Simone Klein

by Carlos Moreno,

CONTRA2La Contraportada: Simone Klein |

There’s a moment when are only two people who really want the piece and it goes very fast. There’s no reason anymore, it’s just craziness

Simone Klein arrives at the Fundación Foto Colectania an hour before giving her talk “The Photography art market – How to buy at auction”. After greeting all the employees, she extends her hand while smiling. Klein is the head of the Department of Photography at Sotheby in Paris. Although she is is not an image of someone working in an auction house, she jokes constantly and she can’t stop laughing after completing the sentences. She becomes nervous when I take pictures and looks in detail every snapshot. Just to think that her hands have hold pictures by Nadar, Robert Doisneau or Irving Penn freaks me out. She smiles again and says that it seems like an Andy Warhol portrait.


You studied Art History, Archeology, German and French Literature and your Doctoral Thesis was about a French Physic from the 19th Century. How did you start working in photography? I studied all of this and when I finished studies I was looking for a job and I was already specialized in history of photography. I’ve done many internships in museums and by chance I’ve got this job. Only few people where working in this field, so there was easy to get a job Were you always interested in photography? It appeared when I studied history of art at the university in Bonn (Germany), the offered courses of photography. Was the only one in Germany and I got interested right away. And then you started working in the photography department of Sotheby’s in 2007 after working in a gallery. There’s super busy work. We’ve got deadlines; it’s a six month work and the sale day it’s only two or three hours! Until then you get all the material, we estimate and catalogue it, you prepare the sale, you contact the collectors… The biggest difference is that you work directly with artists; in an auction house there’s a secondary market, people want to sell artworks that they don’t want any more in their collection The year when you got at Sotheby was the same year when the most expensive picture was sold for 4 million of dollars, how did you live it? The photography market doesn’t produce so high prices very often. It’s quite rare, only one or two times per year when we arrive to these highest prices. It’s always a big moment when you are in an auction and in a some point you see that the psychology changes. There’s a moment when are only two people left; two people who really want the piece and it goes very fast [she starts moving the hands and point to one side and another]. There’s no reason anymore, it’s just craziness and it’s very interesting. How do you feel when you see a picture that is very iconic in real life? First of all I check if it is not a poster or a reproduction of course (laughter), and then it happens. Now on sale we have something very special: “Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville” by Robert Doisneau, a couple kissing in front of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris and the story is that it is not a picture taken by chance, it was staged and became one of the most iconic images ever and we now have a sale of a large size print of it. It’s a print that has been made under Doisneau’s supervision when he was quite old. It’s a genuine print. It’s amazing because it’s the largest print of this image that I have ever seen and the estimate will be around 20.000€.


The price is always related with the quality? I should said yes but in fact, as I said, an auction is a very tense moment psychologically. Many things happen and you need to people who just go crazy on something and, of course, have the money to spend in it. If you’ve got this, super high prices can occur and this is not the reality of day to day market; these are the peak prices. Which parameters did you use to price an artwork? The artist must be established in the market and the history of art, the work has to be important for the artist biography and for the history of art, the work has to be in very good conditions and also the providence and the history of the artwork, if it comes from a great collection or it was founded in somewhere. How can we valuate a good photography? Oh, god! [she’s thinking] It always has to do with composition. If you’re in front of a Man Ray’s rayograph, you can discuss if it’s beautiful, if it’s a little bit simple, if he worked really hard on it… It’s very important the condition. When we established a price it’s what we call an ‘auction estimate’, that’s the price we suggest. At the end, the auction decides about the final price. In the sale maybe you’ll go for another that isn’t the most expensive, you’ll go for your favorite. Which differences do you think are between selling a photography from a non-living photographer and a contemporary photographer? There is a huge difference. There is already a difference in the collector. Young collectors don’t want a 19th century photograph because it’s delicate and it’s a different market. Contemporary photography is meant to decorate your home: you want to see it; you want to have it with you. The material is also totally different; a contemporary photograph is nicely framed, and vintage photographs of the 1920’s are very delicate pieces of art so you have to treat them differently. They’re two different markets; it’s like comparing a painting by Monet and a Jeff Koons sculpture. It’s totally different.


How it’s a common day in an auction house? You’ve got hundreds of e-mails! [laughs] And then I’ve got calls from people who want to meet and show me their pieces. It’s a very dynamic job. At the end of the day you haven’t finished your work, it’s just impossible! Sometimes we go and see a collection in a house somewhere or in a castle in the South of France and there are like 500 works: photographs, silvers, jewelry, contemporary works… Then the Evaluation Department organizes that in each department and then puts everything together again. What differences do you see between your department and the other departments in Sotheby’s? The photography department it’s a quite small department. We don’t deal with these super high prices like my colleagues in the contemporary department, it doesn’t exist in photography, only some contemporary people can arrive to it. Can you tell me your three favorite photographs? If you have to take only three, which would you choose? One is by Richard Misrach. It’s a contemporary piece, large size; a person who is jumping into light blue water, and it’s upside down. It’s amazing! The second one is by William Klein, it’s called Fat Ladies Club. You might know it, it’s a sauna, a big bath and a couple of corpulent ladies in swimsuit. It’s a funny great image. The third one is one of my favorite photographs by André Kertesz who was an Hungarian photographer living in Paris. In the 1920’s he produced some beautiful photographs and one of them is a black fork sitting on a table. It’s like a constructivist image, very beautiful. Do you have some collections? (laughter) Yes, I have a few. I like works on paper, so photographs, drawings, collages and things like that.

Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville (1950), Robert Doisneau
Untitled (2002), Richard Misrach
Club Allegro Fortissimo (1990), William Klein
La Fourchette (1928), André Kertesz