The recent auction late last month of Le Gray Egyptian material was the first such auction of this material since Le Gray prices have increased since the Jammes sale a year and a half ago. In fact, it was the first such auction of this material in quite some time. Nearly a decade has passed since the last group went through a Drouot auction in Paris and French collector Roger Therond scooped up his rather fabulous images.
The rarity of the material naturally created a buzz, but did not quite deliver--almost, but not quite.
While the expert was familiar (Marc Pagneux), the auction house was not (Rieunier Bailly-Pommery), unless you were a painting dealer. More on that later.
True to form in Paris, the auction was really a painting sale with some decorative arts and the Le Grays tossed in. Most Americans and English, who usually play a major role in this kind of material, did not even get the catalogue, although some saw the sale details on Pagneux's web site. The few that knew of the auction had not had a chance to preview, and most thought that it would be a waste of time any way. Why a waste? Because most thought the Bibliotheque Nationale, which is in the process of producing a major Le Gray exhibition, would simply preempt most of the lots. Any institution in France can, after all the bidding is finished, simply raise a hand and say that deadly word "preemption." They then buy the item for the last price bid and the former winning bidder is left with nothing, except maybe a glass of wine afterwards at Cave Drouot and words of solace by his fellow dealers/collectors for consolation.
The 'experts' were, in this instance, wrong in their prediction, as many found out to their dismay when calling into Pagneux after the sale. The BN previewed, but did not buy.
To my knowledge, I was the only American or English bidder to actually attend the sale. Only my French friends' faces were familiar, although a German painting dealer bidding from the front row was also active on a few important pieces.
The material was very clean but the prints, for the most part, were just a tad light. Nothing serious, mind you, just not that rich deep color that we have come to appreciate from Le Gray's top French material. In addition, the images were not always the most representative of Egypt. However, compared to the few poor bedraggled prints that have appeared on the market in the last ten years or so, this was still a good showing.
We all waited impatiently through the painting portion of the auction, which seemed to take forever, and almost did. Most of us adjourned to one of the nearby bars across from Drouot. We simply watched Pagneux. If he still was at the bar having coffee, we felt safe that the Le Gray portion of the auction was not close at hand. It was nearly three hours for the auction to reach lots 136 (the Le Gray material). Broken out into 23 lettered lots, plus one additional lot of an album on the Suez canal by Felix Paponot, the photography section of the sale seemed to whiz by in less than a few minutes.
During this time, French dealer Baudoin Lebon was very active, taking a number of lots, including some of the most typical images of Egypt. By my count, he took lots A, C, and M--all multiple image lots. Pagneux was successful on two lots for himself (I, Tomb of the Mamelouks, and N, the five print panorama) and one for a client. Paris dealers Laurent Herschtritt and Arnaud Delas joined forces and picked up lot Q of the Mosque of the Sultan Barkouk. Paris dealer Dominique Weitz also bought a few lots. I purchased lot F, another close up of the Tomb of the Mamelouks. A German painting dealer, who received the catalogue apparently because he was on the painting list, was successful on several lots including B, still another Tomb of the Mamelouks and lot J, Vegetation of Cairo. This last lot had the distinction of bringing the highest price in the sale, still an extremely reasonable 240,000 French francs, plus the just under 11 per cent premium (about $40,000). I underbid this lot in a three-way battle with the painting dealer and Pagneux. In fact, only lot V, an Arab village with palm trees, was also able to break into six figures, although a number of other lots got close. Robert Hershkowitz told me later that he had bought lot V and two other lots.
My impression is that prices were EXTREMELY reasonable, and that Pagneux was disappointed with the results, although happy he was able to get two nice lots for himself. He plans to hold on to his material for a while, rather than selling it immediately. He feels that the prices on this material can only go up. I agree. It is extremely rare and by one of the great French master photographers.