Auction Talk: The Catalogue Cover

I usually don’t stoop so low as to employ overused cliches, but that saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” is surprisingly apt here.

The cover of anything, be it book, album (I ran out of examples) is what everyone sees first. It’s a little like what you wear when you wish to impress, for example. For albums or books (still haven’t thought of any other cases) there is a psychology to the cover design because it must coalesce naturally with the content inside. The cover image is a taste of what is to come, a hint at what lies inside, an incentive to open up and look further.

Photograph of Sotheby’s Paris Photographies November 2015 catalogue

Cover up

For the auction house catalogue, the psychology governing the cover image is slightly different, although you would be forgiven for thinking that the work gracing the cover must be eye-catching, dynamic, vividly coloured or exciting in subject matter. None of this matters enough to make it a cast-iron decree. More often than not, the most important work in the sale will grace the cover of the catalogue, but there isn’t really a hard-and-fast rule to this. Here, ‘important’ can also be interchanged with ‘expensive’, although that probably isn’t quite accurate, but I was struggling to find one word that would be synonymous with ‘astronomically high pre-sale estimate’. 

If a work is important enough (read: with a high pre-sale estimate) or if the department wishes to promote a certain photographer and his market, a specific artwork is chosen to grace that hallowed first page. But having said this, it may not always be the most highly prized artwork that graces the cover.

Before I show you what can happen to artworks with competing high pre-sale estimates, I wanted to look at a past sale where the cover image was the most highly prized work on offer.

Case Study

Sotheby’s 2016 New York Photographs sale featured a stunning example of Man Ray’s “Rayograph” (also known as a photogram). Visually speaking, it’s quite monochromatic, and therefore not as dynamic as other works within the sale that might have drawn the eye in a more immediate way, but the reason for making it the cover image is about to be dissected.  I can’t show it to you because apparently it’s still subject to artist’s copyright, so you’ll just have to find it yourself.

Sotheby’s Photographs New York 3 April 2016
Screenshot Courtesy Sotheby’s online e-catalogue

The Man

Man Ray was a blindingly bright light in the history of photography. He was a key mover in both Dada and Surrealist circles, and during the 1920s, when he was living in Paris, he made a number of short avant-garde films. Man Ray began experimenting with photograms in 1922, although then he called them Rayographs (there’s a tendency for experimenters of this ilk to name processes eponymously). 


The photogram is made purely with light and objects in a darkroom; it has nothing to do with a camera whatsoever. A piece of light-sensitive paper is held underneath the turned-off light, and objects, in this case a feather and ball-bearing, are placed directly on the paper. When the light is switched on, anywhere on the paper that is left unblocked from the light will react to the light and turn black. It depends how long the paper is left exposed, but generally speaking if the light cannot access a part of the paper, it will remain the original colour (white-ish). 

Man Ray and Surrealism

Man Ray’s Rayographs were prized by Dadaists and Surrealists alike, this was a moment when the two movements overlapped. Dada having been that primal reaction against the brutality of World War One, whereas Surrealism concerned itself chiefly with unlocking the unconscious mind to release the thoughts and desires hidden behind that repressive layer of reason.

” …Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”

Andre Breton’s definition of Surrealism, Surrealist Manifesto, 1924

Breton delivered his manifesto in 1924, the year in which Man Ray made this Rayograph, so the timing could not be more perfect. In every instance of a work having a high pre-sale estimate, the argument will be inevitably made for its importance, either as a cultural harbinger of our times, an emblematic expression of the artist’s prescience or a crucial turning point in the artist’s creative direction. There are so many ways to underline importance. Here, our Rayograph was created shortly after Man Ray began creating them so the timeline is quite tight, which contributes to its unbelievably high estimate.  

A tiny tangent

What I ought to have mentioned immediately is that its very nature as a Rayograph, or photogram, makes it unique. Unlike prints made from a negative, a photogram only exists as one original. You could of course copy the original Rayograph, like the Centre Pompidou did, and you would be left with negatives from which you could, hypothetically, make prints. In the Centre Pompidou’s case, I imagine they might only use the negatives to make prints for exhibitions where they were unable to source or acquire the original. Museums do this quite often, if for some reason the original print is unobtainable, they will resort to a modern-day print of the image. It doesn’t hold quite the same allure as the original, but you can still look at the image. 

