What would draw about a 100 of the world's top photography collectors and dealers to take what was supposed to be a five-hour roundtrip train ride to a "little" country auction house outside of London?
I guess it was what Bearne's chairman Robin Barlow termed, "arguably one of the finest collections of early photographs in the U.K."
The key word here is "arguably." The collection had major condition problems for much of it, but there were phenomenal gems peppered throughout the material. It was definitely an auction that had to be previewed.
Barlow told me that the group came from an old customer, who had called up about a group of decorative prints. When he mentioned that there were some photographs and began to name some of the photographers, Barlow sensed this was something special. He went out to find the group "jumbled in six portfolios" and brought them back to the Bearne's offices.
You may fault the reproduction values in the catalogue but the research on the collection is first rate and Bearne's deserves credit due for this. As Barlow said to me, "It's terribly important to put these people into context historically vis-à-vis their peers."
Barlow hopes to get another such sale, although--contrary to London rumor--there are only a few poorer duplicates of some of the images in the sale. There will not be another Craven sale, of this scale at least.
Gremlins caught those that came by early train to preview or even re-preview. On one train, dead cows on the tracks slowed the train so much that its engineer apparently went over his mandated time allotment. Our intrepid travelers had to wait for a replacement train and engineer.
On another train there were break problems in the rear car. It stopped for 40 minutes. Then later in Bristol a similar problem led the engineers to conclude that someone had tampered with the emergency breaks. At this point, Hans Kraus told me tongue-in-cheek, he started to think that maybe competitors were trying to make sure they didn't get to the auction. Finally, the train was fixed, only to climb behind a slow-moving milk train. They arrived over two hours late, but still before the auction. The room was already jammed with relatives and well-wishers of the consignors.
William, the second Earl of Craven (1809-1866) had put the collection together primarily in the 1850s. Major name photographers, such as Fenton, Aguado, Marville and Le Gray, along with important but more unknown names, such as Craven himself, George Barker, Lord Ortho Fitzgerald and H.P. Leverett, made up the 91 lots offered.
But it came down to Craven and Le Gray for the real fireworks (although an album by Irish aristocrat Fitzgerald brought a hammer price of 35,000 pounds sterling).
The sale started slowly enough with a photograph of Lady Sarah Spencer, an ancestor of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, by George Barker. While it hit only 1,645 pounds, that was still well beyond the estimate of 300-500 pounds.
After two important Fentons in rather poor condition (but good tones on the first) sold for 12,925 and 11,750 pounds respectively and the Fitzgerald album went on the phone (possibly to Michael Wilson), we came to the Craven photographs. These were a mixed lot. As dealer Janet Lehr said to me: "I felt the Craven material, apart from the beautiful garden views, was pretty foxed and there was nothing I was really interested in."
Well, not exactly. Yes, much of the material did have problems. But no one could really ignore the horse-drawn photographic van (sold for 47,000 pounds, against an estimate of 8,000-12,000 pounds) or the magnificent tree in lot 54, Tree Study in the Park (64,625 pounds). The latter was, for me, one of the most beautiful tree photographs of the 19th century--a mesmerizing print. Hans Kraus apparently agree and underbid. I had left a commission bid at ten times the high estimate and that got me only a bit over a quarter of the way home. That might tell you how silly some of the estimates felt afterwards.
Another study of a tree--Gnarled Tree Trunk--was also powerful and also sold for 64,625 pounds. The only real problem was the price on all of these images. These all sold on the phone, perhaps to Sheik Saoud Al Thani.
The phone also took those "beautiful garden views" that Janet Lehr mentioned, and at record-level prices.
The first study of a Parterre ornamental garden at Ashdown Park in Berkshire sold for a stunning 88,125 pounds; the second one went for 70,500; and the third for a record-breaking (for a photographic landscape auctioned in the U.K.) 99,875 pounds! The last was a two-panel image, which was matched with technical virtuosity. There was no distortion to be seen between the panels. The same phone bidder took all three again.
Three still lifes of a brace of partridges sold to Hans Kraus for 25,850 pounds (Lot 71). Sean Sexton took another lesser one for just over 7,000 pounds (Lot 72). These certainly weren't on a blue-light special.
Then the auction finished in high style with Le Gray.
The prints when I saw them across the viewing room made my heart skip. The tones were, for the most part, that nice purple tone that everyone looks for. But up close and personal they were a disappointment for me. Their home, shoved in portfolio against each other, and maybe just normal wear and tear had scuffed up their surfaces badly. A few suffered less than others, but they all showed the effects.
That didn't deter the bidders. The first four featured the French navy, including Napoleon III's fleet leaving the harbor. The first two went to the same phone bidder again. The first (Lot 83) sold for 123,375 pounds and the second (Lot 84), after a pitched battle with dealer Robert Koch, who was probably bidding for a client, sold for a numbing 293,750 pounds.
Michael Sachs bought Lot 85 for 88,125 pounds. Hans Kraus took Lot 86 for 72,850 pounds.
The Brig on the Water (Lot 87) sold to the phone for 29,375 pounds. Mediterranean at Sete (Lot 88) sold to the phone for 99,875 pounds. Another seascape in poorer condition sold for 19,975 pounds. Lot 90 was bought in. It was so bad that even Le Gray has smudged out his signature. And finally, like those last efforts at a fireworks display, Lot 91 (Breaking Wave at Sete) was hotly contended, first by Koch, then by French dealer Camelo Carra for a collector, but finally the phone and probably the Sheik won out at the end with a final tally of 188,000 pounds.
As the smoke cleared, the Le Grays in this sale took the third to the fifth highest Le Gray prices at worldwide auction.
So again we have a sale that blows out the estimates, sets records and befuddles the marketplace--largely the results of one determined bidder. What's it all mean?
Hans Kraus said, that it "was an unusual sale that doesn't really relate to the marketplace as a whole."
Janet Lehr was a little more blunt with her evaluation: "That's the great success of an auction. It drags you into things that in the light of day you wouldn't be interested in at all."
Lehr feels that "auctions are for very savvy dealers or for collectors who are willing to make big mistakes."
On the Le Grays, she said, " I don't think it's an aberration." But she felt that prices for Le Grays would be quite erratic, but that very good ones will bring very good prices.