"One of the best auction weeks in Paris in a long time" commented one of the collectors I met at Drouot during the week of Paris Photo.
It was certainly hectic, with sales at Sotheby's, Christie's, Ader, Millon and the Binoche et Giquello sale held at Drouot. The euro was roughly at $1.06 for the interbank rate, having fallen nearly 5% during the week.
For some though, the focus was very much on the various 19th-century paper negatives and the Parisian views by Gustave Le Gray.
Millon held two auctions. The first one consisted of material from the Succession Albert Séeberger - Fonds Séeberger, with images by two generations of brothers, covering a time period from 1900 to 1972.
The first generation of Séeberger Frères wrote themselves into the history books with their fashion photography, but not as we understand the genre today.
Though Henri Manuel, followed by a few others, began to shoot fashion images in their studios at the end of the 19th century, they were met with great resistance from the fashion magazines who preferred fashion illustration, largely due to the demands of the fashion houses. At Vogue, the final switch from fashion illustration to photography occurred as late as 1929 when Condé Nast hired Dr. M. F. Agha as art director.
The Séeberger Brothers had a different approach. They would set up their cameras at racecourses and other places where the rich and fashionable set would congregate, and then sell the images as small prints through shop and news agents.
And there were wonderful images here, reminiscent of Lartigue--ladies in their La Belle Époque creations, as wonderful as they were preposterous.
Prices here were on the whole modest, Lot 246, some 1,800 fashion prints from 1909-1919, was sold for 25,000 euros plus commission. The following lot, 1,200 prints from 1920-1942, went for 38,000 euros plus commission. It wasn't all fashion images. The first lots consisted of pictorialist works, portraits and still lives of food, one of the latter going for 4,000 euros plus commission. There were also Paris views, images taken during the liberation, sports events, night life, portraits and advertising--some going for as little as 120 euros.
The other Millon sale marked the beginning of the week's chase for paper negatives. Eighty-six previously unseen calotypes of the Middle East by François Joseph Édouard de Campigneulles (1826- 1879). Born in 1826 in Douai in the North of France, he became interested in photography before traveling to the Middle East on a Grand Tour in 1853.
From his travels throughout Egypt, to Palestine, through Sinai and to Syria, Edouard de Campigneulles brought back to France 86 calotypes, or waxed paper negatives. Thirty-eight photographs of this voyage were presented for the first time in Paris in 1859 at the Photographic Salon organized by the Société Française de Photographie (SFP).
In the introduction to the catalogue, Sylvie Aubenas suggested "an apprenticeship with Gustave Le Gray due in part to the technical similarities in the extreme quality in composition, the fine details of his wax paper negatives and the slight shading of his albumen prints. Aubenas also suggested the influence of "the Scottish photographer James Graham, who was likewise a participant at the SFP in 1859. Sixteen albumen prints by Graham, many of which include dedications to Edouard de Campigneulles, were found in Campigneulles’ photographic collection. Similar to Graham, Campigneulles turned some calotypes and albumen prints from this voyage into panoramas, a format he continued to use after his return to Europe."
The estimates here ranged from 1,000-1,500 euros to 4,000-6,000 for the negatives, with estimates for the positives starting for as little as 100-150 euros. I did hear a few comments prior to the auction that the estimates for the negatives were high for a little known photographer. But the best ones were truly spectacular. Lot 1, a negative of the Sphinx and the great Pyramid went for 18,000 euros plus commission, Lot 34, The Colossuses of Memnon, Thebes went 13,000 euros plus commission.
Three negatives of palm trees in Nubia drew a lot attention. Lot 55 went for 9,000 euros plus commission, lot 56 for 10,000 euros plus commission, lot 57 for 17,000 euros plus commission.
The following three lots were stunning negatives of the Abu Simbel, lot 58 going for 18,500 euros plus commission, lot 59 for 13,000 plus commission, lot 60 for 15,500 euros plus commission. They were so good I was surprised they didn't go for double that. Lot 69, a wonderful negative of the Sun Temple, Balbek went for 17,500 plus commission. Only a few of the lesser negatives went unsold, and they were mostly images of France, not Egypt.
There were also a number of very "average" paper negatives by Gustave de Beaucorps in the same auction, going for between 1,000 and 1,400 euros plus commission. In addition to prints by Willy Ronis, Henri Cartier-Bresson and others, there were also five vintage prints by Jacques Henri-Lartigue, with only one sold.
Sotheby's held two photography auctions during the week, on the 10th and the 11th. The first one contained important material from the collection of Charles Abbé, as well as a set of vintage distortions by André Kertész, prints by Hans Bellmer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray and others, as well as contemporary works by, among others, Salgado and Nick Brandt.
The first nine lots were devoted to the collaboration between the photographer Ernest de Caranza and the painter Emile Charles Labbé. Lot 1 was an album with 87 salt prints, with 35 duplicates. Estimated at 50,000-70,000 euros, they sold for 183,000, including commission. And there were paper negatives here too. Lot 6 was a set of 17 salts and 11 waxed paper negatives of chapels and monasteries on Mount Athos. Estimated at 20,000-30,000 euros, they went for 40,000 euros, including commission.
