Issue #23  12/15/2000
Paris Auctions Rather Mixed Despite Etude Tajan's Record Level of 3.2 Million Francs

The Paris auction houses like to jam a few auctions into the schedule around Paris Photo week and this year was no exception. There were three major auctions and then one "decorative arts" auction that provided the most fireworks.

But the auction material was largely pedestrian and condition was largely poor. In fact it should all have been rather embarrassing for the houses, particularly for Etude Tajan. And, as was typical of the Paris Photo week, the crowds to view were intense, the supporting staff beleaguered, and the viewing conditions downright poor. A lot of the time the auction staff could not even locate items, or the items were so situated as to be "unavailable" for close viewing.

British dealer Sebastian Dobson, who specializes in Oriental images, came up with the best quote to capture the feeling in the auction rooms during previewing. The quote was from Madame de Sevigne, regarded as one of the world’s greatest letter writers and a celebrated figure in French society and literary circles during the reign of Louis XIV in the 17th century. While her quote had nothing whatsoever to do with photography auctions, it still seemed particularly apt for this round of material: "What I see tires me, and what I don’t see, worries me."

(By the way, Dobson and the company he represents, Old Japan, have a new catalogue out. If you would like a copy, you can contact him at: seb@oldjapan.demon.co.uk. There may be a charge.)

The French Franc was between 7.5 and 7.6 to the dollar despite all the election problems (although it had been as high as 7.8 in the weeks before). This exchange rate was a "real world" good money-changer rate. There is also about an 11% surcharge on the actual bid, which I do not include in any of the prices below for any of the auctions.

At the Nicolay auction (Marc Pagneux, expert), the focus was on a collection of historically important and family photographs from the family of Prince Henry d’Orleans, Count of Paris. The photography dates ranged from about 1850 to 1930. And as could be expected of such material, there were more than a few preemptions.

The auction started off with a group of salt prints of the Royal family during its English exile at Claremont in 1852 by Count Joseph Vigier. Prices were usually above or in the estimate range, but a few went for many multiples over the high estimate. I bought two lovely prints from this group.

An album on the family (circa 1855, lot 32) went for 55,000 French Francs, just a bit over the estimate.

England-based Robert Hershkowitz won two important English lots, neither of which was fully detailed in the catalogue. The first was a large and nice Roger Fenton salt print that went for 45,000 ff. The second was a group of Howlett’s of the Great Eastern. These three went for 80,000 ff. I underbid on both the lots.

A very nice copy of Camille Silvy’s Orleans House Fete Champetre, Juin 1864 sold for 85,000 ff, just a bit more than at the Jammes sale as I recall.

Italian images were in demand from a number of bidders, who drove up prices to very high levels for material that often wasn’t in particularly strong condition. Lot 41, a group of five salt prints by Lotze, sold for 62,000 ff. Lot 42, 48 images from about 1855 with only a couple of images in nice condition, still brought 78,000 ff. It was in the estimate range, but I frankly thought it was worth only about half the price it sold for.

The most important (and expensive) lot of the sale, a unique album of the U.S. Civil War and the French participation on the Union side, went to American dealer Charles Isaacs. The album contained 13 large salt prints and 280 cdv-sized images. It went for several times over estimate. The album was made in honor of the Count of Paris and the Duke of Chartres, who fought in the conflict at the invitation the Prince de Joinville.

Historically significant and a tribute to French-US cooperation, many thought it might be preempted, but strangely it wasn’t.

I bought a very large imperial salt print of General George McClellan by R.W. Addis of Washington, DC from this sale; in fact it was the immediately preceding lot. The provenance is, of course, similar to the above lot.

A large group of ethnographic images sold for 68,000 ff, which was way too high in my estimation, considering condition and a lack of great images (the two the catalogue depicted were just about it).

The groups of Kodak panoramas circa 1910 were largely preempted, at least most of the decent ones. And the rest of the sale was really a non-event.

Sandwiched in between Nicolay and the large Etude Tajan photo sales were two auctions on Friday, November 17.

One was "merely" a "decorative arts" sale that just happened to have a major Gsell album and an important Man Ray Rayograph.

The Gsell album of a 130 images of Saigon (circa 1875, or later as some of us thought) was a very good group of images in excellent condition. The price of 165,000 ff reflected that. American dealer Lee Marks overbid a phone bidder on this item.

