Issue #23  12/15/2000
A Postscript: Important Hugo Album Sold

One postscript: before I left Paris, I had previewed two important sales, one composed of two Le Grays of Paris and the other of a spectacular and unique Victor Hugo album. Typically, the items were in large non-photographic sales.

The Hugo album has now become history, having gone under the hammer on November 29 at Drouot Richelieu.

The album contained paintings, poems and bits of prose framing some of the photographs. These additional and important touches were created by Victor Hugo himself, Auguste Vacquerie (one of the photographers) and Charles Hugo (Victor's son and the other photographer).

The album contained all the important images, including the sleeping cat (with two-page poem by Vacquerie surrounding it), several important hand studies, a life-size photogram of a fly, many excellent landscapes, and a snow scene that I had not seen before. The prints were largely in excellent condition with deep rich colors. The images of Victor Hugo were all the classics, with two framed by watercolor paintings that were eye-boggling, as was the photo montage title page--a six-figure item if I ever saw one. The artwork on these was attributed to Charles Hugo.

Although the estimate was a "mere" 800,000 ff, I and other observers felt the album would fetch well above three million French francs. In fact, Pierre Marc Richard, Beaussant's auction expert, told me that he thought it would go for over nine million francs. While that figure was a bit high to this observer, I did not think that five to six million francs was out of line.

But before the auction, the head of prints and photographs at the Bibliotheque Nationale of France, Laure Beaumont-Maillet wrote a letter asking that the album be declared a "national treasure" and that it be prohibited from leaving France forever (instead of the more normal three-year restriction). The decision on these proposals would not take place until December 6, a full week AFTER the auction. The action put the damper on the bidding strategies of several individuals and groups. As a national treasure, the album could not be broken up, nor taken out of France, leaving any non-nationals or dealers in the cold.

At the auction the bidding was muted by word of the BN's action. Reportedly Roger Therond, French photography collector extraordinaire, was one party involved in the bidding. But Paris dealer Baudoin Lebon had the winning bid of 1.4 million ff. He told me "Why not?", explaining that he had no downside even if the BN's demand was met. The upside was that he had an album worth many times what he bid on it. But before he could claim the prize, the Maison Victor Hugo preempted the bid, ending the need for any further action.

And so this "national treasure" will remain in France, as well it should, but through a process that leaves many wondering about the honesty and integrity of it all.