Issue #113  10/30/2006
Brassai Auction Scoreboard

By Alex Novak

With the help of many friends (you all know who you are)

It is not often that a Paris auction that primarily consists of photography will sell nearly 84% of its lots (and nearly all of the photo lots) for a total of over five million euros, including buyer's premium (or frais). Converted to dollars this means that the sale took in nearly $6-1/2 million, which put it in the rarified company of only a few Paris photo auctions (Jammes II and III, $11 million; Breton, $6 million for the photography section).

Leading Brassai dealer Edwynn Houk, who had represented the Brassai family for many years until Gilberte Brassai passed away a year ago, told me tongue-in-cheek that the Brassai auction at Millon was "a resounding success, which leaves me with remorse that I left all those pictures behind.

"Usually such an auction with as many different prints as there were in this sale would have been disastrous, but the auction house did a very good job in the various categories. Just depending on the ordinary buyers at the regular photography auctions wouldn't have been enough, but Millon was able to draw bidders into this sale who wouldn't ordinarily be involved in photography auctions…There was a breathe of awareness and participation by the French themselves, especially at the lower price levels and early in the auction. But later the French largely disappeared, and on the Paris Nuit section of the sale you could hear the phone bidders bidding in English, as American bidders became the more prominent players."

Serge Plantureux, an AIPAD dealer based in Paris, seconded what Houk told me. Plantureux said, "French CEOs and politicians, who never show up for a normal photography auction, were there to buy a piece of Paris history, a piece of old France and its culture--whether it was a drawing, a portrait of one of its artists, or simply a photograph of the era."

What all this means is that contrary to public wisdom there will likely not be very many Brassai images from this sale on the market. The remainder of the prints in the family possession has been donated to French institutions.

Michael Mattis has certainly given you a taste for what it was like in the room and a rather good analysis of Brassai's prints and market. But Michael didn't report on who all these high rollers were at the auction. So on a lot by lot basis, where the photograph was over 10,000 euros hammer (over $15,000), we will try to do this below.

Before I go into the specifics though, I should give you a few of the points of view shared by others who attended this historic auction. And a few of my own observations.

First the catalogue, which was hardbound, 1-1/8 inches thick and 472 pages! It will be a necessary classic for any collector of Brassai or 20th-century French photography. With much information on Brassai, as well as the most comprehensive illustration of his work in one place (although by no means a catalogue raisonné), no substantive photography resource library should be without a copy. There was also a limited edition version in slipcase. This is certainly the photography catalogue of the year.

On the auction itself, one Paris dealer reported, "The usual dealers and collectors were actually a minority in the room. Most of the faces were unknown to the rest of us. And the majority of the lots under 5,000 euros were bought by individual collectors. You could see people going up just after their successful bid to pay and pick up their photograph [Editor's note: unlike in London or the U.S., most Paris auctions--the exceptions being Sotheby's and Christie's--allow a bidder to actually go up to the front counter, pay and then pick up their lots even before an auction is completed.]. These people bought photographs in this auction with creases, scratches, glazing problems, and so on, that you could not sell to real collectors who understand condition. Most of the average French dealers who attended, as well as some of the American ones, did not get anything at all or really only a very few things."

Indeed, as New York dealer Houk had suggested above, many of the bidders had never seen the inside of a photography auction before, but were used to getting their way in the world of high finance: from a Greek billionaire to Patrick Poivre D'Arvor (the anchor for the top French television news program) to Philippine de Rothschild (who bought images of her family's wine domain) to several presidents of famous luxury French companies, such as Vuitton.

Among the regular contingent of expected American and French players, some of the most active (read: successful) were Edwynn Houk himself (buying largely for a Chicago collector), Michael Mattis, Sam Stourdzé (bidding and winning 18 lots for several clients, mostly American and Canadian), Charles Nes (buying for his own collection) and Paris dealer Christian Bouqueret.

One French collector said they were disappointed in many of the prints: "The fact that most of the images were going to be used for books can explain the way Brassai printed them. As a small collector who has to make choices because of lack of money, I did not buy anything. I want to keep on buying images in good condition, and in addition to that, most of the images I could afford were really boring to me or with not enough charm."

