Issue #20  10/15/2000
French Auctions Lower in Scale But Much More Interesting Than NYC; Jammes Influence Once Again? or Another French Book Dealer/Collector?

The European photo market has always provided a visceral excitement that I’ve felt largely missing in New York City. It certainly isn’t in the "big" ticket items, which are small scale compared to New York’s six-figure behemoths. But it is in the diversity, beauty and even quirkiness of its images.

Some time ago, Swann used to have these qualities, but now even it has become a "little" Sotheby’s or Christie’s. When the featured image is one more Bourke-White Bridge, you know the magic has gone out. But when collectors will buy into this sameness, it is perfectly understandable that the auction houses will deliver it. But as a long-time observer and lover of photography, I truly miss the opportunity to "find" new photographers and images on my own home turf. And I would like to encourage all of my readers to continue to learn and explore new ground, because there is a lot of it to still cover in this magic field of photography.

New York has largely become predictable: an auction industry catering to collectors who want names instead of images. New York’s auction factory mentality is occasionally broken, but the exceptions are getting fewer and fewer. The truly rare and beautiful are not as well appreciated as the safe "classics" and largely derivative contemp work; and hence not as "saleable." Or so NYC’s auction house experts would have you believe.

Thank god for France! It still provided me an antidote for the ennui of this auction season.

Expert Marc Pagneux wisely put together, not one, but two auctions at the same time to attract non-Parisians to his auctions at both Pescheteau-Badin and Chartres. If you want an American equivalent, you would have to return to the "good ol’ days" of Swann during the ‘70s and ‘80s and add an extra dollop of European flavor to the mix.

The Americans were still few: Keith DeLellis, Michael Sachs, Chris Wahren, and myself in attendance, Hans Kraus, Charles Isaacs and a few others previewing. The English, including the transplanted Yanks Bob Hershkowitz, Daniel Newburg in attendance, and Ken Jacobson previewing, also included Daniella Dangoor. And my dealer friend Anne Fourcroy came down from Belgium and dealer Ton Peek came down from the Netherlands. It was a small group but an influential one in the bidding, although a large contingent of knowledgeable French collectors, institutions and dealers weighed in heavily at the auctions.

Americans thinking about going to the French auctions might have second thoughts. There are rarely any good 20th century masters and the prices for European, Asian and Middle Eastern 19th century material are often shocking. Europeans genuinely appreciate beauty and true rarity, and you’ll have to compete to get it. One other point, condition is often extremely variable, with the emphasis on "extremely." I would not even think about bidding on something in Europe that I had not seen and spent some time with. The lighting is usually bad, the arm wrestling for a space to view is sometimes fierce and the auction rooms themselves are often very overcrowded and overheated. It is much like it was before Swann got its gentrified and expanded digs–only a bit more primitive.

You often have only a couple of hours to view 200-300 lots, including albums of hundreds of photos, boxes of negatives or stereos, and portfolios of images. If you don’t like dust and mildew, don’t come here. But if you want to learn about photography and its origins, these are the perfect places to do it.

After all the work, you usually find yourself being outbid or even preempted (a peculiar French custom that is extremely frustrating to bidders), and then trying to pay in French Francs, usually without a credit card.

So why come at all? In part for the camaraderie, in part for the learning experience and occasionally for that magical image that has not yet hit a photo book, or at least one in English. Plus the premium is a shade under 11% instead of 17-1/2 to 25%. (By the way, even if I don’t mention it below, the premium is NOT in the totals listed; and the Franc was about 7.5 to a very strong dollar.)

These two auctions were no exceptions. At Pescheteau, the learning experience began with a series of salt prints of Middle Eastern people. The phone was active on the four lots, as was my friend, London dealer Daniella Dangoor, who underbid several of the lots. While the lots only brought about $3,500-$4,000, they were intriguing. Who was the photographer? Was it Marville? Or Moulin? Beaucorps? Or someone else? Three were Jewish images–highly sought after.

Baldus’ Vues de Paris en Photographies, an important album of 47 small format images, sold for about $8,000 (54,000 FF plus premium) to a phone bidder. A VERY reasonable price.

The highest priced 20th century lot in this sale was a mere 100,000 FF plus premium (a little less than $15,000) for Brassai’s Graffiti, le Roi Soleil. A French dealer in the room bought it for a client. It was a nice large vintage print with just a bit of retouching probably done by the photographer. The estimate had been an unrealistically low 15,000-20,000 FF. Estimates in Europe are notoriously inaccurate, serving more as come-ons than real guidelines. But then they do that in New York as well.

A group of 40 prints by J.B. Charlier-Bezies doubled estimate and sold for 43,000 FF, plus premium.

A good group of 360 photographs of Africa sold for 60,000 FF (plus premium) in the room over an estimate of 12,000-15,000 FF.

Two albums of the Exposition Universalle de 1867 by Pierre Petit sold for 120,000 FF and then were preempted. (I have one image from this series up on my web site, by the way.)

