Issue #113  10/30/2006
Brassai's Paris Sale Nets $6.5 Million: a First-Hand Report From The Front Row

By Michael Mattis

If I were to summarize the sale in a single sentence: I truly thought the collection on view at Millon & Associes was sensational, with masterworks, as well as lesser-known but still interesting studies, from all facets of Brassai's storied photographic career: portraiture, surrealist still life, abstractions, nudes, transmutations (in which Brassai, urged on by Picasso, etched into his negatives of nudes, creating a hybrid cliché-verre), graffiti, architecture, landscape, genre and street photography, reportage--and of course, his notorious "Secret Paris of the 1930s" work, with the prostitutes, the seedy bars, the lovers and losers, street punks and beat cops, transients and transsexuals, nudists and canoodlers, along with the closely-related mist-filled Gothic views of Paris at Night, which evoke stills plucked from any number of films noirs up to and including Tim Burton's Batman Returns and, much more overtly, Philip Kaufman's Henry & June--in which the character Brassai even makes a bit appearance (the Henry here being of course Henry Miller, who originally coined Brassai the "Eye of Paris").

But fortunately I have considerably more room than a single sentence.

Let me begin by explicitly complimenting Millon's photography expert Christophe Goeury, who did a terrific job distilling this collection from the estate's larger holdings. It helped that he was already intimately familiar with the material, having carried out the official estate appraisal after Gilberte Brassai's death last year.

As my Air India red-eye from Newark touched down at Charles de Gaulle the morning of the sale and I emerged from my ambien-and-curry-induced stupor, I fumbled for my passport which was nestled inside the front cover of Millon's gargantuan black hardbound auction catalog. By sheer luck I glanced at the fine print, so I correctly directed my taxi, not towards the usual Hotel Drouot, the Wal-Mart-like venue for most Parisian auctions, but towards its upscale sister location, Drouot-Montaigne, in the tony 8th arrondissement. Drouot-Montaigne is typically reserved for the "high prestige" (read: big-money) sales. The choice of this venue was but one of Millon's many astute marketing moves in promoting this auction, including a full multi-media blitz at home and abroad, culminating in a New York Times piece on the Saturday prior. And indeed I arrived to find that the salesroom was packed, including the mezzanine--quite uncommon in the auction world for a day session.

The marathon 764-lot sale itself was divided into three three-to-four hour sessions: Art, Jour and Nuit. Art was devoted to Brassai's portraits of artists and writers, nudes, transmutations and graffiti, as well as to his non-photographic work as a sculptor and draughtsman. The sculptures were in the neo-Cycladic mode much like Arp's; they did very well, with the marbles Galatee (50 cm, lot 149) and Astree Blanche (66 cm, lot 294) hammering respectively for 58,000 and 25,000 euros and the editioned bronze Femme Cygne (45 cm, lot 207) going for 14,500. [Note: all prices henceforth are hammer prices and are given in euros. To convert to the equivalent "all in" price in dollars, including the buyer's premium, add 50%; thus 4,000 euros translates to $6,000.]

The monetary--and comedic--highpoint among the drawings was Brassai's jaunty gouache and ink self-portrait, lot 204. Shortly before the lot opened, a Greek billionaire made his entrance to the salesroom, an entourage of bodyguards in tow, and assumed his reserved seat in the front row. He bid on the lot with brio, with a tip of his cap or a wave of his cane, all while egging the auctioneer on: depechez-vous, j'ai un train dans cinq minutes! When the last phone bidder finally dropped out and the lot was hammered down to him at 27,500 euros (against an estimate of 3,000-3,500), he arose and made his exit. His grandfather had been a close friend of Brassai's, he explained on his way out, and the room applauded in appreciation. This lot notwithstanding, the auctioneer, Alexandre Millon, despite his evident gifts on the podium, had a tough time eliciting enthusiasm for the nearly 200 figurative drawings, an aspect of Brassai's oeuvre with essentially no prior auction history. Generally speaking, the first half found buyers at or near the low estimate (typically around 2,000 euros), while the second half bought in, accounting for 100 of the 125 unsold lots. But this would prove to be the only systemic weakness in the sale, which, of course, was dominated by Brassai's photography.

