Issue #24  1/15/2001
Paris Still Active Over The Holidays

Just after my last newsletter came reports of the record-breaking sale of two important Gustave Le Gray images of Paris. The two large albumenized salt prints were the only photographs in a decorative arts sale.

This is becoming more and more a trend in Paris. A photograph is brought to an auction house and an expert like Marc Pagneux (the expert in this case) is brought in to write it up and provide the marketing direction. Most of us who were at Paris Photo made the pilgrimage to the Pagneux gallery near Hotel Drouot to view these beautiful purple prints.

While the estimates were very modest (300,000-400,000 ff each), all of us who viewed the prints knew that they would go into seven figures (in French Francs). I viewed the images with Beaussant auction expert Pierre Marc Richard and the elder Herschtritt. All of us were bullish and enthusiastic about the images, even though the better of the two had some light spotting to the board and (barely noticeable) to the image itself.

On December 15th, the images sold for 2.5 million and one million French francs respectively. Add in the nearly 11% premium and you have at least one photograph that sold for about $400,000 at today's franc to the dollar conversion rate (thanks in large part to a sinking dollar caused by the election of Governor Bush). The dollar has gotten hammered lately, dropping by nearly a franc or about 12% from its high in November before Thanksgiving when everything was still up in the air.

All in all, the first image (an image with a steam boat in the Seine) set a record price in France, not only for a Le Gray, but also for a 19th century photograph. It also made this image the fourth most expensive Le Gray ever, behind the Great Wave and Oak Tree of the Jammes sale and Lot 84 of Napoleon III's fleet leaving the harbor at the Craven sale.

An American collector purchased both images over the phone. The persistent rumor was that the collector might be Howard Stein. Lee Marks, who has bid for Stein, had previewed the image in November. Marks would not confirm or deny Stein's involvement.

Because there were another eight existent photographs of each image, mostly in French institutions, no problems were expected with exporting the photographs. Both of these images were the best that had been seen of this rare series in many, many years.

There were also two photography auctions during the last few days leading up to Christmas.

The first was Millon & Associes' auction on December 19th. The material was a mixed bag of largely 20th century material, but there was a little bit of 19th century images.

A Bonfils album sold for 33,000 ff, plus the premium of just under 11%. Then another Bonfils album brought 15,000 ff, plus premium. A huge blue-toned Venice by the light of the moon albumen print by Carlo Naya brought in three active phone bidders (one on the mobile of a dealer in the room), who drove the price up to 55,000 ff.

Then the 20th century material kicked off with two vintage Berenice Abbott prints. The first one of an antique shop on Greenwich Ave. and 10th St brought in 45,000 ff; the second made 26,500 ff. Then a rather poor Atget print of a stair rail ("light with tears," said my notes) sold to a phone bidder for 16,000 ff while the room was largely silent. It looked nice in the catalogue. Once again proving my point about having to preview EVERY auction before bidding.

An Ilse Bing that was up for auction again just last year sold this time for 41,000 ff, with the action largely between two phone bidders.

There was a group of Kertesz that largely sold around the estimates.

A Koudelka brought more than double the high estimate at 34,000 ff from a phone bidder. Several Germaine Krulls were bought in after the sale of the first one. The Eiffel tower image was interesting although the print had some strange lines near the top of the image. I bid it up to 35,000 ff before I let it be bought in. The estimate was an unrealistic 100,000-120,000 ff.

A Lartigue of Renee Perle brought active bidding to 42,000 ff (plus premium) for a rather mediocre print but an ok image.

Two Man Rays (one of a metal head and one of an iron with a row of spikes) that had been around the auction block before came up again with their too-high estimates and failed to reach them once again.

Lots of "smaller" images--some interesting and some not--rounded out this sale. There was lots of buy-ins. If you are interested in getting a list of the unsold images, you may contact Viviane Esders at esders@club-internet.fr. She will have these available for sale until the end of the month.

A much more interesting sale in my view was the Etude Tajan auction of Jacques Henri Lartigues from the estate of Renee Perle. Here the buy-in rate was low and the net was about two million French francs, a very healthy take for only 90 catalogued lots.

Last newsletter I pointed out the problems at the last auction in November by this house: poor conditions, lack of access to photos, bad quality of photos, too many mediocre photos etc. I would like to make it very clear: I am not questioning the honesty of the house or its fine expert Serge Kakou, whom I regard as a friend. This is a fine house, which really makes a good attempt to get things right (something that even the big-name houses have a hard time with sometimes). My contention is only that they took on too many photos with too many problems, making the job of properly cataloguing them, showing them and viewing them rather impossible.

The house, while challenging some of my assertions about specific problems and discrepancies, did tell me that they would reduce the number of images and attempt to improve the quality of those images for their April sale.

While I still stand by my statements, I have to admit that the December sale was almost a 180-degree turn from the November sale. First of all, the sale and preview were held in the elegant Four Seasons/George V Hotel, not Drouot. At a cost of a reported 35,000 ff per day, this space certainly was not the normal surroundings that one gets accustomed to in France, and may be a prelude to what things may be like later when Sotheby's and Christie's also get in the act. Etude Tajan will also have new quarters soon.

And there were a mere 90 lots total in the very well done catalogue (perfect-bound for the first time and with abbreviated condition reports). And the images were largely (not totally) interesting and in relatively good condition. Yes, there were some notable exceptions on condition, including the cover lot, which had a tear and was so dark as to be unreadable in the facial area (it still was interesting despite all the problems). Don't ask me how they got the face to print out so nice on the cover, but Photoshop does pretty interesting things these days (something you should always consider when bidding from a catalogue or computer screen). But on the whole, the images were quite attractive.

The only problem? The Christmas timing (not entirely a choice of the house, apparently) lost most bidders. But that was a problem for the house, not for us bidders. There were only about 40 bidders in the room, with only five very active, including myself. The phones, while there, were not really much of a factor on most lots (mostly just the ones with condition problems).

The only Americans in the room that I was aware of were me, Charles Nes (who grew up in France and was "home for the holidays"), collector Don Ashby, and a representative for Edwynn Houk Gallery (which is reported to be opening a Paris gallery). Houk reportedly did very well with his recent vintage Lartigue gallery sale, so he was obviously looking to replenish.

The big bidders turned out to be me, Houk, Ashby, a German couple up front, and an Etude Tajan expert (in comic books!), who decided to bid on many of the images for his own collection. The French dealers were surprisingly quiet.

I have always felt that Lartigue's images of this period (the 1930s) tread a very fine line between mere snapshots and miracle icons. This group was no exception. Many of the bought-in lots were simply not great images. Fortunately they were in the minority. There were several spectacular images, including several very good portraits of Renee Perle, an atypical surreal still life with disembodied hands, fruit and porcelain flowers, and a triple image with mannequin.

Etude Tajan will auction off the remainder of the Renee Perle estate at the beginning of May (a total of 340 prints will be auctioned off between this later auction and the Christmas auction). The house insists that these are all of the images left in the estate. It now looks like there will be no more Lartigue auctions from primary sources after this one. Expect prices to jump considerably for the better images at this sale.

This last Lartigue sale will make for two auctions by Tajan just prior to the London auctions. I also understand that Viviane Esders is also planning an auction at that same time. The spring should be very busy.