Issue #107  7/10/2006
Fireworks in French Auctions On Two Major Photography Albums

While the French photography auctions mostly stuttered along with relatively high buy-ins and a lack of real blockbusters this past Spring, in typical French fashion non-photography auctions with single lots of photography did amazingly well with little to no publicity here.

At the June 20th Claude Aguttes auction out in the French countryside in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the primary focus was upscale furniture and paintings--with one single lot of photography thrown in for good measure. But oh what a lot! A broken set of Louis De Clercq albums, minus only the Syrian forts album, was to become the top lot of the auction. The group had some variation, but was in generally good condition, according to my sources. It was estimated before the sale from 80,000-100,000 euros. The four lots were sold individually first, with the "faculte de reunion" that allowed the auctioneer to reopen the bidding for the five albums (the Jerusalem album was bound, as usual, together with the Stations of the Cross album) together at the aggregate of the individual bids. That is when the real action took over.

New York collector Michael Mattis had been tipped to the sale and had flown out to bid from the floor. The sale and the lot had been well advertised in the Gazette (the primary French publication covering such auctions) and so also drew the attention of others.

Mattis found himself bidding against French dealer Bruno Tartarin until 120,000 euros. Then a pair of phone bidders took on Mattis, driving the price up and up. Dealer Robert Hershkowitz, who previewed the day before, took one of those phones and was also one of the close underbidders at 260,000 euros. Finally, Mattis retired from the field after he bid to 262,000 euros and the second phone bidder went to nearly triple the mid-estimate at 265,000 euros, which with the premium of 20.33% meant that the actual total price in dollars for the lot was about $410,000. Nothing in France in the regular photo auctions came close to this action. In fact, no lot in a regular photography sale this past spring in New York or London beat this price.

But, if this were the top photography lot to hit the French market in a while, there was another lot which was to become an object of frustration for more than a few, including one photography auction expert.

Piasa, which had a rough time for much of its regular photography sale (more on this in future newsletters) due to high reserves, had an important photography album come up in its June 30th book sale. I am certain that Piasa's photography expert Yves Di Maria, who did a great job of trying to put together his first photography auction for Piasa (nice material, but now he has to convince most clients to lower their reserves), would have liked to have had this piece in his sale.

The Piasa book expert, who clearly does not know photography, put a ridiculously low estimate of only 400-500 euros on the lot and dated the album as 1890s, which turned out to be an exceedingly rare 1850s album of 87 photographs of Tahiti, Papeete and other Oceanic images by Paul Emile Miot. Although reportedly in so-so condition, the low estimate sparked considerable interest. When it was all over, a phone bidder took the lot for 87,000 euros, plus premium--about $135,000.

Mattis commented about a current trend brought to mind by both these sales, "Important 19th-century photo albums from the 1850s used to show up on the market with some regularity 20 years ago, when Judy and I first started collecting. Today they have all but disappeared. It's sad to think that so many such albums have been bought and split up in the intervening years; would that Humpty Dumpty could be put back together again!"