A Picture’s Worth: Once in a lifetime auction of a once in a lifetime collection

1.jpgNEW YORK – It’s rare to be able to say, without qualification, that a given auction is truly a once-in-a-lifetime sale, but in the case of the Thurman “Jack” Naylor photographic collection, there can be no doubt: We are not likely to see a collection of this quality and depth come on the market, all at once, for quite a long time – if ever again.

Jack Naylor was a man who knew what he wanted. A World War II-decorated flying ace, he met famed photographer Margaret Bourke-White during the war and the two formed a friendship that lasted until Bourke-White died in 1971. From this friendship, Naylor developed a passionate devotion to photography and set about assembling what is easily the best collection of its kind.

187.jpg“The Naylor Collection covers virtually every aspect of the world of photography,” said Arlan Ettinger, co-owner of Guernsey’s Auction House in Manhattan, which will be conducting the sale Oct. 18-21. “Not just photographs like one typically sees in auctions of this type.”

Naylor was a man with the drive and the money to get exactly what he wanted, yet he was no mere investor looking to get rich on art. Consider this: When Bourke-White died, all of her studio prints and her cameras were bequeathed to Naylor. He also formed a lasting and important friendship with legendary flash-photo pioneer Harold “Doc” Edgerton.

His passion led Naylor to acquire rare and sometimes bizarre early photographic equipment, and delicate glass-plate positives. 20.jpgHe amassed a collection of honest-to-goodness daguerreotypes (between 600 and 700 of which are in this sale) of such rarity and quality that they could easily have been a sale in and of themselves.

“It’s not the sheer number that’s impressive,” Ettinger said, “indeed, it’s that many of these are among the most desirable daguerreotypes to ever appear.”

69.jpgThey are, however, only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Naylor’s nature was such that he would not stop with just one or two examples of a photographer’s work. He bought dozens, whatever was available, then he bought their cameras and all the rest of their equipment. If that wasn’t enough, he began to acquire antiques and art specific to the period of history associated with the photographer to which he was devoting himself.

135.jpgIf it was Native American documentarian Edward Curtis, he had to have the original glass plates that the photographs were shot on. If it was Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, he developed a Civil War collection, including an Abraham Lincoln 1860 life mask by Leonard Volk. It’s an uncanny relic that is unmistakably America’s beloved 16th president, but has no beard. It’s an unsettling and brilliant touch to cap the tin and ambrotype section of the collection.

His friendship with Edgerton also forms an important part of the sale. That closeness to the pioneer allowed him access to some of the most iconic prints of the 20th century. It led him to acquire some of Edgerton’s most important photographic equipment, including the camera that Edgerton used to snap images of the first tests of the atomic bomb. This only hints at the depths of the collection.

26.jpg“We were hard-pressed to get the collection down to 2,000 lots,” Ettinger said. “It’s still four solid days.”

Keeping in mind that many of those 2,000 lots feature several parts, and the number of actual items expands exponentially. Even Ettinger, head of an auction house famous for its marathon sales, says this one is going to be an epic event based on the sheer volume, as well as the aesthetic and philosophical weight, of the collection.

That then begs the question: Why isn’t the collection being obtained as one by some aficionado or well-appointed institution?

The truth is that both Naylor and Guernsey’s are open to the idea, and have been from the start, but the reality of finding a single buyer for the collection is much different.

“We know that it was Mr. Naylor’s hope that the collection would be acquired intact,” Ettinger said, “but we’ve been in business for 35 years and I can attest to the fact that’s a very hard thing to do.”

16.jpgThere is one section of the collection that both Naylor and Guernsey’s agree will go as a whole. It is Naylor’s collection of spy cameras, which is also the only part of the auction with a reserve. The cameras that make up the espionage section are the stuff of James Bond – walking sticks, rings, a suit of clothing with a camera in a button – all were painstakingly assembled by Naylor from all over the world.

11.jpg“The espionage collection contains about 160-170 cameras developed by the Russians, the Germans, the British, and even our side,” Ettinger said. “These are some of the most bizarre devices used by any spies over the years.”

Beyond that one exception, however, it’s anything goes. What will ultimately rise as the star of such a star-studded sale is open to conjecture. Even Ettinger won’t hazard a definite guess.

“There are so many things,” he said. “Maybe it’ll be the famous prints of the Times Square kiss, or the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. Maybe it’ll be (Bourke White’s) photo that was used on the cover of the first issue of Time. There are also a lot of rare books and many things not relating to photography that are quite significant.”

One of the more interesting non-photo lots up for sale are two American flags that flew to the moon with Alan Sheppard, who was also a close friend of Edgerton. The flags came to Naylor via Edgerton, and have been in his keeping ever since.

“These are two flags that have been in outer space and circled the planet,” Ettinger said. “That’s the sort of thing that’s in this auction that most people would never know about; that’s how deep this collection is.”

An epic collection deserves an epic sale. With six sessions over four days, the Oct. 18 and 19 sessions starting at 6 p.m. figure to log some late hours. All four days include a 1 p.m. session as well.

For more information, call 212-794-2280. If you just want to get a look at some of the stellar goods, or order a catalogue, go online to www.guernseys.com.