The same collector was less than enthused even on the large exhibition prints, saying "you had to get used to all the scratches and marks that you could really see under oblique light."

Edwynn Houk conceded some of this wear and tear, but noted that most of Brassai's prints had "a life as a print to be used in magazines and newspapers, and as a magnificent object to be exhibited, and it was often repurposed for book publication and then put back in the file again, etc…And, unlike many other photographers, he rarely delegated his printing to others."

About the larger exhibition prints, Houk noted that today, "Scale is playing an increasing role, and such scale is rare with Brassai. More prints being sold are actually going up on the wall."

Yes, Brassai's vintage prints, like Bill Brandt's, were usually made for publication and often show the marks of heavy use and circulation. Often prints have lower contrast values in order to print a longer range of tones more easily. These are realities that most collectors are not aware of when they buy from catalogues. But because so many of the prints will be displayed behind glass or acrylic up on the wall, most of the surface flaws are acceptable when it comes to collecting someone like Brassai or Brandt, whose vintage (or even late) prints are rarely perfect.

Still, some dealers felt that these realities made certain Brassai images less desirable than at first glance. For instance, a French dealer friend told me, "I was not enamored with Brassai's method of printing. For example, I reviewed lot 420 ("Taudis"), a vintage print, out of the frame on three separate occasions. Apart from the condition (some light creases and surface marks and a lot of scratches), I was not really convinced and attracted by this print. Otherwise I would not have let it go at 2500 euros. I know that at least 15 other people asked for this image out of the frame, but no one really bid on it who viewed it."

What concerned me was the fact that so many of the best images and/or prints were printed 20 and even 30 years after the fact. Most prints in this sale could not be called vintage. Many prints originally said to be 1940-50s in the catalogue were simply made much later. And, while the larger, exhibition-size prints are rare, they were still printed in the mid-1950s to 1960s, but as Houk noted above: size is now counting for more and more.

In fairness many prints were actually made earlier than how they had been catalogued. Some were catalogued circa 1960 that were actually from 1945-50. When the house erred, it did so equally in both directions.

If the condition, vintage and presence of the prints sometimes left one a bit disappointed, most potential buyers felt that their frustration came from something else entirely--low, tempting estimates that were mostly eclipsed by the actual winning bids that were often multiples of the high estimate, ranging from 5-10x that estimate. My readers know by now that my mantra is: "ALWAYS ignore the estimates and focus on the object." They are too often too high or too low. Auctions have learned that the best strategy when it comes to large collections is to estimate the lots very low to make bidders feel that they can 'steal' a lot. Of course, that rarely actually happens.

Houk told me that, despite the teasingly low estimates, he felt the best deals were actually on the priciest lots. As he put it, "There was too much competition on the lower end and not any bargains there." He felt a lot of those types of images went to people wanting to buy a piece of French history or culture.

Many bidders found out the hard way that the estimates, especially the lower priced ones, would be blown away in the actual auction. One of Millon's experts on the sale, Cecile Ritzenthaler, remarked: "Most of my clients bidding with me on the phone were upset because they didn't get a single lot."

The exception to bids that exceeded estimates at this sale was Brassai's drawings. As Michael Mattis noted in the article above, Brassai's drawings and tapestries did not generally do as well as the photographs, or sculptures for that matter. The single exception was his self-portrait, which did manage to get about $42,500, including the commission, from that Greek billionaire. Most of the rest fell into the 1000-4000+ euro range, and this category was responsible for most of the buy-ins. The entire drawing, tapestry and sculpture portion of the sale only amounted to 8-1/2% (about $550,000) of the total auction take. Brassai is known primarily as a photographer, and it was his photographs that rightly attracted most of the audience and the money.

As Mattis also noted above, the house expert Christophe Goeury got pretty universal praise for his work on this material and catalogue. I know that he worked very hard to keep some of the most important prints in the sale in his three-way negotiation with the family, the French state and the Millon auction house. The research and information in the catalogue was also prepared with above average care and detail, although some prints were misdated in the catalogue itself (although Christophe Goeury did try to correct the information when he had it; and the degree of misdating was no worse than at other major auction houses). This was a premier sale handled in like fashion.