A copy of Brinkley’s Japan Described and Illustrated by the Japanese (10 volumes) sold for a very high 43,500 FF, plus premium to a French dealer, who was acting for a Japanese buyer.

French dealer Baudoin Lebon took a lot of 50 photographs of Kiev, Russia for 60,000 FF plus premium over an estimate of 10,000-12,000 FF.

A bad print of Napoleon III by Gustave Le Gray sold for a mere 13,000 FF, plus premium. I remember another better copy that the late Harry Lunn once offered me for about four times that much.

A number of images of turn-of-the-century Paris by Gabriel Loppe that reminded me of the recent celebrations all went well over estimates, each bringing about $2500 to $3000. Loppe, who? Parisian dealers Arnaud Delas and Baudoin Lebon were two that scooped up Loppe images.

A very nice group of important images of the Pyrenees by Ange-Eugene Henri Mailand (don’t you just love those short French names?) was a wonderful discovery. After being shut out largely by French dealers (particularly friends Nicolas Derville and Philippe Doublet), American Michael Sachs and the phone, I managed to scoop up what I believe to be the finest image in the group: Establissement des bains de Luchon, which is a striking view of a building's columned facade with road leading to the mountainous background of the Pyrenees. It seems to take on an almost mythic feel, as of Shangri-la or some other utopia. The image has been reproduced in Auer & Auer’s Photographers Encyclopaedia International and in Pyrenees en Images. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one to admire this image. Expert Pagneux had placed the highest estimate on this lot, and I had to fight off a stiff challenge from English dealer Robert Hershkowitz, who congratulated me afterwards on my purchases. High praise from someone whom I admire for his expertise and fine eye for 19th century work.

Another example of how Europe values diversity a lot more than NYC was a lot of 44 Middle Eastern images by Bonfils, Dumas, etc. It included three very small panoramas. Estimated for only 4,000-5,000 FF, it sold for 26,000 FF, plus premium. That is about $100 each, and they were not very stunning in my opinion.

All total, Pescheteau sold 82% of all lots (a figure that NY would have loved to emulate, especially since their personnel keep telling me that "lower-end stuff just doesn't sell") at an average price of just over $1400. The total take was just over $300,000, a pretty average photo auction figure for France.

The auction at the Galerie de Chartres in the lovely town of Chartres was the more interesting of the two auctions, in my opinion. Expert Marc Pagneux coyly attributed the bulk of the sale items to a "M et Mme X." Was it the collection of book dealer Raymond Mary who hails from Nice, or the famed Jammes’ "leftovers"? Pagneux would only smile like a fox at my suggestion of the latter. But many of the images in the sale are known Jammes’ images that were not sold previously (like the Coco Vendor by Negre), although the unique erotic dags were definitely in Mary’s collection. Did either book dealer buy images from the other? Or were some of the images just duplicates. If Mary was the source, he clearly had very important material.

French dealer Bruno Tartarin drove me down to Chartres the day after the Pescheteau auction. By the way, Bruno has started publishing a nice little computer-printed catalogue of largely 19th century European, Asian and Middle Eastern images.

The auction and preview is held in a small stone building (an old church perhaps) just a few blocks from the majestic Chartres Cathedral. After viewing hundreds of images and albums, we broke for a quick business lunch. Bruno and fellow Paris dealer Arnaud Delas of Hypnos Gallery (http://www.hypnos-photo.com/) took me to lunch where we discussed a number of ways we could work more closely together. It was a very nice lunch indeed, both for the food and the company.

Again, there were many different kinds of material in this sale, and the first lot to make a mark was a daguerreotype: the lovely image of Rachel Dans in the role of Phedre. The daguerreotype, which dates to about 1848, has been attributed to Charles Negre (one more Jammes connection). Daguerreian Society member and Connecticut Dealer Chris Wahren got into a bidding battle with the phone. At 140,000 FF, plus premium the phone won.

The next important duel was between the phones: a Ponti album made up of mostly Bresolin views (29 images in all) sold for 39,000 FF. Most thought at least one of the parties was the Alinari Museum in Florence.

One of many lots to blow by their estimates, Lot 57 an anonymous salt print of a nude sold for 42,000 FF (against an estimate of 3,000-4,000 FF) to a French collector over the bids of French dealer Arnaud Delas and English dealer Robert Hershkowitz. At that price, it could have been by any number of important photographers.

Then there was a wonderful series of hand-tinted stereo daguerreotypes of nudes by Auguste Belloc. Unlike at Pescheteau, these were not scratched, cleaned and plain mediocre. These were pristine and beautifully colored, the best that I have seen recently any where in auction. By my count, I picked up two (including the highest priced lot), Chris Wahren one, Serge Nazarieff one and a phone bidder the other 2. Most were reproduced in Nazarieff’s book, "Stereo Nudes, 1850-1930."

