Clockwise, from top left Diane Arbus, Young man and his girlfriend with hot dogs in the park, NYC, 1971. Sold for £7,560; Elger Esser, Cap d’Antifer, Frankreich. Sold for £15,120; Zanele

‘Supporting living artists is one of the greatest privileges’ — photographs from the collection of Ellen and Dan Shapiro

As 44 of the Shapiros’ photographs come to auction in London, Ellen Shapiro shares a passionate collecting journey that began with the acquisition of a Cindy Sherman work in 1985 for ‘around $100’

‘Collecting photographs is a passion, an addiction,’ Ellen Shapiro tells Christie’s via Zoom from her Palm Beach residence. ‘I don’t think I’m finished yet.’

The American collector, together with her late husband Dan, has spent more than three decades assembling an encyclopaedic archive of photographs for their homes on both sides of the Atlantic.

‘I’ve absolutely loved living every day with wonderful works of art, as well as learning from artists, gallerists and other collectors,’ she says. ‘I’ve definitely gained more than I’ve given.’

‘We moved into a beautiful flat in Eaton Place, but it had no pictures on the walls. So we started buying new contemporary works almost immediately’ — Ellen and Dan Shapiro. Image courtesy of the family

‘We moved into a beautiful flat in Eaton Place, but it had no pictures on the walls. So we started buying new contemporary works almost immediately’ — Ellen and Dan Shapiro. Image courtesy of the family

And Shapiro has given a lot. As well as serving on numerous museum committees, including the Tate’s Photography Acquisitions Committee, the Photography Council of MoMA and the Photography Committee of the Guggenheim, she has donated coveted photographs by artists close to her heart, among them Zanele Muholi, Nicholas NixonLaurie Simmons and Susan Derges. In addition, she has established The Ellen Daniel and Jon Shapiro Acquisition Fund at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. 

Shapiro now spends her winters in Florida, so the time has come to sell her London home. ‘It’s the end of a chapter,’ she says. ‘But I’m ready to move on, and the house and collection go hand in hand.’

Candida Höfer (b. 1944), Narodni Knihovna Praha II, 2004. This work is number five from an edition of six. Colour coupler print. 60⅜ x 46⅞ in (153.2 x 119.1 cm). Sold for £60,480 on 9 March 2022, Online
Candida Höfer (b. 1944), Narodni Knihovna Praha II, 2004. This work is number five from an edition of six. Colour coupler print. 60⅜ x 46⅞ in (153.2 x 119.1 cm). Sold for £60,480 on 9 March 2022, Online

Forty-four photographs from her London residence will be offered in Christie’s First Open: Post-War and Contemporary Art Online sale, which runs from 23 February to 9 March, with highlights on show at Christie’s London from 9 to 16 February. The sale includes photographs by Andreas Gursky, Olafur Eliasson and William Eggleston, as well as standout works by leading female photographers including Candida Höfer, Annie Leibovitz and Cindy Sherman.

Many of these were acquired in the early 2000s when the Shapiros relocated to London from New York. ‘We left our Park Avenue apartment fully furnished, as we thought we’d be going back after two or three years,’ Shapiro explains. ‘In London, we moved into a beautiful flat on Eaton Place, but it had no pictures on the walls. So we started buying new contemporary works almost immediately.’

Before long, nearly every square inch of wall space was filled with pictures. ‘I’m not a big believer in storage,’ says Shapiro with a smile. ‘If I buy something, I want to live with it.’

Elger Esser (b. 1967), Cap d’Antifer, 2000. 51⅛ x 72⅞ in (129.9 x 185.1 cm). Sold for £15,120 on 9 March 2022, Online
Elger Esser (b. 1967), Cap d’Antifer, 2000. 51⅛ x 72⅞ in (129.9 x 185.1 cm). Sold for £15,120 on 9 March 2022, Online

The living room, for instance, was crammed with large-scale landscapes by Höfer, Mosse, Edward Burtynsky and Elger Esser, while in the TV room hung portraits by Leibovitz, Viviane Sassen and Taryn Simon.

‘These images worked well together,’ Shapiro says of the thematic displays. ‘We were always conscious of how pictures would relate to one another.’

The burgeoning collection soon attracted the attention of visiting curators, lecturers, museum committees and VIP groups from around the world. ‘I absolutely loved showing our collection to people who shared our interest in photography,’ she recalls. ‘We’d sometimes have up to 25 people for a tour and lunch.’

Taryn Simon (b. 1975), Ronald Jones Scene of Arrest, 2002. Chromogenic print. 30½ x 39½ in (77.4 x 100.2 cm).  Sold for £13,860 on 9 March 2022, Online
Taryn Simon (b. 1975), Ronald Jones Scene of Arrest, 2002. Chromogenic print. 30½ x 39½ in (77.4 x 100.2 cm). Sold for £13,860 on 9 March 2022, Online

For Shapiro, the collection’s unique selling point is its singular focus. ‘It is a pure collection of photography, and that makes it stronger,’ she says. ‘But I like variety and get excited by new things, so I will rarely buy more than one work by an artist.’

She cites Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, Zanele Muholi and Richard Mosse as exceptions. ‘These are among my favourite artists, so I have bought them in depth,’ she says. ‘Occasionally, I would buy two images to be hung together, for instance, Elad Lassry and Aleksandra Mir.’

Richard Mosse (b. 1980), Come Out, 2011. Digital C-print. 20 x 24 in (50.8 x 61 cm). Sold for £8,190 on 9 March 2022, Online
Richard Mosse (b. 1980), Come Out, 2011. Digital C-print. 20 x 24 in (50.8 x 61 cm). Sold for £8,190 on 9 March 2022, Online

Shapiro can trace back her love for the visual arts to her childhood. ‘My parents collected seriously,’ she recalls, ‘so I was always interested in having art around me.’ Fortunately, her husband shared her interest, and after marrying in 1964 they set about filling their home with art.