After an opening run of drawings, the first photographic lot in the sale was lot 20, the iconic portrait of Picasso seated next to a stovepipe, cigarette in hand. The print was in the impressive 40x50 cm (16x20 inch) size, which was the largest size that Brassai himself printed, starting immediately after the War. To me, this was an appropriate way to lead off the photo offerings; for what was perhaps the most striking characteristic of the collection on offer was the sheer number of superb images, previously familiar only in the 18x24 or 24x30 sizes, which were for sale in the 40x50 cm format for the first time. While Brassai photos in general have been relatively plentiful on the marketplace, prints in this large format are exceptionally rare: fewer than a dozen (and mostly of minor subjects) have come up at Sotheby's and Christie's New York salesrooms in the past 20 years. Against an estimate of 3,000-4,000 euros, lot 20 spiraled up to 13,000, which over the course of the sale would prove to be an average price for this large format.

In general, the nearly 80 photographic lots of artist portraits and studio interiors performed solidly, averaging 4000 euros apiece. As independent works of photographic art, some of these seemed quite slight, for instance the four shots of Picasso's torn-up, cigarette-burned cocktail napkins (lots 37-40, a sad doggie, a cyclops, etc.), which totaled 13,500 euros. According to Christie's photography specialist and Brassai expert Stuart Alexander, these particular photos had long been considered the only records of this evanescent aspect of Picasso's oeuvre--at least until Dora Maar's estate was inventoried, and it emerged that she had dutifully kept these torn napkin scraps for six decades!

Not surprisingly, the top lot in the artists and studios category, lot 31, also involved Picasso: it was a 30x40 cm photo of a plaster cast of Picasso's right hand, and it hammered at 20,000 euros against a 6000-8000 estimate. The price was no anomaly: a smaller print of this compelling conceptual portrait had sold for 15,000 euros at the Claude Berri sale at Christie's Paris last November.

It is clear from this section of the sale that no significant member of France's artistic and literary firmament in the period between the Wars could escape the "Eye of Paris." In this regard the Millon catalog gives nearly as complete a record as Brassai's own book, "The Artists of My Life" (1982).

Another long-term project of Brassai's was his "collection" (by use of his camera) of street graffiti over a 25-year period, which can be viewed as a grand conceptual art piece culminating in his classic 1961 book, "Graffiti". This aspect of Brassai's work has been on a roll lately, starting with the Claude Berri sale (where the 20 graffiti's averaged a very strong 12,700 euros hammer, with individual prices as high as 30,000), and extending across the Channel to Christie's London, where the maquette for Graffiti, comprising 143 original silver prints sequenced and glued into an album, hammered at 135,000 pounds sterling (or just over $300,000 all in) in the May "Rare Photo Books" sale. At Millon, the two-dozen graffiti studies came in all sizes, like stacking Russian dolls. They sold brilliantly. The first graffiti to come up was lot 84, a choice 9x6 cm contact print of the cover image of the first edition, depicting a carved pug face having a bad hair day nicknamed 'Le Roi Soleil'. Against a 600-800 euro tease of an estimate, it rocketed to 18,000. Lot 245 featured the same image in the 40x50 cm exhibition size. Estimated more rationally at 8,000-10,000 euros, it hammered at 27,000.

