reign of Napoleon II; the world's largest private holdings of works by modernists Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray; examples of every aspect of the work of August Sander, whose portraits document the social strata of pre-World War II Germany; works from the Photo-Secession and Pictorialist epochs (1900-25); and a survey of 20th century Czechoslovakian experimental photography.

None can compete

Today the museum has a collection of more than 100,000 images by 600 artists, composed of about 35,000 individual prints, 1,500 daguerreotypes and related objects, 30,000 stereographs and cartes de visite and 475 albums containing almost 40,000 photographs. All these materials are housed under the museum in a facility that accommodates offices, a study room with north-facing windows that serves 700 visitors a year, a conservation and framing laboratory, an air-conditioned storage room and a refrigerated vault, kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, for color photographs.

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