The Comtesse de Castiglione (the 19th century equivalent of Cindy Sherman) provided the next excitement. The Comtesse has been making waves since last year’s exhibits in France at the Orsay Museum and at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York. She is now starring (many years after her death) in the same show featured at the Orsay now at the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a show that is worth seeing, by the way (more on that in the next newsletter in a few days).

The prints at the auction, all by Pierre Louis Pierson, varied dramatically. All went above or within their estimates, despite some being of rather poor quality. Almost all went to phone bidders. I sure hope they all previewed, but I doubt it.

The first image (lot 85/Apraxine, p.120) was a barely average print of "Fear." Pierre Apraxine helped curate the current traveling show and author the accompanying book. Fear went just over its estimate at 22,000 FF, plus premium.

Another passably average print (lot 86/Apraxine, p.102) sold for 30,000 FF (roughly $3500).

The first decent print of the day came at lot 87 (Apraxine, p.29, fig.4). It went to French collector extraordinaire Roger Therond for 70,000 FF (about $10,000). This was my second most favorite print.

The next lot was the cover (lot 88/Apraxine, p.165, fig.2). Before I previewed, I had preferred most of the other prints. After I actually saw the images, it was no contest: the cover was clearly the most impressive of the prints. It had "presence." It also had damage: in the upper right corner and in her belt area, but as one other dealer said to me: "Where are you going to find another?" It sold to Therond in the room, over the attempts by phone bidders, for 130,000 FF, plus premium, about $19,000. In my opinion, actually well worth the price, considering its impact.

The other good print (but a little flat to my taste) was lot 89 (Apraxine, p.102, image with umbrella). It sold for 60,000 FF, plus premium, a little less than $8,000.

The next two lots were very poor but still managed to sell within the estimates at 11,000 FF and 15,000 FF respectively.

The last good, if not spectacular, print (lot 92) sold for 30,000 FF, plus premium. It is not reproduced in Apraxine.

Musette, a salt print nude by Nadar, went to an order bidder against a French collector in the room for 185,000 FF, plus premium (about $27,000).

In what was physically the largest and heaviest lot, over 600 glass plate stereos of nudes, sold to a collector in the room for 75,000 FF (estimate 25,000-35,000) over a phone bidder and erotica collector/author Serge Nazarieff. I wonder if the phone bidder realized how expensive it would be to ship this lot? I’m reminded of doing something similar at Christie’s in London and having the lot cost me more in packing and shipping than the actual bid itself. Glass is very heavy.

Perhaps the most interesting group was the images of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Originally planned to go as a group, the auction house changed their minds and broke up the lot. Three went to the phone and one to a French collector.

I bought the two that I thought the most interesting. One is a very famous image of Toulouse-Lautrec with a nude model looking at the painting "Au Salon"; the other was one where Tremolada, assistant to Zidler, who owned the Moulin Rouge, is showing Henri Toulouse-Lautrec a Cheret poster. He has his hand paternalistically over Toulouse-Lautrec's shoulder. One can almost imagine that he is telling Toulouse-Lautrec: "Now this is the kind of poster that we want from you." Both are pictured in the Orsay Museum catalogue on Toulouse-Lautrec.

My friend, Anne Fourcroy, bought the series of four of Toulouse-Lautrec defecating on a beach. The Europeans just have a different artistic point of view, I guess.

The next big image was Le Marchand de Coco, 1852 by Charles Negre (lot 150), another image published by Jammes. Michael Sachs bought it for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art at 230,000 FF, plus premium, which was the highest price for any lot in both auction sales, but it was still a very good bargain at about $34,000. Sachs had competition from English dealer Hershkowitz and the phone. The presale estimate was a low-balled 60,000-80,000 FF.

The Tel Aviv Museum struck again with the Gustave LeGray (188) of three Pifferari (Italian Street Musicians), 1850c. Sachs found himself bidding against both the phone and order bids on this one, but he outlasted both to take the prize at 135,000 FF.

On lot 190, Hershkowitz took an intriguing group of salt prints by Paul Thivier for 46,000 FF. We all loved the uncut stereo in the group.

The last very important lot of the sale was a rare album of 62 Algerian photographs by Moulin. There was lots of activity here. Delas bid it up part of the way, but then it came down to the French Di Maria brothers going against the Dutch dealer Ton Peek. Peek bought the album for 140,000 FF, about $21,000.

All in all, a satisfactory conclusion to this pair of auctions. I do not yet have the totals for Chartres, but I am certain that it very soundly beat Pescheteau’s still good results.

Last but not least, let me offer a word of thanks to my new friends Girard Dole and the lovely Christine Louveau de la Guigneraye (as I said before, I love the short names they have in France) and their very kind hospitality on this trip. Girard and Christine are music anthropologists, who are studying Cajun-style rhythms and have a passion for hard images of accordion and fiddle players. If you have such images (particularly unusual ones), either give me a call or email Gerard at Gerard.DOLE@wanadoo.fr My thanks too to their friend Lollie, who cooked bunny rabbit for me, one of my favorite dishes.