There were also high marks given to the auctioneer, the young Alexandre Millon. He kept the auction light and moving, while still wheedling out the best bids from sometimes reluctant participants. For instance, he seemed to recognize the uneasy camaraderie of the odd couple of dealer Edwynn Houk and collector Michael Mattis (our writer of the main piece on this sale) sitting in the first row, often pushing one or the other to bid. When the pair began to bid actively against each other on various lots, such as lot 671, Chez Suzy, la presentation, Millon would exclaim, "J'adore !" (A short French version for "I love it!").

The prices quoted below will be hammer (without premium added) and in euros. To convert to dollars with the premium, just multiple the numbers times 1.5 for a slightly lower rounded figure (if you want to be more precise, multiply times 1.54).

I will only remark on those lots where I know who the bidder and/or underbidder were or have at least a better description than just "the phone", which was often the winner at this sale. Many of the early lots were drawings and sculpture, or were photographs that sold to an unknown French collector or to a phone.

On lots 84 and 85, two lots of Brassai's graffiti images which sold for 18,000 and 13,000 euros respectively, Paris dealer Leon Herschtritt bid up the phone, but to no avail.

On lot 208, Ciel Postiche No.1 en Haut, Mattis underbid the winning phone bid of 19000 euros (estimate 10-15000 euros). Mattis told me that it was a "marvelous surreal nude. It reads either as a nude or as a landscape with stormclouds."

Lot 291 was a collage of 23 photographs that was made for a unique tapestry. Was it was "one print" or a collection of prints? To get to the budget-busting bid of 170000 euros, it had to get a lot of attention from the room (Charles Nes was one of the players there) and the phones. But the real battle in the end was between a pair of the phones. If it was considered one print, it might hold the record for a Brassai. It is certainly the second highest lot of Brassai material to come to auction.

Lot 374, Escaliers de Montmartre, went for 13500 euros after a fight between several phones and a woman in the room, who ultimately prevailed.

Lot 381, Femme au parapluie, sold to the room for 18500 euros.

Lot 409 (Les Coulisses de l'Opera)--one of the larger, but late exhibition prints--went to New York/Paris dealer Charles Nes in the room for 19000 euros (over an estimate of 6-8000), who apparently enlisted his mother to bid on this one. Nes told me that he bought all the prints for his own collection.

Lot 424, Le baiser, went for 25000 euros (estimate 10-15000) to a phone bidder against an absentee bid. A French dealer asked the expert about its condition and was told that it had a significant crease and was not in very good condition. "If an American is interested in it, forget it", implying that it would only be worth it if it went low.

Lot 442, Nu, hammered to Houk for 18000 euros (estimate 8-10000).

Lot 444, Nu, sold for 28000 euros to the room and was underbid by Houk, as was lot 447, which sold for 20000 euros.

Lot 454, Courses à Longchamp, hammered for 15000 (estimated at a mere 600-800 euros!) to Sam Stourze, bidding for a client.

Lot 483, Nu, was sold for 25000 euros and then promptly preempted by the Musée National d'Art Moderne Ville de Paris.

Lot 489, Gravure (cliché verre), went to Houk for 23000 euros.

Lot 492, a large print of Qui Dort Dine, was underbid by Mattis. It sold for 18000 euros against a meager estimate of only 2-3000.

Edwynn Houk bought lot 547, Corset noir, for 12000 euros, as well as lot 549, Le casque de cuir, for 23000 euros (estimate 8-10000). The phone won lot 548, Nu, from the same series for 14000 euros (estimate 3-4000) against Houk.

Mattis took home lot 594, Paris, vue de Notre Dame, for 24000 euros against an estimate of 6-8000.

Lot 595, La Place de la Concorde, sold just over high estimate at 16000 to the room.

Then it was all Mattis again. The collector took lots 602, Filles de joie dans un bar, for 32000 euros (estimate 8-10000) and lot 603, Couple d'amoureux, for 6500 euros.