The Man Ray had brought a lot of attention. While some faulted the image for its print quality, the image was acknowledged as an important and early one (circa 1924). Susan Herzog was the early bidder setting the pace, but when Man Ray dealer Michael Senft quietly put his hand over hers, she dropped out. The battle continued between Charles Isaacs and French painting dealer Lesieutre. Lesieutre came out on top at 610,000 ff. Lesieutre reportedly had some legal run-ins in the past, but he seems to be back and interested in the higher end photographic art market. He wasn’t the only painting dealer to make his mark felt during the day.

The other important sale of the day was the collection of Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze’s own images. That name doesn’t ring a bell, you say? Perhaps the name Wols will. The enigmatic Wols printed very little of his experimental images, so the work is rare and always in demand. He is better known for his paintings. Viviane Esders was the expert on this Baron Ribeyre auction.

Although the condition on many of the images wasn’t the best, to be fair, they did look better than in the catalogue itself. Apparently the auction house used a photographer who had difficulties photographing the work. Wispy areas and reflections on the images that were printed in the catalogue were not actually in the images. But buying at this sale was like walking in a minefield. I felt many of the images didn’t warrant any bids, but they got them. Still there were some exciting images.

Un repas pour deux brought a bid of 70,000 ff from American contemporary art dealer Matthew Marks, who reportedly had to be coaxed to the sale by friends. He was to buy a number of images in the sale. Marks successfully blends many media in his New York gallery.

The next expensive image was of a piece of Gruyere cheese that sold again to Marks for 27,000 ff.

A skinned rabbit head sold to the phone for 90,000 ff and then was preempted by the Georges Pompidou Museum.

The Invitation, which is a photo of three photos (two of the same baby folded back and one of fishermen), was bid up to 45,000. It is a very well published image.

Most of the portraits sold from about $500 to $2000, but lot 46, a nice portrait of Jacques Prevert and Jacqueline Laurent sold to German collector Dietmar Siegert for 36,000 ff.

Then came two somewhat controversial prints. These two compositions reminded me of Peterhans’ work, but they were hand-colored and some thought the hand coloring was not original. It looked a bit strange, but appropriate to me. I liked both images and thought they were two of the best in the auction. So did several bidders. Sylvie Perlstein, a Belgium collector, took the first one of tomatoes and onions, for 135,000 ff over German dealer Hendrik Berinson, who had a phone glued to his ear during the bidding. Berinson did take the next lot (a composition of some industrial-looking objects) for a more reasonable 80,000 ff. Frankly I liked that image a bit better than the first.

I wound up as underbidder on the cover lot of Mannequins with Ladder. Perlstein snagged this one for 52,000 ff–still a reasonable price for such a strong image.

After a group of nondescript portraits, the auction returned to more interesting material. Pied Paquet Artus, as a bizarre sign with a three-dimensional can with a sheep peering over the top was called, was bought for a reasonable 17,500 ff by a phone bidder. The image was interesting but the print had real problems.

French dealer Christian Bouqueret bought lot 102 (a skinned rabbit with comb) for 75,000 ff, only to be preempted by the Georges Pompidou Museum.

He did take the next image of a skinned rabbit for the same 75,000 ff without a preemption being invoked. He told me later he preferred the first one to the second, but he was still happy he got at least one.

Another skinned rabbit head sold for 55,000 ff; and then some pork kidneys sold for 60,000 ff, but were preempted by the Pompidou. It was starting to sound like an expensive (a VERY expensive) butcher shop, or boucherie as it is called in French.

The final image, that of the back of Wols’ own windblown and balding head–virtually the same image as lot 18, which sold for 23,000 ff, was taken by Matthew Marks for 22,000 ff.

The Wols sale brought in a respectable 1,380,000 ff, but had a buy-in rate of nearly 40%, largely because of reserves and not lack of bids.

You really had to be a marathoner to get through Etude Tajan, the next auction of the week. The previewing, as noted above, was brutal, and the highlights of the auction itself were few.

However, there were a couple of bargains if you had the patience and stamina.

Bryan Ginns and I bought most of the autochrome and trichrome lots.

Two diapositives by Marey did not look quite right to me. They sold to the phone for a very low 20,000 ff, either a great bargain or something else. A lot of the day’s poorer or more questionable offerings would sell to the phone. I cannot emphasize more clearly that you must either preview carefully yourself or have someone other than the auction house preview for you.

