Issue #163  8/3/2009
Paris Auctions: Stone Auction Outperforms Expectations With 86% Sold For a Total of $525,000

By Alex Novak

There were a number of small auctions in and around Paris at this time, but the two that were of the most interest were Piasa at Drouot (where most of the Paris auctions are held) and Argenteuil in the suburb city of the same name.

The latter auction was focused on the German studio team of Sasha and Cami Stone, who later were forced to move to Belgium. Most of the material was from the husband and wife's Berlin period. I previewed at the home of the auction expert Christophe Goeury, who is one of the most research-oriented of all the French auction experts at the moment.

His catalogues are troves of information on the photographers whose estates he has auctioned off, including Brassai, Blanc et Demilly, and now Studio Stone. The information includes biographies in French and English, extensive bibliographies and copies of the artists' stamps and signatures. Christophe works very hard to produce such valuable additions to the photographic literature, and he is a very amiable and helpful person as well. His condition reports are generally very professional and accurate, although, like most auction "experts", he does sometimes make errors in dating prints, although the errors (as we pointed out in our coverage of the Brassai sale) go both ways, often noting a later date on a print than was the reality. With the Stone material this was not so much a problem, because of the material itself, which was very consistent with the period taken. The basic problem was simpler: most of the material was just not that exciting and the print sizes were small (typically about 4 x 6 inches or smaller--some were only tiny contact prints) with numerous condition issues. For me the prints themselves had little "presence", most printed simply on ferrotyped (glossy) paper. Less than a handful of images were printed on a nice matte silver paper that I thought stood out.

I and a number of French dealers and collectors felt that the auction with its rather repetitious imagery might not be that successful, but, surprisingly, I am very pleased to report that Goeury's hard work indeed paid off. Nearly 86% of the lots were sold (although many of the smaller lots reported sold immediately after the sale, and some were still being sold after I received these statistics), and a few at very high prices indeed for these photographs. The total take from the sale including the frais, or buyer's premium (here a more reasonable 19%), was just a hair under 370,000 euro, or about $525,000. That's quite a decent number for the typical photo sale at a French auction house, and very good for a single photographer sale. The exchange rate was about $1.42 per euro at this time. For perspective, that total auction amount was about midway between Sotheby's and Christies' London sales of just two weeks before.

German dealers, collectors and institutions were all participating in the sale. My German friends, dealer Hendrik Berinson and curator/collector Dietmar Siegert, came in person to bid. Sam Stourdzé, a Paris photography consultant, was also there to bid for clients. Several other French dealers and even collectors also participated. Many others were on the phones or left commission bids.

I will give a run down of those lots that came close to or broke over the 5,000 euro mark with the buyers' premium.

Right out of the gate, the auction saw lot 1, consisting of the studio's documentation, including an interesting letter about Atget from André Calmettes sent to Berenice Abbott, sell for more than double its high estimate at 14,727 euro. Lot 5, three photos of a dancing mechanical figure and correspondence from Vilmos Huszar to Sasha Stone, also sold for more than double its high estimate at 5,154 euro. It's nice to see people or institutions valuing such research material.

A self portrait by Sasha Stone (lot 8) went for more than 3-1/2 x its high estimate at 4,295.34 euro. Lot 68, a pair of positive/negative prints of people crossing a street in Berlin, which I thought was a bit more interesting than the average lot, was estimated at 800-1000 euro. It sold for nearly 16,000 euro!

I liked lot 84 because it was one of the few prints on a beautiful matte paper, instead of the rather mediocre ferrotyped paper that most of the prints in this sale were made on. It showed an elevated train and had some presence. It sold for double its high estimate at 1,350 euro--certainly not the highest price in the sale. Lots 82 and 83 were also on this paper but they had condition issues--as did so many other prints in this sale.

Lot 93, showed an interesting image in Berlin's Jewish Quarter. Estimated at 400-600 euro, it sold for 5,645 euro! Yes, I will use a lot of exclamation marks on this auction coverage. Another image of Berlin's Jewish Quarter, lot 97, went even higher over its meager estimate of 600-800 euro--right to nearly 18,000 euro! Lot 98, an image that I liked in the Jewish Quarter sold for 4,541 euro over a similar estimate range.

