Denise Bethel is NOT retiring. That’s the first thing she wants people to know. She’s taking a much-needed breather and shifting gears, but she’s not retiring. After 35 years in the non-stop auction business – 10 years at Swann Galleries and 25 at Sotheby’s, most recently as chairman of the photography department – Bethel has announced that she is stepping down to focus on myriad other projects that have been waiting in the wings.
“The auction business is wonderful. I adore it. But it is all-consuming,” says Bethel, explaining why she’s decided to step back. “The photography market just keeps growing. If you look at the market on a graph, it’s a straight line up.”
A Virginia native whose roots are audible in her southern lilt, Bethel attended Hollins College in Virginia, then the Courtauld Institute in London. After a stint working on an NEH grant devoted to Edgar Allen Poe in Virginia, she moved north, joining Swann Galleries in 1980, where she was in charge of photographs, prints, drawings, maps, books – you name it, she did it.
Eventually, when the photographs sales were making significant sums, she specialized in photographs at Swann. She moved to Sotheby’s in 1990 and has been instrumental in bringing a number of important collections to auction. To name just a few: three sales of work from the Museum of Modern Art; the 1999 sale of the David Feigenbaum collection of daguerreotypes by Southworth and Hawes, which she calls “a revelation;” the 2006 sale of photographs from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, during which The Pond—Moonlight, by Edward Steichen, sold for a record $2,928,000. Bethel is leaving Sotheby's on a high note: in December, Sotheby’s sale of photographs from The Joy of Giving Something Foundation brought $21,325,063 and set a number of auction records – among others, for August Sander, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Walker Evans.
Asked if any portion of the market was undervalued at this point, Bethel, a true proponent of the field, didn’t hesitate: “All of it.”