Pilara Foundation Sale continued…

A Sotheby’s Sale of Mug Shots, I.D. Badges and Early Kodak Prints

The auction house is offering an eclectic collection from Pier 24 Photography, including anonymous snapshots of Lucky Luciano and 1880s baseball players.

A sepia-toned diptych of a mug shot of a man in a suit and tie.
A 1931 mug shot of the mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano, which is part of Pier 24’s first sale of vernacular photography, online from Sept. 26 to Oct. 3.Credit…via Sotheby’s

By Arthur Lubow

Sept. 20, 2023

Pier 24 Photography made its debut in 2010 on the San Francisco waterfront, the creation of a former investment banker, Andrew Pilara. Since then, the exhibition space has staged highly regarded photography shows, mostly drawn from the founder’s wide-ranging collection.

But early this year, unhappy that the San Francisco Port Commission had tripled the rent, Pilara, 81, announced that Pier 24 will close in July 2025. While he will give the majority of its holdings to museums, a sizable portion will be sold to support medical research, education and the arts, through a foundation that he and his wife, Mary Pilara, oversee.

Although the collection is known for its in-depth representation of prominent artists, a significant part of Pilara’s collection was created by anonymous photographers. Sotheby’s will offer up many of these images that Christopher McCall, the Pier 24 director, culled from eBay, flea markets and auctions in the organization’s first sale of vernacular photography, online from Sept. 26 to Oct. 3.

The photographers’ aim were functional, not artistic. About a third of the lots comprise police mug shots, a genre that Pilara embraced early. “When I saw mug shots, I said, they are sitting for a portrait,” he recalled in a video interview. And, because they sparked an emotional response, they met his essential criterion of whether to buy.

About Face,” an exhibition of portraits at Pier 24 in 2012-13, presented a roomful of more than 300 mug shots, as well as photographs by renowned artists, including August Sander, Richard Avedon and Cindy Sherman. “It was very popular,” Pilara said of the mug shot room. While most of the pictures were arrayed in multiples, along the lines of the typological arrangements of Bernd and Hilla Becher (also represented in the Pier 24 collection), the celebrity mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano merited a framed diptych of his own. (It is included in the auction.)

A sepia-toned diptych of typed book with mug shots on either side.
A warden’s book from San Quentin Prison in California.Credit…via Sotheby’s
A sepia-toned photograph of a baseball player holding a baseball.
A 1887 photograph of Tug Arundel.Credit…via Sotheby’s
A blue-tinted photograph of an arm holding a baseball.
A cyanotype of a hand clutching a baseball.Credit…via Sotheby’s

The Sotheby’s sale also features shots of new prisoners at San Quentin in 1935 and grisly crime-scene photos in New York in the 1930s. But much of the selection is more wholesome. Pilara, a longtime baseball fan, acquired an archive of 364 retouched portraits of ballplayers that The Chicago Tribune relinquished as it entered the digital age. (“I was a pitcher,” Pilara said. “Baseball has been my life, and I’d never seen press photos like that.”) Aesthetically more impressive are a collodion print on iron (a kind of tintype) of “Tug” Arundel, a catcher who played for the Indianapolis Hoosiers in the 1880s, and a cyanotype of a pitcher’s arm and hand gripping a baseball.

Also memorable are an assemblage of hand-colored, black-and-white portraits from northeastern Brazil and 40 American tintypes, mostly of children, many embellished with a paintbrush. In one memento, a delicately painted lace bib poignantly evokes the fragility of a baby. But who were the people behind the camera? An undated self-portrait of a practitioner, his camera on a tripod, provides a likeness if not a name.

Pilara particularly sought out scrapbooks with an insight into people’s lives. A photo album kept in the early 20th century by a young woman, Mildred Elizabeth Wheatley, documents her progression from infancy to marriage.

More unexpected is a large collection of photo identification badges, worn by workers entering factories in the 1940s. On the surface, nothing could be less emotionally moving, yet for Pilara, they resonate. “My wife of 40 years is from a small town of 900 in Illinois,” he explained. She would tell him about the manufacturing plants in her birthplace, and the jobs they provided, that had been lost to other countries, especially China. “I’m an investor,” he said. “That really put it on the wall for me.”

A color-tinted photo of a little girl in a white dress by a wooden fence.
A tintype with hand-applied pigment, circa 1900.Credit…via Sotheby’s
A black-and-white image of a woman with a blue border that says Fluor Corp'n., LTD.
An employee I.D. from the 1940s and 1950s.Credit…via Sotheby’s
A sepia-toned photograph of a building in rubble, with a horse and buggy to the left.
A silver gelatin print of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.Credit…via Sotheby’s

He has amassed pictures of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 for similar reasons: He was born and raised in the city. A grouping of 20 snapshots of the catastrophe included in the auction were likely taken by an amateur wandering through the city with one of the inexpensive Kodak cameras that were all the rage at the turn of the century.

Glenstone Museum in Maryland (endowed by Emily and Mitchell Rales) purchased 112 photographs from the Pier 24 collection in March, zeroing in on big names like Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, William Eggleston and Rineke Dijkstra. A sale in May at Sotheby’s also focused on well-known artists, including Dorothea Lange and Robert Adams, and netted close to $11 million.

But more vernacular and less pricey images cast a light on one of photography’s primary purposes — documentation. They are represented here in its myriad forms: supervision, publicity, remembrance. Whether artistically distinguished or not, the pictures remind you of the passage of time and the inevitability of extinction. They make you think, mourn and dream.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *