Vanessa Kramer Hallett

Vanessa Kramer Hallett –Director and Worldwide Head, Phillips de Pury & Company

Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born and raised in Manhattan. I attended Colgate University and then worked at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. It was extremely fun to work in Salem particularly around Halloween. I moved back to NYC for graduate school. I have been at Phillips for over 8 years and love working here.


As worldwide director of photographs at Phillips de Pury & Company can you tell us what your job entails? 

I oversee our Photographs auctions in New York and London; we hold two auctions per year in each location—one in the Fall and one in the Spring. My responsibilities shift as we’re nearing an auction, although for the greater portion of each season I am responsible for bringing in photographs on consignment. I consistently meet with collectors, curators, dealers and advisors in order to secure the highest caliber of photographs for each season. Most consignments are the results of months—and at times, years—of networking and keeping in contact with potential consignors.  I also attend art fairs, sit on panels and give talks to special interest groups to make sure that I have my finger on the pulse.

Once we get closer to the date of the sale, my emphasis shifts to editing and laying out our catalogue, designing our exhibition, strategizing about our marketing, and then reaching out to our top clients to build up interest in our sale and match works from our sale with their collections.

The fast pace of the auction industry, combined with the fact that every six months I oversee a completely different group of photographs —makes this a very dynamic and exciting role.


How did you discover photography originally? Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to be involved in the photography world?

I discovered Photography as a graduate student in the American Arts Course at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art. The moment I knew that I wanted to be involved in the field was when I was working at Sotheby’s in the Client Services department assisting with a photographs auction- I experienced firsthand how knowledgeable and enthusiastic the clientele were for the medium. I shared their passion.


Phillips is a leader in the photography market, selling both classic and contemporary works, is there a bigger market for one or the other?

The market for photographs has been growing over the past few years. It used to be the case that for a photograph to be considered fine art it had to be classic and a black and white print. Fortunately that is no longer the case. The field now incorporates all different types of mediums and many of the photographs that are offered in our sales are digital. Accordingly, the base clientele of collectors has also grown and become much more diverse, and we’re seeing a lot of crossover buyers from our other departments at Phillips—from Contemporary Art to Design. I would not go as far as saying that the market for one is bigger than the other. We have been seeing fantastic results in our sales for early works by Man Ray, Nadar and Robert Frank as we have for Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman and Andreas Gursky.


Any up  and coming photographers you particularly enjoy?

We focus on the secondary market therefore we offer artists that are already established but this season we are proud to introduce artists such as Ori Gersht, Angela Strassheim and Viviane Sassen for the first time in a NY Phillips photographs sale.


Is there some photography that is good but just not marketable or sellable?

There are a lot of great photographs in the market that sell well in the primary market but don’t translate as well at auction and/or some photographers have huge successful museum exhibitions but again that doesn’t mean they will automatically sell at the highest prices at auction.


People say the art world is moving from galleries and auctions to art fairs, what do you feel about this transition?

I don’t agree. I feel that all facets of the art world have an important place in the art market and we should all work together to promote education, discussion and to source the highest caliber of works for our clients.


What category of photography is most marketable?

I don’t know that there is necessarily a category within photography that is most marketable. However, as the economy has gotten stronger over the past couple of years and buyers’ & sellers’ confidence has likewise risen, we have seen a rise in prices for the top caliber works. People are more aggressive in their pursuit of key examples by leading photographers all across the board—be it an iconic image by Henri Cartier-Bresson or an early print of Edward Weston. It seems that they prefer spending the extra money on securing the best possible work for their collection. As a result, we have seen new record breaking prices each season, be it for specific images by certain artists, or even entire new world auction records.


How has the photography market changed since you started at Phillips in 2005?

The market has changed in the sense that there is more interest than ever. I feel every year the medium becomes more and more established and collectable with a fast growing client base. On average, we have 40% new buyers to our sales each season- it is absolutely incredible. This is of course due to fabulous museum exhibitions, gallery shows, advisors and everyone else who contributes to the economy of the photographs market.


In today’s world almost everyone has a camera with them at all times, images are everywhere. Has this decreased the value of photography? Has it made photographers more lazy or challenged them to work harder to be original and thought provoking?