Lot 99, another positive/negative pair of a man shining shoes (with major condition issues, including tears), sold well over its estimate range of 300-400 euro at 5,400 euro.

Lot 125 looked liked it was just a mistake that photographers occasionally make by tripping the shutter inadvertently. It was a crooked (I suppose some might say a constructivist/modernist view) shot of some feet climbing a stair. Estimated at what I thought at the time was a ridiculous 1,000-1,500 euro, it actually sold for 6,136 euro! What were these bidders thinking?

My favorite image was lot 130, one that Moholy-Nagy had made famous: the shot straight down from the top of the tower. Several observers noted that Stone's version was out of focus, but I still thought it was one of the best in the auction, in good condition and worth about 4,000-5,000 euro in my opinion. Of course it sold for much more: 12,272 euro.

Lot 223 was an interesting shot from a high angle from a building in Stuttgart. It too had serious surface condition issues, but still sold for 14,113 euro (over an estimate of 1,000-1,500 euro). Keep this one in mind for a bit later, because this image also appears in the maquette for a book project by Cami and Sasha Stone (lot 265).

The Stone Studio photomontages were somewhat interesting, but most had condition problems and weren't exactly stunning. The one combining Texas and New York City images (oil derricks gushing oil over New York City skyscrapers) was the best of the lot, although it had condition issues, including tiny holes in the print in several places. But, estimated at only 1,000-1,500 euro, it soared to 11,659 euro! The photo montage of a nude over a factory floor also clobbered its 1,000-1,500 euro estimate by nearly hitting 8,000 euro.

Back to that book maquette, which contained 16 prints. The catalogue showed only 11 of the 16 images. Trust me when I say the other five prints in the maquette didn't add anything. Condition was also an issue here with paper clip rust marks and other problems--most conservable. But that was the same with the rest of the prints in this auction, so why should that make a difference here? And remember that just one print in the maquette had already sold for over 14,000 euro in the auction. In this case, the maquette's print was in better condition. Nonetheless, while the maquette sold for about double its high estimate, it still was a relatively good buy in this sale at only 36,817 euro. These were, after all, the best images of the best, supposedly. Collector Dietmar Siegert later told me that he felt a bit of regret for not bidding this lot higher. I suppose then it could be considered the "bargain" of the auction.

The fact that lot 297 soared over its 600-800 euro estimate was not a surprise in the context of this sale. The group of 13 small images relating to the Antwerp diamond trade brought a whopping 7,363 euro.

Honestly though, someone has to tell me why the last lot, No. 319, a nice nude study in poor stained condition that is sometimes available in good prints for about 70% of the price it got here, would sell for 6,504 euro? If that isn't getting carried away by an auction, I don't know what is.

Dinner at Maceo with Dietmar and Ed.
Dinner at Maceo with Dietmar and Ed.

Just after the sale I had a pleasant dinner with friends Dietmar Siegert and Eduard Planting at one of my favorite Paris restaurants, Maceo's, which is at 15, Rue des Petits-Champs. Planting had just opened a gallery in Amsterdam, Eduard Planting Fine Art Photographs, which is at Eerste Bloemdwarsstraat 2. We were celebrating his birthday this particular evening (you can see the photograph on Eduard's and my pages on Facebook). Also at another table across the room were another group of friends, Paris dealer Alain Paviot and American dealer Charles Isaacs.

Maceo's is a popular place for some in the photo trade, and for good reason: excellent food; good, friendly service; and not outrageous prices--at least for this level of food (three-course prix-fixed meals vary from about 35-42 euro per person, plus drinks). They even offer a "green" vegetarian menu. The restaurant is also convenient to the "action" since it is located close to several dealers and galleries, the Bibliotheque Nationale (the old one) and the auctions at Drouot--not to mention that it is a ten-minute walk from the Carousel de Louvre during Paris Photo.

Run by Mark Williamson, an eccentric but none-the-less professional Englishman, both Maceo's and its sibling, Willi's Wine Bar, are a treat that should be on your schedule when you are in Paris (http://www.maceorestaurant.com/Maceo_English_Home.html). Again, feel free to use my name here too. They know me very well. They are closed, however, from July 14 to August 23. There is no air conditioning, but a light breeze is usually available from the open windows when appropriate.