And the graffiti's came even bigger! Lot 188 was an 80x108 cm print mounted on wood, made by the Picto laboratory circa 1960; somewhat lacking in focus and clarity in this size, and lacking also the deep inky blacks that Brassai himself was able to achieve so consistently in the darkroom, it nevertheless squeaked by at its low estimate of 40,000 euros. Possessing much more gravitas was lot 291, an original photo-collage pieced together from 23 individual graffiti prints, featuring the figure of a "chicken woman" in the center surrounded by repeated carved heart motifs. Measuring an astounding 140x70 cm, this was the maquette for a tapestry entitled La Harpie, which was executed in 1968 in an edition of one. Given its object quality, the 80-100,000 euro estimate actually seemed quite reasonable in today's effervescent photo market; at least two phone bidders agreed with this assessment as it slowly rose to 170,000 euros (all in, over a quarter-million dollars), the top lot of the sale and a world record for a Brassai photograph, and second to the aforementioned Graffiti book maquette overall.

Nor was this the only photo collage in the sale: lots 363, 364 and 367 were interesting geometric composites of paving stones, leaves, and butterfly wings, respectively, that were used as maquettes for high-fashion fabrics for the houses of Dior and Balenciaga. Despite condition problems, they sold for 16,000, 32,000, and 6,000 euros respectively. The latter two were preempted by the state, which, in light of its already voluminous Brassai holdings, only exercised this legislative right 11 times in the entire sale.

The 34 nudes and 11 transmutations also sold extremely well. These categories were actually spread over the first two sessions of the sale, Art and Jour, which were held on consecutive afternoons. Like the graffiti's, the nudes could be had in a wide range of sizes. Prices for the contact prints ranged between 1,500 and 14,000 euros, the intermediate format (around 24x30 cm) sold for up to 28,000 euros, and the exhibition format (up to 40x50 cm) up to 25,000 euros.

In terms of imagery, Brassai's photographic nudes range from the classic (reminiscent of Edward Weston's 4x5 inch work from 1933-34) to the kinkier, in which the models sport various bits of lingerie or leather. Reviewing my catalog notes, it seems like the presence of a little kink was generally good for an extra couple of bids.

Even stronger were the transmutations, which ranged in price from 8,000 to 46,000 euros. As mentioned earlier, transmutations are photographic prints made from negatives of nudes in which Brassai has etched in a Picasso-esque manner directly onto the negative. Depending on the degree of handiwork, some "read" more like photographs, others more like photo-etchings (i.e., clichés-verres).

Surprisingly, the highest prices in this category were not for the pre-War prints (the transmutations were first done in the 1930s) but for the deeply sepia-toned exhibition prints executed, not by Brassai himself, but by Claudine Sudre in 1967, in an edition of 6. Might the retro sepia look, so contrary to the aesthetic of a usual neutral-toned Brassai photo, have more crossover appeal to traditional painting and print collectors who would naturally gravitate to this facet of Brassai's work?

This seems as good a time as any to digress for a moment and discuss Brassai's prints. From the 1930s into the early 1960s he favored single-weight glossy paper, which he then ferrotyped for even greater reflectivity. In general Brassai's pre-War prints are slightly warmer-toned, lower contrast and lower gloss than his post-War prints, but there is definitely a continuum in the look and feel of his prints over this 30-year period.

In 1967, however, he was advised (presumably by his dealers at Marlborough Gallery) to switch to double-weight semi-matte paper, as collectors and curators at that early time in the photography marketplace were taught to equate matte surfaces with "fine art" prints and glossy surfaces with "press prints." As often as not, these semi-matte prints were then mounted, and signed by Brassai (and frequently editioned out of 30) on the mount. It is ironic that today, serious collectors and curators eschew Brassai's later prints (even though he continued to make them himself), and seek out the vintage and "period" (i.e., mid-vintage) ferrotyped prints. And, with only a handful of exceptions, it is these ferrotyped prints that Goeury had selected for the auction. Interestingly, in reviewing the auction results, it appears that there was generally very little difference between the prices achieved for the earlier ferrotyped prints (1930s-1940s) compared to the somewhat later ferrotyped prints (1950s to early 1960s); more important is that ineffable quality, "presence." End of digression.