There were more negatives in lot 10 and these were credited to Ernest de Caranza alone, 49 waxed paper negatives of Constantinople with environments. They were estimated at 20,000-30,000 euros, but after some fierce bidding they were finally sold for 93,000 euros, including commission.
The ten lots brought in some 500,000 for Sotheby's.
Lots 20 to 30 were the distortions by Kertesz, with the top one, 'Distortion #172' 1933, going for 25,000 euros, including commission. Lot 41, a beautiful, solarized portrait of Tanja Ramm by Man Ray, 1931, estimated at 20,000-30,000 was sold for 77,400, including commission.
Lot 61, William Eggleston's Untitled (Memphis), 1972, estimated at 150,000-200,000, failed to find a buyer, as was the case for the four Nick Brandt prints.
Unsold lots was very much the story at Sotheby's' auction the following day. And I wasn't the only one left baffled at times by an inexperienced auctioneer.
Billed as Photographs from Atkins to Warhol, with works from an important European Collection, it numbered 79 lots. And when it was all over, only 32 had sold.
There was some interesting material here, like two Blumenfeld prints, both unsold. Lot 10, the striking and utterly intense portrait, Tadeuz Langier, Janina & Wanda Illukiewisz Varsovie, 1912, by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, did find a buyer at the low estimate of 10,000 euros including commission. As did the Alice Nex-Nerlinger photogram Autorehnfaherer, Berlin 1926. Estimated at 7,000-9,000, it was finally sold for 18,750 euros.
But the main attraction in the auction was lot 15, Anna Atkins British Algae Vol III, 1843 - 1853, an album with 102 cyanotypes. It was estimated at 120 000-180 000 euros. After some fierce bidding from the room and the telephones, it was finally sold to the room for 219,000 euros, including commission. Worth every cent and then some in my opinion. Altogether the auction brought in 453,500 euros--not a great day for Sotheby's.
There were better results at the two Christie's auctions. "There are an awful lot of Atgets here" commented one French dealer during the preview. Fifty-three lots to be exact. The provenance was intriguing to say the least, from the collection of the painter André Derain. The prints however, were of extremely varied quality. Some were stunning. Lot 1, Pharmacies' de Boulevard de Strasbourg, Paris 1921 went for 45,000 euros including commission. Lot 4, the wonderful Rue Asselin, Paris 1921, estimated at 50,000-70,000, was finally sold for 122,500 euros, including commission. Lot 7, Coiffeur, Avenue de l'Observateur, estimated at 60,000–80,000 euros went for 100,900 euros with premium. Lot 10, Joueur de Guitare, estimated at 30,000-50,000 euros, sold for 108,100 euros including commission. But the quality was uneven. Lots 30 - 46 didn't sell, and were dull, in poor condition and in many cases both.
There were three Julia Margaret Cameron prints as well. The best, Stella, Study of Julia Jackson (Mrs. Herbert Duckworth) 1867, was estimated at 20,000–30,000 euros and finally sold for 110,500 euros including commission.
Lot 65, View of Palace Vendramin Calergi, Venice, circa 1844, a daguerreotype by an unidentified photographer went for 80,500 euros, including commission, just over the high estimate. Lot 66 was a previously unknown album of 37 salt prints, views of Rome and portraits, by Amélie Guillot-Saguez. Some were extraordinary, others merely ordinary. Estimated at 200,000–300,000 euros, it went for 254,500 euros, including commission.
Lot 66, Mouth (for L'Oreal) New York, 1986, the most desired of the six Irving Penn prints in the sale, sold for 188,500 euros, well below the high estimate of 220,000 euros.
Christie's next sale two days later was a single owner sale, from the collection of Claude Berri. The first lots were images by Brassaï, the best one, Femme-Amande, a study of one of his sculpture, was estimated at 4,000-6,000 euros and finally sold for 17,500 euros including commission. Prints by Pierre Molinier tend to sell for the lower thousands but lot 11, Le Chaman, was exceptional and went for 10,000 euros including commission. There were three prints by Jean Painlevé, known mainly for his wonderful science films. The best one, lot 19, Pince de Galathée, 1928 was estimated at 3,000-5,000 euros and sold for 12,500 euros including commission.
Lot 43, Jeff Wall's Rear View, Open Air Theatre, Vancouver, 2005, reached 290,500 euros, just below its low estimate of 300,000.
Lot 51, Nan Goldin's haunting Self-Portrait in Blue Bathroom, London 1980, estimated at 5,000-7,000 euros went for 17,500 euros, including commission.
Lot 55, one of three works by Louise Lawler, titled War is Terror, 2001-2003, was in its own way equally haunting and brought in 74,500 including commission.
At many auction houses, the rooms are now almost deserted, with the action taking place on the phones. Not so at Binoche et Giquello. It was standing room only. It started off with a mixed sale of some interesting though not necessarily expensive material, such as lot 8, a salt print of La Tour Saint-Jacques by a Parisian calotypist going for 635 euros including commission.