I think it is great that so many people enjoy taking pictures as it allows everyone to partake in the process of photography from framing the image to developing if that is their passion. I don’t feel it has decreased the value since photography is an amazing hobby but just because everyone can literally take a photograph that doesn’t mean her/her photograph can be exhibited successfully and sold in the international market place.


How do you continue to set auction records for photographs?

It is a huge team effort from sourcing the most desirables and rare images, to attractive catalogue production to creative marketing, advertising and press initiatives to finally reaching out to the right buyers. The whole company is ultimately responsible for a successful auction record.


How does Phillips differ from other auction houses like Sotheby’s or Christie’s?

As opposed to our competitors, Phillips has only five selling departments— Photographs, Contemporary Art, Design, Editions and Jewelry—which allows us to bring company-wide focus into every single sale. All our executives and directors for all departments and internationally are involved in selling each sale at the company which is a really incredible advantage which helps with our success. We have many international offices and representatives around the world which creates a large network of active buyers. We are very client service oriented and strive to provide an intimate and professional experience and can also be very creative in our proposals and selling techniques.

We are additionally known for introducing a lot of emerging talent to the secondary market—we were the first ones to offer works by Loretta Lux, Gregory Crewdson,  Ruud Van Empel, Michael Reisch  among others at auction. By introducing a handful of new artists each season, it adds an element of surprise and novelty to our offerings. This is obviously a question which I can go on forever about but I will cap myself at this point.


How does Phillips get the photographs it then sells? Do you all seek it out, or do collectors come to you?

It’s a mixture of both.  That said, while we do get some cold calls the vast majority of our consignments come from extensive networking by myself and our team of specialists and consultants. We initiate and nurture strong relationships with collectors, advisors, curators and dealers. There are consignments that have taken years for us to secure. We always try to provide the highest service possible and at times it means traveling to remote locations all around the world.


How do you keep up to date with new international photographers?

I regularly visit art fairs—from AIPAD to Armory, Paris Photo, Miami Basel, Frieze, and many of the other ancillary fairs to try and get a strong sense of what the dealers are showing, who is selling well, who is represented by what gallery, and what collectors are responding favorably to. Also, when I visit collections, many times I see works by artists whom I may not have necessarily known much about prior, which inevitably leads me to do my due diligence, learn more about the artist and assess their potential for auction at a later point.  I read art publications and discuss artists with our international clientele who help keep me updated on new artists in their countries. It is a never ending but very enjoyable aspect of the job.


This issue of Musee is themed Nude, Naked, & More. Any photographers who specialize in nudes that you like? Is the market large for photographs of nude subjects?

There are too many photographers to name who specialize in nudes that I like since the theme is very popular. The human body has always been a popular subject for photographs and continues to be a very strong market. In our April 2 & 3rd auctions, we have some excellent photographs on this subject by Frantisek Drtikol, Alfred Stieglitz (the subject being Georgia O’Keeffe), Clarence White, Horst P. Horst, Albert Watson, Herb Ritts and the list goes on.


In photography and almost all art, the female nude is heavily present, are you seeing more art depicting the naked male figure? Do people want to buy images of naked men more today?

There has always been a solid group of photographers working with the nude male form. Examples in our current sale are photographers such as Herb Ritts, Robert Mapplethorpe, Larry Clark and Philip Lorca diCorcia. These four artists have excellent markets and we expect these specific examples to be desirable in the market place.


What is the theme (if there is one) of the upcoming  April auction?

This season I am actually very excited about a single-owner collection titled The Curious Collector: Important Photographs From The Collection of Dr. Anthony Terrana, that we will be offering in an Evening session on April 2nd and a Morning session on April 3rd. Even though there is no theme as far as subject is concerned, the sale is unified by Dr. Terrana’s unwavering dedication and evolving perspective on the field of photographs. It includes a number of outstanding works by many of the biggest innovators in the field across the 20th century. From Laszlo Moholy Nagy,  Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Andre Kertesz and Imogen Cunningham, to Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Walead Beshty—all are represented in the collection. These works along with the ones to be offered in our various owner sale, collectively present the many wonderful permutations that the field of photography has gone through over the past one hundred years or so. It’s a very exciting opportunity for Phillips.


View photographs from The Curious Collector: Important Photographs from the Collection of Dr. Anthony Terrana at Phillips


Interview and Photograph by Andrea Blanch







Sheila Johnson