Issue #32  8/15/2001
Summer Paris Auctions Sell Eclectic Mix; Le Gray Seascapes Prove to Be Bargains

The weather in Paris for once cooperated marvelously, as it often does in the summer and rarely does other times of the year. The selections at Beaussant Lefèvre's auction and even Chartres were a bit weak this time; instead of at these normal venues, the real action took place later in the week at an auction house that has never had a photography auction. But more on that later.

Beaussant Lefèvre just did not have a very strong selection of material at this outing, especially considering that its vintage Cartier-Bresson group was pulled at the very last moment (apparently another casualty of the Magnum ownership claims on news photography archives in France).

Very few images broke over the 50,000-franc mark and almost all were bought in. The franc was running just over 7-1/2 to the dollar. Premiums in France are just a shade below 11%, and should be added to the totals below (when actually sold).

An Aguado paper negative of a building, now the house of Chanel, could only manage 52,000 francs against an estimate of 80,000-100,000 francs. It was a pretty boring image though.

A Samuel Bourne album of India, Cashmere and the Himalayas failed to hit its mark when it was bought in at 75,000 francs. The album was decent if not quite wonderful, but the estimates and reserve were just too high.

A Brassai cliché verre enhanced nude from the Transmutations series brought in 51,000 francs, even though it was not a vintage print as implied in the catalogue (the lateness of the print was mentioned though at the beginning of the auction), but a print from the end of the 1950s or even 1960s, and was not perfect by any means. But non-portfolio Transmutations have been selling very well, with good vintage prints probably worth from $30,000-$50,000 at the moment, so this print was still reasonable, despite it flaws and lack of age.

A ¼ plate daguerreotype of a group of women and children in front of a country house sold for 21,000 francs, plus the premium to Bruno Tartarin for his own collection.

A second ¼ plate dag of a single rose in a bottle seemed to sell to the phone for 42,000 francs, but apparently was bought in. The plate appeared to have been cleaned at one time and there were some scratches and light wipes.

Several photographs by Eugène Druet did well. His photograph of Rodin's Clenched Hand (Main Crispée) brought 55,000 francs from a phone bidder. His photograph of his camera and Rodin's statue Sainte Jean-Baptiste (St. John the Baptist) took in an additional 33,000 francs.

The various negatives from Robert and Regnault were all bought in. They all seemed overpriced for what they were. All were ok, but not really exciting.

A nice Teynard salt print of Karnak in Thebes, Egypt was bid up to 50,000 francs. I was not sure if this was actually purchased or bought in, but it seemed worth that price plus some.

A group of rare Marey's went two for three. I bought the best and rarest of the group, an original negative of a hurdler, dated July 18, 1886 and with the model's name in period ink, for double the estimate. Besides the negative that sold in the Jammes sale in London, this is the only other known original negative (as opposed to some copies on the market) that I know of to be offered for sale in perhaps three decades or more.

A group of X-ray images from 1897 sold for 20,000 francs.

Léon-Eugène Mehedin's panorama of the hillsides around Solferino c.1859 may or may not have actually been by him. Expert Marc Pagneux, who had the piece briefly for sale in his gallery before it was pulled and put up at Beaussant in a dispute between the heirs, told me that he thought the piece was actually by fellow photographer Langlois. But all this mattered very little. After a brief reshuffling of images between several lots, the panorama grew by one more panel to 17 total images. The images and prints were not stunning, but the sheer size and audacity of the photographer did impress. The lot, estimated at 40,000 to 50,000 francs, sold for 140,000 francs with several in the room vying against one phone bidder.

A group of 65 rather washed out salt prints by Sydney Richard Percy brought 90,000 francs from a phone bidder. If they were good prints, the price might have brought more than the entire auction did this outing.

Malvern, PA dealer Charles Isaacs bought a large bizarre group of spirit photographs.

And all of this was actually the best of the best.

The next day in Chartres things did not exactly pick up that much more over Paris.

The first lots that should have been of interest were a small group of Le Gray Egyptian scenes. Unfortunately the condition was not the best. The first lot, the entrance to the temple of Edfou, was a bit yellow but perhaps the best of the lot. It could only manage 35,000 francs plus the buyer's premium (again a little less than 11%). From there it went down hill with the three remaining Le Gray Egyptian scenics bid up to a meager range of between 13,500 and 27,000 francs.

Camille Silvy's Order of the Day, Army of Italy, brought a very reasonable bid, far below the over $100,000 price made at the Jammes sale for the same image, yet still about the equal of that print in quality. American dealer Charles Isaacs very astutely scooped it up.

Otherwise, except for a few good Misonne scenes, Rudomine nudes and one other Silvy portrait of a man, there was little to this sale.

The third sale in as many days was held back in Paris at Drouot again, but this time by an auction house that had absolutely no previous experience with photography: but they managed to scoop the other houses this time with a good group of Le Gray seascapes, one of the largest next to the Bearne's auction sale last year in Exeter. But this sale was largely unheralded and few Americans were in attendance, even though some of the key prints were in better condition than the Bearne's prints or most Le Grays that have made it to the market in recent years (outside of the Jammes collection, that is). Paris dealer Arnaud Delas of Hypnos Gallery was the expert for the auction.

The sale kicked off with an interesting group by the Duc de Massa, including several self-portraits of the duke. The Duc de Massa is a very interesting character and photographer, whose works remain largely unexplored.

But the first real action took place on a strong nude by Caneva. Robert Hershkowitz outlasted the competition and nearly broke the 200,000-franc mark (plus premium). Up to that point, this was the highest price paid for an item at auction here during this week. But that mark was to be broken several more times during this auction.

Charles Isaacs bought three more calotypes by Caneva in the next lot and then followed up by taking the next three lots: a Nadar of the composer Meyerbeer, and then two Le Grays. The second Le Gray (Ships of the French Fleet) matched Heshkowitz's mark on the Caneva.

Florence Penault of Galerie 19/21 took the next Le Gray of ships in the port of Sete.

The phones then took the next three Le Grays, which were in my opinion the best of the sale. One phone took two (The Ships of the French Fleet in the harbor at Cherbourg and the Yacht Imperial, the Queen Hortense) and another phone took the third (the Said at the Port of Sete). All three prints were superb and brought the top prices of the auction and the week, although all were still definite steals, considering they remained in six figures (French francs).

A French collector took the next Le Gray seascape, a rather poor print of Effet de Soleil Couchant a Maree Basse, for a mere 21,000 francs.

Finally Hershkowitz picked up the last Le Gray of the auction, an image that had sold at Christie's South Kensington just a few weeks before.

The last print of financial consequence was an anonymous image of a boat in the port of Rochelle. This attractive salt print went to Isaacs after a protracted bidding war. It brought over 10 times the low estimate.

That was the thing about this sale (and many auctions lately). The estimates meant very little. Some lots went for half their estimates and some went, like this last item, for 10 times or more. Take a lesson. Forget the estimates and bid based on what you think the item is worth. If you think it will be worth a lot more than the estimates, you can be assured that others will probably feel the same way. Likewise, overestimates are overestimates.