I don't quite have my facts sorted for this next story, as I've sort of been getting glimmers of this and that from hither and yon, hearing from various people involved.
So don't take this as journalism. Take it as, er, blogging.
Here's the broad brush: one of the good guys wins one.
I'm pretty sure I've met Mike Mitchell. (Here's Mike, in a picture I think I'd better not snitch.) He was a fixture on the Washington, D.C. photography scene when I was there, and I'm almost sure he came to give a presentation to my art school class (see, I could check this, because I could email the five or six classmates I'm still in touch with and see what they remember).
Anyway, the story is that Mike took a bunch of pictures way early on in his career—he was just eighteen at the time—of the Beatles, in one of their very first U.S. appearances, at the old Washington Coliseum, in February of '64. And then he forgot about them (the pictures, I mean, not the Beatles). I'm sure in those early days everybody and his brother was taking pictures of the Beatles. What was one more kid with a camera?
Recently—I have this from a friend who was one of my teachers, and who knows Mike—Mike went through a bad divorce. He struggled mightily to keep his house, but it went into foreclosure, and he lost it, and had to move out. He then had to move to a cramped basement apartment, from which he's been struggling to put his life back together. The idea must have occurred to him when he was surveying what was left of his resources that maybe those old Beatles negs might have some value now.
I learned this next bit from a phone chat with Eric Luden, whose company Digital Silver Imaging made the prints for Mike from the Beatles negatives. Apropos our conversations a few months back about limited editions, each of Mike's Beatles pictures is an edition of one—that's right. Each print is unique. [UPDATE: This might not be right. See Hugh's "Featured Comment" below. —MJ]
What's a matter of record is that 46 prints were auctioned off at Christie's New York store on July 20th—and realized $361,938 inclusive of commissions. Christie's had set the pre-auction estimate at $100,000, largely because Mike is considered an unknown photographer. The best price was for the print of the picture above, which went for ~$68,500. "During the bidding [Mitchell] watched wide-eyed from the audience as the prices kept rising, in some cases surpassing their estimates by a factor of ten," reported the New York Observer. "Frantically, he texted with his sister, who is in Florida. 'We were going "Wow, Wow, Wow!"'"
And one thing I know for myself—because I saw it—is that Mike made the national news the next evening. Bob Schieffer (who I also met once, in my Washingtonian days), sitting in for whoever the CBS news anchorman has been since Katie Couric left, read a feature about Mike's big sale—and didn't even mention Mike's name! Bob referred to him as "the photographer." Man, if I ever make the evening news, I hope they at least bother to name me. It's not like they're not naming their own reporters every twenty seconds. I trust Mike is consoling himself with thoughts of moving out of that basement.
You can still see the e-catalog of all the pictures at the Christie's website, although I don't know how long it will be available. Eric and his people did a great job printing them, looks like.
And finally, I was listening to Revolver as I wrote this post. I'm nothing if not detail-oriented. In some ways at least. Cheers and good going to Mike Mitchell—now, and to his 18-year-old self.
(Thanks to Mark Power)
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Hugh Crawford: "Re 'each of Mike's Beatles pictures is an edition of one—that's right. Each print is unique.' That sounded so crazy that I read the auction catalogue, and on page 3 it reads 'Please note further prints may be made of the images included in this sale. They will not include the moniker embedded in each image in this collection.' Elsewhere it explains that the 'moniker' is a heart-shaped highlight embedded in each print in the sale, sort of like what I would call a watermark. The really cool thing from Mike Mitchell's point of view is that he has established a price as high as $68,500 per print for future prints as long as they do not have the embedded heart 'moniker.' So each print is an edition of one unique object, but the images themselves are not in any way a limited edition. I guess he's crazy like a fox, but presumably Christie's and Mike Mitchell's lawyers have gone over this thoroughly, and good for him I say.
Mike replies: I stand corrected. At least, I certainly hope you're right and that I stand corrected! I was literally speechless when I heard that bit about each print being unique.