A slice of the Polaroid Collection, ensnared in the Ponzi scheme of convicted swindler Tom Petters, fetched $12.5 million at a court-ordered auction by Sotheby's in Manhattan this week.
The two-day photo auction beat estimates and netted about $10 million for creditors in the Polaroid bankruptcy cases in Minnesota. Andy Warhol self-portraits, a shot of a young Farrah Fawcett gazing over her shoulder and two hands by artist Lucas Samaras were among the items that sold.
Sotheby's said it set price records for 14 photographers, including Ansel Adams, whose mural-sized "Clearing Winter Storm," showing a snow-covered forest in Yosemite National Park, topped the auction at $722,500 after four bidders battled for it.
Farrah Fawcett went for $43,750.
A collage by Chuck Close called "9-Part Self Portrait" sold for $290,500 -- more than four times Sotheby's estimated price. A self-portrait of pop artist Andy Warhol with his eyes closed garnered $254,500. There were also some significant non-Polaroid works in the auction that Ansel Adams gathered for the Polaroid Corp., which labeled them the "Library Collection," according to Sotheby's. One of those pieces was Dorothea Lange's famous "Migrant Mother," which sold for $218,500.
"It was a very good day for the Polaroid creditors," said George Singer, special legal counsel for John Stoebner, the trustee handling Polaroid's bankruptcy.
Singer said the grandson of Ansel Adams attended the auction but that bids were made anonymously. Sotheby's would not discuss who bought what, only saying that bidders came from around the world.
Sotheby's spokesman Dan Abernathy called the sale "unique."
"It was the first time that an auction had been dedicated to a technology," he said. "It was completely remarkable on many levels. Our whole building was taken over by the exhibition, the sale was so huge."
The auction included more than 1,000 photographs from the one-of-a-kind Polaroid Collection. The collection includes some 16,000 images, most of which reside in a building in Somerville, Mass., near Boston. Another part of the collection is in a museum in Europe.
Few even knew the collection was part of Polaroid Corp. Petters bought the instant photo icon for $426 million in 2005 and moved its headquarters to Minnetonka to use the Polaroid brand on electronics. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late 2008, months after Petters was arrested, and the artwork popped up as a surprise asset. The bankruptcy later changed to a Chapter 7 liquidation.
Polaroid itself was sold off last year in a tumultuous fire-sale auction. A joint venture of Hilco Consumer Capital of Toronto and Gordon Brothers Brands in Boston bought it for $85.9 million. That company, which remains in Minnetonka, is now called simply Polaroid and uses the Polaroid brand.
But the buyers excluded the art collection, along with some other assets.
Orphaned, the photographs remained with Polaroid Corp., which is being liquidated and was renamed PBE Corp. so it wouldn't be confused with the Polaroid brand company.
A small group of artists led by a retired judge in Oklahoma named Samuel Joyner opposed selling Polaroid's collection, saying the art is culturally significant and should be kept whole in a school or museum. They have also said many artists didn't give the company commercial rights to the images. Artist Chuck Close told the Associated Press earlier this month that he was disappointed the works would be sold to private investors because Polaroid promised artists the works would go to a museum as a whole.
The group had several discussions with bankruptcy officials but didn't file a motion and the sale went forward, according to Singer.
Petters was sentenced to 50 years in prison for running a $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme.
Looking for assets
The liquidation of Polaroid's final remains continues. Stoebner, the bankruptcy trustee, said there are actually 10 Polaroid bankruptcy cases and he's still hunting down remaining assets. There are significant tax refunds sitting in Mexico, Canada and India. There's real estate in Mexico that could be worth up to $2 million, an equity interest in a Japanese subsidiary and some inventory.
"I still have 15,000 photos to liquidate, too," Stoebner said. Proceeds will go to Polaroid creditors.
The Sotheby's auction included the cream of the collection, Stoebner said, but didn't include any works in Europe. He said he also agreed to remove a few photos from the auction, including one of three Chuck Close photos and a Warhol, to enhance the collection at Somerville. He said he's trying to find an institutional home in the United States and a separate home for part of the collection in Europe.
The bankruptcy cases will take another year or two to finish, Singer said. There are hundreds of creditors, including a number of former Polaroid employees, and it will take time to sort out the claims.
"It has been fascinating, and it's not over yet," Singer said.
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683