Sylviane De Decker Heftler bought a group of Alpine views for 42,000 ff early on, but then you would have had to wait until lot 129 to barely break over the 50,000 ff mark with an album of Charles Lallemand images of Syria. And that wasn’t because things weren’t selling, or were selling poorly. It was because the material was that mediocre.

The next real action came with the Paul Emile Miot images.

Miot took several trips of exploration. His first was in 1857.

The battle lines were drawn, starting with lot 225, a street scene in Saint Pierre. Gilman curator Pierre Apraxine bid against London photography dealer Daniella Dangoor–apparently both bidding for clients. Apraxine came out on top this time at 42,000 ff, plus the premium. He also then took the next two lots of the frigate Argent caught in ice and and an iceberg in the bay of Kirpon(?) at 40,000 and 42,000 respectively.

On the next important lot–the finest Miot in the sale–I decided to join the fray after Dangoor dropped out. The image of the interior of a smokehouse from 1857 was strikingly modernist in tone. After the "smoke had cleared," a new world record for Miot’s work was established and I walked away with the image.

Dangoor then bought lot 231 for 42,000 ff, a great image of a jungle of trees. Then took the cover lot of Insulaires de Nouku for a reasonable 35,000 ff. and followed up with two portraits of South Pacific females (lots 243 and 244) for 42,000 and 22,000 ff respectively. On the first image, auction expert Serge Kakou was bidding against Dangoor.

There were so many bad prints and lots in this sale that it would be hard to report on all of them. An awful Adam Salomon of the philosopher (often misattributed as a self portrait) was sold for 12,000 ff. A group of ten dreadful Baldus’ sold for 38,000 ff, but there wasn’t a saleable image in the lot. However, the lot was apparently historically important because these were reportedly unmounted studio proofs, which were bought by a French museum.

A Gustave Le Gray of the Pavillon Richelieu au Louvre sold for 42,000 ff. With the premium that’s nearly $7,000 for a print that was yellow, dirty and a bit light and washed out. Compare that to a virtually identical image by Baldus that is in perfect condition that we have currently on our website (Reference Number 98) for only $8,500.

Le Gray also scored on an image of Garibaldi, which brought 50,000 ff for a so-so print of a somewhat boring image.

A huge (490 x 635 mm) print of Sarah Bernhardt from around 1900 and attributed to Paul Nadar sold for just above its estimated range at 85,000 ff.

The rest of the sale was composed of mostly so-so 20th century images (many late printed).

A Laure Albin Guillot still life of flowers sold for 28,000 ff. A Theo Blanc and Antoine DeMilly composition sold for 25,000 ff, a strong showing for this French duo from the 1930s. A good 1928 image of the Eiffel Tower by Breitenbach sold to American dealer Lee Marks for 42,000 ff. I had bid on this one early on.

One bit of excitement came with the Lenhert and Landrock’s. Lot 340, a mysterious masked nude, which was estimated at what was a reasonable 3,000-4,000 ff, sold for an astonishing 42,000 ff! Several other L&L lots sold for multiples of double and triple estimates.

There were a few items that were catalogued as salt prints that to me, at least, did not appear to be salt prints (lot 189 by Beato and lot 256), and a few salt prints that I spotted that were not noted as such (lot 89, some in lot 99, a couple of the earliest Miot’s, and lot 261 come to mind). It is always hard to get good cataloguing done with little staff and time on so many lots.

And the material was problematic. My notes read something like the following: awful (used a lot); yellow (also used a lot); lots of retouch, yellow and dirty, weak, poor, spotting, really yellow with chewed corners, boring, lousy condition only one good, has been cleaned, looks like a screw driver had been dragged across its surface (this on a J.B. Greene), a bit weak on new mounts, restored and put back on mounts, missing small emulsion areas, scratched up, etc., etc.

This wasn’t Etude Tajan’s finest moment, or was it? The auction broke a record for the house and sold over 3.2 million French francs, but largely because of the shear numbers in the huge 371-lot sale. What is amazing to me is how many of the lots still sold despite their poor condition. Of course, the phone did take many of these, leaving one with the clear impression that these bidders did not preview. And in France an auction is very final.

All in all, the week was exhilarating, exhausting, disappointing and surprising in turn. It is always worthwhile, if, for nothing else, the pure experience of what is referred to now as Paris Photo week.