The second session, Jour, featured tranches of material that would be decidedly less familiar to an American audience, including storefronts and street vendors, ballets, circuses and carnivals, wineries and winos, dogs and cats, landscapes and travel shots from the alps to the south of France, to Istanbul and Marrakech, to New Orleans and New York--'Brassai light', in short. Despite the atypical nature of much of the material (the subject matter seemed more like Ronis or Boubat than the dark brooding Brassai we Americans know and love), the success of the session had been pretty much guaranteed in advance by Millon's brilliant tactic: the tantalizing underestimate. Most of these lots were estimated at 1,000-1,500, 600-800 or even 300-400 euros. Typically, multiple paddles would be raised, and the lots would finally hammer in the 2,500-5,000 euro range. Once this pattern was understood, there would be few surprises that afternoon.

A pleasing but unremarkable quartet of circus snapshots made at the Cirque Medrano in 1932 was unexpectedly preempted by the Pompidou, reportedly because they already possessed a suite of closely-related circus etchings executed at the same time by Brassai's seat-mate at that event--Picasso.

Aside from some of the nudes and transmutations, most of the highpoints of the Jour session were post-War exhibition prints in an impressive scale, including Escaliers de Monmartre (lot 374) at 13,500 euros, Femme au Parapluie (lot 381) at 18,500 euros, Le Fort des Halles (lot 408) at 23,000 euros, Les Coulisses de l'Opera (lot 409) at 19,000 euros, the charming Doisneau-like Le Baiser (lot 424) at 25,000 euros, the Cartier-Bresson-like Pique-Nique au Bord de la Marne (lot 478) at 12,500 euros, Qui Dort Dine (lot 492) at 18,000 euros, and Le Jardin Exotique (lot 529, can you spot the nuns?) at 13,000 euros. Except for lot 408 in the 30x40 cm size, all the others in this list of top performers were in the impressive 40x50 cm size.

To clear my head and regain the feelings in my lower limbs, I took a brisk 90-minute roundtrip walk to the St Germain des Pres gallery district across the Seine for a little window-shopping during the break between the two sessions. As the sun set over the Eiffel tower, a surprisingly pleasant aromatic drizzle filled the air, the streetlights flickered on, and the ancient cobblestones glistened underfoot. I was ready for Nuit.

Did you ever wonder if it is mere historical coincidence that Brassai--the most famous artist to emerge from Transylvania--specialized in photographing the creatures of the night? Never mind.

Nuit opened with eight evocative little contact prints of Paris by twilight, like tasty little hors d'oeuvres before the main courses to come. Not surprisingly, they averaged ten times their generally 300-400 euro estimates. Soon thereafter there began an hour-long run featuring many of the images at the heart of Brassai's Paris de Nuit and Secret Paris of the 1930s photo-essays, many in the 40x50 cm format including Paris, vue de Notre Dame (lot 594, 24,000 euros), Filles de Joie dans un Bar, Montmartre (lot 602, 32,000 euros), Couple d'Amoureux Assis (the cover of the Pompidou's Brassai monograph, lot 604, 46,000 euros), Couple Fache (lot 607, 42,000 euros), Fille de Joie, Quartier d'Italie (lot 631, 34,000 euros), Les Mauvais Garcons de la Bande du Grand Albert (lot 634, 32,000 euros), and Couple Amoureux, Rue Croulebarbe (lot 637, 25,000 euros). Several smaller-format prints also shown in this section included Place de la Concorde (lot 595, 16,000 euros, the cover of the American reprint edition of Paris at Night), Couple dans un Bistro (lot 605, 18,000 euros), Depot de Charbon (lot 619, 13,000 euros), Couple Amoureux, Blvd St Jacques (lot 623, 15,000 euros), La Bande du Grand Albert (lot 627, 30,000 euros), the marvelous unpublished contact print of a fight scene Bagarre, Bande du Grand Albert (lot 638, 9.000 euros), and two classic photos of lovers, lot 641 at 14,500 euros and 649 at 15,500 euros (each estimated 4,000-6,000 euros), the former despite serious condition issues and the latter despite being a standard double-weight semi-matte 1970s print (one of only a handful in the sale).