Cover star

The fact that this work had the highest pre-sale estimate makes it the obvious contender for cover star. Specialists would have considered the market for Man Ray’s work too. This includes using art market price databases, such as the one provided by artnet, to assess how previous works by Man Ray sold at auction, whether they were hammered down above or below their high estimate, or if they were bought in, which means they didn’t sell. This allows the auction house specialist to generate an initial estimate, but the consignor will be consulted too. If the consignor insists upon a remarkably high pre-sale estimate, the department won’t necessarily acquiesce.

Generating estimates can be a dangerous game. Think about it: if you put a pre-worn (such a pointless term, obviously it’s already been worn) high-street-bought-dress up for sale on ebay, and ask for a daft sum, like £20, you will have zero takers. But, if you put it up for 50p, you’ll have at least one bidder. The risk there is that no one else will be interested, but come on; it’s 50p. Obviously none of this is even slightly akin to the auction house biz, but I think I was losing you.

Stamp duty

Man Ray scholar extraordinaire, Steven Manford, has identified 37 stamps, including fakes, that were applied to the versos of Man Ray prints. Some of these include posthumous stamps, but the majority are variations on a theme that include Man Ray’s name and address. The variations are incredibly subtle, but show an evolution over the time Man Ray was in Paris. I’ll link to a PDF version you can read in the references below. 

The stamps on the verso of this Rayograph were determined by Manford himself, so this carries a lot of weight. He identified two: M6 and M14. When Man Ray moved from Hotel des Ecoles on the Rue Delambre to a studio at 31 bis, Rue Campagne Premiere in 1922, the stamps reflected his new address.  M6 is one such stamp that shows the Rue Campagne Premiere address. It’s possible to establish the date of the stamp’s employment by the details it shows, although Manford is clear to state that still not enough is known about the chronological sequence of the Campagne Premiere stamps.

The second stamp on the verso of this particular print read Reproduction Interdite, which is simply a copyright notice stating that copies are forbidden. According to Manford, the concept of copyright stamps appeared around 1934-35, when Man Ray was completing assignments for Harper’s Bazaar, and wished to retain copyright and protect his work. So, it’s quite reasonable to assert that the second stamp, M14, was applied to the verso around this time period as Man Ray attempted to protect his artistic copyright. Manford states that this Rayograph remained in Man Ray’s collection until at least 1962, when it was shown at an important retrospective of photographs by the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris. 

Current affairs

I watched online Phillips’ TCA Evening Sale the other week and noted the prices that were hammered down on the first fourteen lots. The cover image of its catalogue was lot 10, the Lichtenstein. You’ll hear a lot of people referring to lots and artworks as “the” something. I think it’s yet another example of International Art World English. 

While the Richter, lot 13, possessed the highest pre-sale estimate, the Lichtenstein was chosen to feature prominently both in the print catalogue and on the auction house website header. With the Lichtenstein, we could probably think of a couple of ways to explain its cover appearance that aren’t bound to the identity of the consignor, not least of which is its very nature as a Lichtenstein means its dynamism and inimitable pop-art spots, along with vivid primary colours were bound to attract attention. In short, it’s a bold image that grabs the attention. And even if you don’t know your art history like the back of your hand, chances are you’ll have seen a Lichtenstein image before. 

Phillips 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 7 March 2019
Screenshot Phillips online catalogue sales

So, whereas the Richter was undeniably the highest value item in the sale, it didn’t go on the cover. There are any number of reasons for this, a statement which is so laden with dumb vagueries that it makes me wonder if I really know what I’m writing about.

If a consignor is influential enough, has a very considerable social status, has purchased a significant amount of work at auction before or has a particularly important (that word again) collection that might possibly one day be sent to auction, you can be more or less certain that their desires will be accommodated. Such desires might include a high pre-sale estimate, a reserve set at a certain amount or possibly extensive publicity, although having said that I’m fairly sure that would come from the auction house first and foremost, and be written into the contract prior to consigning. I think I can cover this in a separate episode.

Final words

Ultimately, the catalogue cover is the face of the auction. It’s the first thing you see when you open that bike-messengered parcel from the auction house. It has an immediate impact because it dictates to a certain extent the quality of the sale. In most cases it’s the key work of the sale, and if not then it’s not far behind in terms of kerchiiiing (both pecuniary and social).


Andre Breton, Surrealist Manifesto, 1924:
Steven Manford, Behind the Photo: The Stamps of Man Ray:
The Met Museum, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Photograph and Surrealism:
Sotheby’s Photographs 3 April 2016 New York:

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