The destruction of the Polaroid photo collection

By Felix Salmon
February 12, 2010
Carol Vogel swallowed the disingenuous rationalizations of the vandals tearing apart the unique and irreplaceable Polaroid photography collection:

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I’m disappointed in the way in which the NYT’s Carol Vogel swallowed the disingenuous rationalizations of the vandals tearing apart the unique and irreplaceable Polaroid photography collection:

To pay off creditors, a bankruptcy court in Minnesota is forcing Polaroid to sell a portion of its collection at Sotheby’s in New York on June 21 and 22. On offer will be 400 photographs by Ansel Adams alone, along with prints by Mr. Close, Mr. Wegman, Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney, Robert Frank, Robert Mapplethorpe, Warhol and Lucas Samaras. Together the 1,200 objects are expected to fetch $7.5 million to $11.5 million…

What Sotheby’s is selling is just a fraction of Polaroid’s holdings however. There are still more than 10,000 images in a Massachusetts warehouse that could end up in a museum in the future, Mr. Stoebner said…

When selecting the most valuable (and salable) photographs from the collection, Ms. Bethel said she sought a wide price range in the hope of attracting new or young collectors. Thus the auction includes a Wegman dog image estimated at $3,000 to $5,000 and an Adams mural expected to bring $400,000 to $600,000.

Never mind, as Lindsay Pollock notes in her article on the sale, that Polaroid made promises to the artists that will be impossible to keep once the photos are sold to anonymous buyers at auction. The fact is that Stoebner and Bethel have simply creamed off the top 10% or so of the collection — the most valuable works from the biggest-name artists. In doing so, they’ve turned the remaining 90% of the collection, which Stoebner purports to believe could ” could end up in a museum in the future”, into a liability rather than an asset, and something which no museum will ever want.

As for the idea that Sotheby’s “sought a wide price range in the hope of attracting new or young collectors”, the fact is that they just carried on down the Polaroid collection until they ran out of recognizable names which had a decent chance of selling. If they’re selling a Wegman dog image for $3,000 to $5,000, you can be sure there’s nothing in the remainder of the collection which is worth much more.

The really big question, of course, as Marion Maneker asks, is why the collection is being sold off in pieces to begin with. It might be the easiest way to raise the maximum amount of money in the minimum amount of time, but if the decision is purely mercenary, then Stoebner shouldn’t be presenting himself as some kind of high-minded custodian who’s talked to “several museums” about preserving the collection in toto. Insofar as he talked to the museums, I’m sure he was just angling for a sum of money greater than the minimum guarantee offered by Sotheby’s — or else just trying to get a baseline number which he’d then ask Sotheby’s to match.

The Sotheby’s sale constitutes the destruction of a lovingly-constructed artistic endeavor which was ultimately doomed by the greed and fraud engaged in by the chain of speculators and chancers who levered up and broke down the Polaroid company as though it were any other financial commodity. It’s a crying shame, and the art press should be railing against it, rather than talking it up as some kind of art-market milestone.


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I have to say, you’re getting . . . screechier lately. I hope everything’s alright at work and home.

In any event, keep in mind that this is in the context of a legal proceeding. We’re not told that any rights holder filed a claim with the court or objected to the sale. And the evidence given for the promises is pretty shoddy – the say so of a third party art critic with no obvious reason to know about the contract negotiations Polaroid had with artists. I’m not saying he’s lying, but we need something more than “this guy says so” to justify taking this asset away from the creditors.

Keep in mind too that the trustee has a fiduciary duty to the creditors. He can give museums a decent discount if he really wants to, because judges love the public interest, but he can only go so far. He could have legitimately tried to sell to a museum or foundation, only to have them too far outbid by Sotheby’s for him to justify it to the judge. Or he could be posing. I can’t look into the guy’s head, but neither can you.

BTW, do you have any particular evidence to support the skimming claim? Or is that just your feeling from browsing two newspaper articles? It seems odd that the collection could be so wonderful and valuable, and at the same time 90% of it is a liability. Did Polaroid invest in duplicates of Warhol’s “Mortgage Backed Security By Firelight?”

Posted by AnonymousChef | Report as abusive

If you work with a lot of artists and 10% of your collection ends up being salable at auction, that’s a *high* hit rate, not a low one.