Sotheby’s Is Holding Its First Ever Sale of Vernacular Photography

Sotheby’s Is Holding Its First Ever Sale of Vernacular Photography


In 2003, former investor Andrew Pilara found himself awed by the work of photographer Diane Arbus while attending a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  With his wife Mary, he subsequently began building his own photography collection, one that would eventually become well-known for including some of the most significant images of the 20th century.

Painted portrait of mother and son duo
Retratos pintado (painted portraits) from Brazil circa 1950s. Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Now Sotheby’s is selling off several significant works from that collection, which has long been housed at Pilara’s Pier 24 Photography museum in San Francisco. Following the successful May 2023 sale of other Pilara collection photographs that brought in $10.6 million, Sotheby’s is hosting a fall/winter auction series featuring works by acclaimed photographers like Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Edward Weston.

But the first auction in the series, which opens online beginning on September 26, will notably exclude any famous names—in fact, the lots are largely unattributed. Photographer Unknown is Sotheby’s first-ever dedicated sale of vernacular photography (as opposed to fine art photography) and includes a wide variety of mug shots, employee identification badges and family snapshots.

Black and white mugshot of man in a suit
Mugshot of mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano in 1931. Courtesy of Sotheby’s

An unattributed sepia-toned mugshot of infamous mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano, for example, shows the mafioso staring down the camera, while a photograph from the 1880s captures the catching stance of John Thomas “Tug” Arundel, a baseball player for the Indianapolis Hoosiers. The sale will additionally feature numerous colorful hand-tinted portraits of Brazilian families taken in the 20th century, alongside several tintypes depicting young American children posing in their finest clothing. The Pilara sale will even include a photograph of a warden’s book from San Quentin State Prison in 1935, complete with stone-faced mugshots and prisoner descriptions.

Black and white photo of crouching baseball player
Indianapolis Hoosiers catcher Tug Arundel in 1887. Courtesy of Sotheby’s

More conventional images will go on the block in the second and third photography sales scheduled live in October and online in December, including seven photographs by Dorothea Lange. The high estimate for White Angel Breadline, the photographer’s very first documentary image taken in 1933 during the Great Depression, is $200,000.

Black and white photo of man turning his back to crowd of other men
Dorothea Lange, White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, (1933). Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Meanwhile, a series of portraits by Hiroshi Sugimoto will lead the October 25 sale with an estimate of $600,000. While Sugimoto’s images depict Henry VIII and his six wives, the Tudor subjects have been captured not in the flesh but in wax. Created with Madame Tussaud wax figures, the photos in the series are also in New York’s Guggenheim and Japan’s Odawara Art Foundation.

Richard Avedon’s The Minneapolis Portfolio, which contains eleven images of cultural and political figures like Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Dwight David Eisenhower and Ezra Pound, will also be part of the vernacular photography live sale. With striking images captured during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the portfolio is expected to bring in $300,000.

Black and white photograph depicting Henry VIII.
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Henry VIII, (1999). Courtesy of Sotheby’s

The auction proceeds from Pier 24 Photography’s collection will benefit the Pilara Family Foundation, which will put the money toward initiatives in healthcare research, education and the arts. The pledged donations signify a shifting philanthropic focus for the family foundation, which will transition toward grant-making after having run Pier 24 Photography since 2010.

Pilara announced the news earlier this year, revealing that his San Francisco museum will close in July of 2025 when its current lease expires due to rent increases. “Rather than operating with a significantly higher annual budget, we believe that the money could be better utilized by local organizations,” he said in a statement at the time.

In the meantime, Pilara and his family are sending their collection to auction houses and art centers like Maryland’s Glenstone Museum. The foundation intends to continue gifting photographs to more institutions in the future, according to Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s to Host Its First-Ever Dedicated Auction of Vernacular Photography