‘In the late 1970s and early 1980s, we were somewhat serious about collecting lithographs,’ she says. ‘But we fell out of love with them, partly because I was developing an interest in photography.’

Manhattan proved fertile ground for this budding passion. ‘I went to weekly art gallery classes and started going to auctions,’ she recalls. ‘The more I discovered, the more I wanted to learn.’

Shapiro’s first photographic purchase was a Cindy Sherman in 1985. ‘I saw it in Metro Pictures in SoHo and bought it for around $100,’ she says. ‘I still have it. Its value has possibly multiplied more than anything else I own.’

Then came a Robert Mapplethorpe and a slew of black-and-white Modernist pictures by the likes of André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams. These works still adorn the walls of her grand, high-ceilinged Manhattan apartment.

Andreas Gursky (b. 1955), Flughafen Düsseldorf, 1985. Colour coupler print face mounted on plexiglass. 57 x 49¼ in (144.8 x 125.1 cm). Estimate £30,000-50,000. Offered in First Open Post-War and Contemporary Art Online, 23 February-9 March 2022
Andreas Gursky (b. 1955), Flughafen Düsseldorf, 1985. Colour coupler print face mounted on plexiglass. 57 x 49¼ in (144.8 x 125.1 cm). Estimate: £30,000-50,000. Offered in First Open: Post-War and Contemporary Art Online, 23 February-9 March 2022

By the mid 1990s, however, the collection had changed direction. ‘Vintage modern photographs by well-known artists were simply too expensive for us,’ Shapiro explains. ‘And around that time the world of digital colour photography was opening up. It was so exciting to see these big, colourful, high-resolution images which were affordable and fun.’

The Shapiros soon acquired works by almost all of the Dusseldorf School, including Gursky, Höfer, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff. Also represented in the collection were emerging artists such as Gregory Crewdson and Vik Muniz, whom she bought after seeing his work at MoMA.

Was investment always at the forefront of their minds? ‘I have only ever bought what I love, but my husband did see collecting as an alternative asset,’ she says. 

Viviane Sassen (b. 1972), Belladonna from Parasomnia series, 2010. C print, flush-mounted on aluminium. 40⅛ x 50⅛ in (102.4 x 127.4 cm). Sold for £7,560 on 9 March 2022, Online
Viviane Sassen (b. 1972), Belladonna from Parasomnia series, 2010. C print, flush-mounted on aluminium. 40⅛ x 50⅛ in (102.4 x 127.4 cm). Sold for £7,560 on 9 March 2022, Online

The Shapiros developed their eye by attending exhibitions, gallery previews and art fairs all around the world, including Art Basel Miami Beach, Paris Photo and Photo London, of which Ellen is a founding advisor. ‘A lot of my education came from being a constant fair-goer,’ she admits. ‘If you spend enough time at them, you can learn so much about the artists, galleries and trends in the market.’

She cites the gallerists Howard Greenberg and Edwynn Houk as ‘two big educators’ in the field. Internet platforms such as Artsy have also enabled her to ‘self-educate’, as she puts it, and find new talent. ‘I feel that supporting living artists is one of the greatest privileges of being a collector,’ she says.

Ori Gersht (b. 1967), Blow UpTime After Time, 2007. Lambda print, flush-mounted on aluminium. 40½ x 40½ in (103 x 103 cm). Estimate £20,000-30,000. Offered in First Open Post-War and Contemporary Art Online, 23 February-9 March 2022
Ori Gersht (b. 1967), Blow Up/Time After Time, 2007. Lambda print, flush-mounted on aluminium. 40½ x 40½ in (103 x 103 cm). Estimate: £20,000-30,000. Offered in First Open: Post-War and Contemporary Art Online, 23 February-9 March 2022

Right now, Shapiro is drawn to the work of African artists who, she says, are approaching ‘colour, pattern and overlay in exciting and innovative ways. They tend to exaggerate the reality of a situation. And I like that.’ She highlights the Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj as a prime example.

When asked about her favourite works coming to auction, she immediately pinpoints Zanele Muholi’s 2011 portrait from the ‘Faces and Phases’ series and Blow Up / Time After Time (2007) by Ori Gersht (above).

Annie Leibovitz (b. 1947), Queen Elizabeth II, The White Drawing Room, Buckingham Palace, 2007. Chromogenic dye coupler print. 37¼ x 56⅞ in (94.5 x 144. 5 cm). Sold for £27,720 on 9 March 2022, Online
Annie Leibovitz (b. 1947), Queen Elizabeth II, The White Drawing Room, Buckingham Palace, 2007. Chromogenic dye coupler print. 37¼ x 56⅞ in (94.5 x 144. 5 cm). Sold for £27,720 on 9 March 2022, Online

Then there’s Annie Leibovitz’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth, acquired from Edwynn Houk Gallery at Paris Photo. ‘I have been told that Annie was hired by an American “funder” who wanted to commemorate the Queen’s 80th birthday and her related tour of North America,’ she says of the widely exhibited image. ‘The palace sittings are the result. Edwynn told us that only two in the edition of seven were available to private collectors. And this is one of them.’

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Is she sad to be parting with her London collection? ‘These works have become like my children,’ she says. ‘I’m not sure how I will manage without them!

‘But I’ve just bought a new house in Greenwich, Connecticut, so I’m on an empty-walls crusade,’ she adds. ‘You might see me aggressively pursuing new artists very soon.’