Lot 604, Couple d'amoureux, sold to Houk for 46000 after Mattis initially took on a phone bidder and then dropped out. Houk also picked up lot 605, Couple dans un bistrot, for 18000. Lot 607, Couple Fâché was one of the battles that Alexandre Millon loved to see. Mattis bid up Houk to 42000 euros on this important, but late printed exhibition-size print before retiring from the field in favor of the New York City dealer.

Lot 622, La môme Bijou, went for 41000 euros to a French collector who bought it for a friend who was on the phone with him. Michael Mattis has already reported that the print had a lot of damage.

Mattis came back on lot 634, Les mauvais garçons, another exhibition-size print, which he took for 32000 euros (estimate 10-15000). Mattis told me afterwards, "While it LOOKS like the two toughs are standing next to a dark wall (which fills the right hand side), the 'wall' is pure darkroom invention: it's just burned in by Brassai photographically. So, it's marvelously inventive."

Lot 637, Couple amoureux, rue Croulebarbe, hammered down for 25000 euros to Houk.

Then the auction came to lot 660, Pavés, the cover image of Paris de Nuit, which had been estimated at 40-60000 euros. Dealer Charles Nes did battle against several phone bidders and in the end set what is the record for a single Brassai photograph at auction: 85000 euros or about $130,000 with the frais. When I asked Nes about the sale and this print, he told me, "There were some interesting pieces in the sale. In the end, I thought the Pavés was the résumé of that early work by Brassai--modern but simple. And I am thrilled to have it."

As noted above, the auctioneer Millon often had a little fun with his bidders. Lot 671, Chez Suzy, la presentation, was one of those instances, first proclaiming, "J'adore !", when Mattis and Houk started bidding against each other for the piece. When Houk made a bid higher than Mattis, Millon leaned over and asked Mattis "Is that ok for you?" The jibe did the trick, and Mattis wound up winning the lot at 12000 euros.

On lot 674, Armoire à glace, the phone outbid even the intrepid Mattis at 25000 euros (estimate 6-8000).

On lot 675, another print of the Chez Suzy series, Houk bid up the action until he had to retire from the field when the winning bid hit 16000 euros.

Lot 678, La rue Quincampoix, gave Millon another chance to strut his stuff when he said to an undecided female collector, "Bids are tricky. Look at the image one more time." Then he thanked Sam Stourdzé, who was bidding her up and ultimately won the lot at 15000 euros (estimate 4-6000), for his patience.

Lot 705, La place Denfert, went to a man in the room for 20000 euros (estimate 3-4000), who had been very active and very secretive. He seemed to have been buying for at least two different people.

Lot 708, Maréchal Ney, went for 17000 euros to an absentee bid (one of the few that won major lots). The lot had been estimated at 4-6000.

Lot 720, Le dompteur et ses fauves, was scooped up for a mere 9000 euros by Houk. It had been estimated at 2-3000 euros.

Houk also tried on lot 721, Les coulisses des Folies-begere, but was only the bridesmaid on this one when it soared to 26000 euros (estimate 15-20000).

Nes won lot 722, Une Girl aux Folies-bergere, for 17000 (estimate 2-3000) but found himself preempted by the Musee d'art moderne ville de Paris.

Sam Stourdzé picked up the next lot 723, Folies-bergere, for 20000 euros (estimate 6-8000 euros).

Lot 760, Maraîchère dormant aux halles, went to a French collector in the room for 11000 euros.

Nearly at the end of the auction, Lot 761, Feu d'artifice du 14 juillet, gave Millon a chance to kid expert Christophe Goeury about his estimates. At 7000 euros Millon turned to Goeury sitting on his right and quipped, "7000. Pour une fois que ça dépasse les estimations. (For once it goes over the estimate.) The estimate on this lot was a measly 400-600 euros. The winning bidder in the room got it for 7,200 euros, or about 22 times the low estimate when the commission is added in to the total!

The last lot, #764, Le pont des arts, went fittingly to a French collector in the room for 10000 euros, which was the low estimate for the lot.

Thus concluded one of the most successful photography auctions in Paris.