There were quite a few prints here that were good images but on the pale side, going for around 1,500-2,000. And then came the first of the negatives, lot 21, a forest scene, Fontainebleau by John Beasly Greene. Estimated at 2,000-2,500, it went for 10,160 euros plus commission. Lot 22, two photographers' tents, Fontainebleau, same estimate, went for 14,605 euros, including commission. But there was an even more stunning lot of Greene material, number 40, two salt prints, inverted views of antiquities in a storage area. Estimated at 4,000-6,000, they finally sold for 45,720 euros, including commission.
Lot 59 was a wonderful little gem, an albumen print of farming tools, circle of Charles Nègre, which went for 3,556 euros, including commission. It was followed by a selection of prints by Nègre, not that exciting on the whole, but lot 65, an intimate portrait of a woman in bed, had a remarkable presence and intensity. Estimated at 800-1,000, it was finally sold for 13,970 including commission.
Etienne Carjat's famous portrait of Charles Baudelaire, lot 120 and also on the cover of the catalogue went for 8,255 euros including commission.
There were other negatives as well, though of a much later date. These were glass negatives by Germaine Krull from the 1930's. Only one of three sold, a nude, which went for 445 euros including commission.
And then came the next auction, a mere 18 lots, views of Paris by Gustave Le Gray. It wasn't billed as Happy Hour, but for the buyers of the top lots it might as well have been, as the prints would probably retail for 4 or 5 times what they went for.
Many, myself included, find Le Gray's Parisian views to be the least interesting of his oeuvre but these were for the main part exceptional prints, many of which were the only known prints.
The story of how they came to light and were sold first time around is a murky one, worthy I think of Émile Zola's novel L'Argent.
None of these prints had Gustave Le Gray's wet stamp though there were no doubts concerning the attribution as some of the images were known from other stamped prints or the glass plate negatives in French institutions. Historians, collectors and dealers have often been puzzled to come across prints of top quality but unstamped. One theory bandied about before the auction was this: that Le Gray would stamp the prints only upon sale and that those unstamped were unsold stock. That would explain the mystery but it is just a theory until firm proof is found. And there is another mystery to Le Gray's use of stamps. There are examples of prints that bear the stamp Épreuve 2me Choix, despite being of very high quality. But now to the auction.
Lot 1, View of the Seine and Notre Dame went for 12,065 euros including commission. Lot 2, view of Île de la Cité and the Seine, went for 21,590 euros including commission. Lot 3, The Pantheon, estimated at 15,000/20,000 euros, was regarded by some as one of the better images in the auction, but it went unsold on the night, because of a major repaired torn section. The print had been restored and could be better retouched. The next day a dealer scooped it up. Lot 4 was to my mind the best in the auction. La Tour Saint-Jacques seen from rue des Halles. It had a wonderful meditative quality and atmosphere and was finally sold for 73,660 euros including commission to New York dealer Hans Kraus, Jr. The other high point was lot 7, a two-part panorama of the Seine, which sold for 96,520 euros, including commission, to the same party, despite the major tear to the right-hand image. The ones that sold were to my mind all a steal.
The auction at Ader took place on Saturday and reminded me of the German photography auctions, that is, packed with material and a real jumble--490 lots to be precise, from the 1840's to 2015.
There were paper negatives here as well, 26 lots of paper negatives, mostly unwaxed, by Julien Vallou de Villeneuve, originally in the collection of Baron Louis-Adolphe Humbert de Molard. Opinions were more divided on these.
Lot 14, three pensive portraits of a woman went for 4,800 euros, plus commission. But the high prices were for the nudes, Lot 18, two negatives of a reclining nude, went for 30 000, plus commission. Lot 19, a standing nude, went for 28 000 euros, plus commission. Lot 20, a variant of the previous, went for 23 000 euros, plus commission, with the last of the nudes, lot 21, going for 21 000 euros, plus commission.
By Saturday, many were fatigued by the previous days but there were great opportunities at Ader. Such as Lot 28, seven prints by Charles Nègre going for 3,000 euros, plus commission and Lot 65, a movement study of a gull which went for 2,000 euros plus commission. I was surprised that lot 81 didn't go higher, an Alphonse Bertillon anthropometric album with 24 silver prints, going for the low estimate of 6,000 euros, plus commission. And there was much more besides.
Many dealers and collectors told me they had never been so exhausted by the fair and the auction week as this year, with just so much good material on offer. Some of those who were active during the 70's and 80's and participated in what has been called the great treasure hunt for vintage material will often claim that it's over, that the parade's gone by. What Paris showed us is that it still has the capacity to surprise us. And hopefully there's still a lot to come.
Michael Diemar is a long-time writer about the photography scene, in addition to being a collector, curator lecturer and ex-London gallerist (in 2009 opening Diemar/Noble Gallery). He has written extensively for several Scandinavian photography publications, as well as for the E-Photo Newsletter and I Photo Central.