Lot 622 was a vintage 18x24 cm work print of Mme Bijou, an icon of 20th-century portraiture and unquestionably one of the earliest prints in the auction. Despite its problematic condition (most notably rectangular cropping marks inscribed into the surface), it rose to 41,000 euros against a 6,000-8,000 euro estimate.

Fans of the movie Titanic may recall that Mme Bijou is one of the characters sketched by Leonardo diCaprio; the ensuing copyright infringement lawsuit against director James Cameron resulted in a reported hundred-thousand dollar settlement to Gilberte Brassai--technically making that the most costly Brassai drawing to date.

A short run of industrial night views allowed the audience to catch its breath in anticipation of lot 660, Paves (paving stones), a spectacular vintage print of the cover image of the first edition of Paris de Nuit. Aggressively estimated at 40,000-60,000 euros--and the subject of some debate prior to the sale about whether it would buy-in as a consequence--it easily blew past the estimate, ultimately selling for 85,000 euros (nearly $130,000 all in) to Charles Nes, the American dealer largely based in Paris nowadays. With that sale--a record for a single (non-composite) Brassai photo at auction--it is evident that Brassai has now joined the short list of classic photographers for whom the "right" prints of the "right" images can be six-figure pictures. There is a longer such list of contemporary photographers, but that is a rant for another day.

The magic dust from that lot was surely sprinkled over some of the similarly evocative urban landscapes to follow, including Pont Neuf dans le Brouillard (lot 666, 13,000 euros), Le Pont des Arts (lot 667, 15,000 euros), La Place Denfert-Rochereau dans le Brouillard (lot 705, 20,000 euros), Premiere Neige (lot 706, 22,500 euros), Le Marechal Ney (lot 708, 17,000 euros), Blvd Montparnasse (lot 731, 16,000 euros), Le Pont Neuf (lot 752, 18,000 euros) and Avenue de l'Observatoire dans le Brouillard (lot 755, 15,000 euros), proving that, for Brassai at least, fog ("brouillard") on a print is a good thing.

Other classic slices of Brassai's photographic night work rounded out this session. A run of 10 lots featured the legendary house of ill repute, "Chez Suzy", where Brassai made some of his most famous photographs. Not surprisingly, these too did very well: La Presentation (lot 671, the cover of Secret Paris) made 12,000 euros; Une Maison Close (lot 673) sold for 11,000 euros; the Magritte-like Armoire a Glace dans un Hotel de Passe, Rue Quincampoix (lot 674) rose to 25,000 euros; Chez Suzy (the couple on the bed reflected in mirror, lot 675) reached 16,000 euros, despite being annotated "contretype" (copy print) by Brassai on the verso; and the 40x50 cm overhead view of the seedy Rue Quincampoix (lot 678) made 15,000 euros. In contrast, the photos of drag bars dragged ever so slightly, with prices between 2,000 and 6,500--not that far above estimate for a change. But the fly's-eye studies of the fly-girls of the Folies Bergeres sold brilliantly, with the top four lots in this section (lots 721-724) hammering between 16,000 and 26,000 euros. And the Cult of Kiki de Montparnasse kicked into high gear with lots 747-749 totaling 31,000 euros, roughly triple their combined estimate.

The penultimate lot of the sale was also the last of the 40x50 cm exhibition prints, the fireworks display La Nuit de Longchamp (lot 763); appropriately, it exploded past its 4,000-6,000 euro estimate, selling for 22,000. The auction ended on a post-Modern note with the subtle Friedlander-like "self-portrait," featuring Brassai's tripod and torso visible in shadow on the Pont des Arts. As it achieved its low estimate of 10,000 euros (and for the auction slightly over five million euros including the buyer's commission), the room burst into grateful applause for a truly unforgettable night in Paris.