Sotheby's single-owner sale of "An Important Collection of Photographs by Eugène and Adalbert Cuvelier", which featured 41 photographs by Eugène, and two by his father, Adalbert, including many of the mythic forest of Fontainebleau, commanded $2,892,000 (on an estimate of $1.4-$2.1 million). Every lot in the auction sold with many lots fetching multiple times their high estimates. While a number of these rare photographs have been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, and the Musée d'Orsay, the public saw many for the first time at Sotheby's. The prices below all reflect the buyer's premium in the total.
Highlighting the sale was Eugène Cuvelier's Village de Rivière, which achieved $288,000, setting a record for the photographer at auction (lot 15, $60,000-$90,000); Hêtre pres du Bodmer, which brought $276,000 (lot 5, $80,000-$120,000); and Fampoux – Près d'Arras, which realized $192,000 (lot 12, $70,000-$100,000), all selling to Parisian dealer Serge Plantureux, who was bidding for two private collectors--the first over the strong underbidding of dealer Charles Nes, the second over dealers and collectors Dan and Mary Solomon, and the third over a phone bidder. These three photographs were featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, Eugène Cuvelier, Photographer in the Circle of Corot, in 1997.
One of the two photographs by Adalbert in the collection, Along the Scarpe River, Near Arras, achieved $240,000, a record for the photographer at auction, selling to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (lot 26, $80,000-$120,000). Michael Sachs bid on behalf of the Museum, with New York dealer Hans P. Kraus, Jr. the underbidder. The photograph shows a group of artists sketching under umbrellas along a picturesque riverbank, and highlights both Cuveliers' involvement with artists.
Several other works in the sale were purchased by institutions, including Ferme du Parc de Courances, which sold for $103,200 to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (lot 23, $30,000–$50,000)--with Boston dealer Robert Klein bidding on behalf of the Museum and outbidding Jill Quasha--and Parc de Courances (Waterfall), which brought $96,000, selling to an unnamed American institution (lot 22, $50,000-$70,000). Hans P. Kraus, Jr. bought Marais de Fampoux, which realized $105,600 (lot 17, $40,000-$60,000) after a prolonged battle with a phone bidder that crept along in $2,000 increments, and Près le Carrefour de l'Epine-Bas Bréau, which brought $96,000 (lot 16, $30,000-$50,000). Kraus also bought Franchard (Figure on Rock Formation) (lot 6, $40,000-$60,000) for $72,000 and Landscape with a River and Trees (lot 28, $30,000-$50,000) for $57,600, over the bidding of Nelson-Atkins curator Keith Davis, as well as two less expensive lots.
Davis did get Le Clovis (lot 7, $40,000-$60,000) for $120,000, Sables de Macherin (Trees on Left) (lot 14, $20,000-$30,000) for $43,200 and Fampoux (lot 18, $30,000-$50,000) for $52,800, the latter over the bid of Canadian collector Harry Malcolmson, who was the direct underbidder on three lots and also stopped short on several others. He told me he was disappointed to leave empty-handed, but that he practiced "bidding discipline." This may yet prove to have been a wise course.
I didn't recognize bidder 639--who took A Forest Grove (lot 30, $30,000-$50,000) at $132,000, over a bidder others identified as collector Arthur Cohen, and two other lower-priced lots--or bidder 644--who came away with Le Clovis (lot 8, $30,000-$50,000) for $48,000--but there were also many of the usual suspects among the winning bidders. Dealer Charles Isaacs won Belle-Croix (lot 3, $20,000-$30,000) for $36,000, Route en Construction au Carrefour de l'Epine à l'Allée aux Vaches (lot 10, $40,000-$60,000) for a bargain $38,400, and Route à Briquet (lot 40, $30,000-$50,000) at $72,000, the latter over Arthur Cohen.
British dealer Robert Hershkowitz went home with four lots, including Franchard (Pine Trees) (lot 31, $20,000-$30,000) for $31,200, over Harry Malcolmson. Dan Solomon bought Bas-Bréau (lot 19, $20,000-$30,000) for $48,000. Collector Bruce Lundberg claimed Au Bas du Point de Vue du Camp (lot 21, $40,000-$60,000) at $55,200.
One phone bidder captured four lots: Sables de Macherin (Rocks and Trees) (lot 9, $30,000-$50,000) for $38,400; Bornage de Barbizon (lot 33, $40,000-$60,000) for $50,400 over bidder 638, a woman who is a beginning collector who tried and fell short on several other lots, as well; Le Sully (lot 36, $30,000-$50,000) for $48,000, also over 638; and Cottage with Grape Vines, Barbizon (lot 39, $20,000-$30,000) for $43,200, over Arthur Cohen.
Other notable lots taken by phone bidders were Près la Reine Blanche (Rocks and Trees) (lot 2, $30,000-$50,000) for $45,600; Fleury (lot 35, $20,000-$30,000) for $38,400; and Sables de Macherin (Panorama) (lot 38, $20,000-$30,000) for $79,200.
And two lots from the end, our beginning collector, 638, finally got her prize: Route de l'Allée aux Vaches à la Route à Briquet (lot 41, $30,000-$50,000) at $55,200.
There were several fascinating aspects to this auction. One was that contrary to the trend of almost every auction overt the past several years, the majority of the action was in the room. Only 13 of the 43 lots sold to the telephone and the other 30 sold in the room, mostly to people you would expect to be bidding. And while 19th-century material has become rather scarce at most recent auctions, this sale--like Sotheby's Watkins sale of a few years ago that also had its own catalogue--did spectacularly well.
Hans Kraus, Jr., one of the preeminent dealers of 19th-century photographs, was not surprised at the prices. "The Cuveliers justifiably did well," he told me. "What surprised me was not that the best things sold for the prices they did, but that the lesser things did as well as they did. It demonstrates more depth in the 19th-century photography market than I would have anticipated." He pointed out that there was interest from the paintings and drawings world, from buyers of other 19th-century art who demonstrated an interest in photography.
"Sotheby's did a good job of marketing them," Kraus said. Indeed, like their catalogues for the Southworth & Hawes and Watkins sales, their Cuvelier catalogue contained some good scholarship--though not as detailed as those other catalogues--d fine writing.
"The images were exhibited at the Met ten years ago so people knew they existed, Kraus pointed out, "but it was not known that they would come to market." By the time they did "interest had built up…And it's a fabulous story that they showed up in the U.S. rather than in Europe, that they came from the archive of an American painter, and that there was enough of a concern for preserving them."
(Copyright ©2007 by The Photograph Collector.)
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