Issue #76  9/7/2004
Second Christie's Girault De Prangey Daguerreotype Sale Is Less Successful Sale Than Last Year's Auction

I am sorry for the small delay on this second part of my report on the spring and summer European photography market activity.

After crossing the Channel by Eurostar and settling into an apartment in London, I started previewing the various auctions. Although Sotheby's did not have a sale at this time (more on Sotheby's sale in July later), two other houses had scheduled auctions for the week: Bonham's and Bloomsbury. In addition, the new Photo-London Fair shared the attention of the photography community.

But, except for the small table-top London Photo Fair at the Bonnington Hotel, which is always fun, Christie's really provided the first action for the week, including the second major auction of daguerreotypes by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey and its normal multi-owner sale. This catalogue on Girault de Prangey added much to the first sale's excellent catalogue information, with fine essays by Grant Romer and Christie's expert Lindsey Stewart.

On Monday night, to their credit, Christie's provided a gallery talk by Grant Romer, George Eastman House's conservator and top daguerreotype expert, on the techniques and daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey. Romer is always a treat. He is one of photography's most interesting speakers--amusing, entertaining, but also extremely informative. Only Grant could have turned the topic of Girault de Prangey's chemistry and techniques into so much fun, while imparting so much important knowledge.

But it was, of course, Tuesday night and the second major sale of Girault de Prangey's daguerreotypes that provided most of the high drama at Christie's.

The first sale had set all kinds of records, including the most expensive daguerreotype sold at auction, the most expensive 19th-century photograph at auction and the most expensive photograph at auction--at the equivalent of just under one million dollars. But that was a sale where the Getty Museum and others fought with Sheik Al Thani over the best of these rare gems. This second sale was to be decidedly different in tone and participation. As in the first sale, because all the plates had originally been stored without protection, there was almost always some damage, either slight or extreme.

The prices below are all in pounds sterling and include Christie's buyer's premium. Christie's says that the dollar versus pound rate was $1.76, but when it came to pay it was closer to $1.85. In fact when I changed money the next day at a very good exchange source, my rate was $1.81. They also claimed the euro was 1.43 to the pound, but virtually everyone was giving only 1.50 to the pound, which has been a particularly strong currency as of late. Just a word to currency traders: the only correlation to dollar value that I have found to be totally accurate is when President Bush speaks in Europe, the dollar has ALWAYS gone down. Unfortunately this was true on this current trip.

I should note that this set of auctions--both here and in France--had the lowest attendance of Americans that I have seen in the last ten years or more. I counted a total of only seven Americans at the London sales, although most did not attend all the auctions, nor stay for most of the lots. Typically 35-50 Americans attend these sales. Perhaps the low dollar value, the lack of an auction at Sotheby's, the general slow economy and market, and the mostly lackluster material here at auction combined to put many off, but it certainly hurt the results at all the auctions and the new London Photo Fair. Certainly this sale's audience, which was one of the largest of the week, was perhaps half that of the previous Girault de Prangey auction. The phone bank activity also was comparably quiet.

For the most part I will concentrate on lots that sold for 10,000 pounds or more.

It was difficult to see where the Girault de Prangey auction was headed during the first few lots. Lot 1 (Constantinople, Bospher S.(ud), Skegel Keni, estimated at 2,500-3,500 pounds) went to the phone (buyer 904) at the midpoint of the estimate at 3,346 pounds including premium.

Lot 2 went to a French daguerreotype collector in the room, again in the middle of the estimate range at 4,541 pounds.

Lots 3 and 4 were bought in, but frankly they were not very exciting plates and had too high an estimate.

American dealer Lee Marks bought lot 5 of date palms in Assouan for 8,962 pounds versus an estimate of 4,000-6,000 pounds. The next lot was a beautiful image of a plane tree that is probably in Turkey, which had a wonderful blue solarized sky. The image really stood out for me. I underbid phone bidder 901, who was the big bidder in this sale. The estimate was only 3,000-5,000, but the final price was 16,730 pounds for this 3-1/4 x 3-3/4 inch gem.

My consolation prize was to get the next lot, another small tree, which this time was located in the Villa Adrian in Italy near Tivoli.

Another tree from the same Villa Adrian, but this time part of a nice panorama, sold to phone bidder 901 for 38,240 pounds. I would not have thought so at the time, but this price was the fifth highest of this sale!

Lot 9 was bought in (unsold). Then lot 10 sold to the persistent phone bidder 901 for 47,800 pounds, which was still well under its estimate of 50,000-70,000 pounds. For me despite its early age (1841), it was a boring pile of rock. But this rock sold for the fourth highest price in this sale.

French dealer Bruno Tartarin picked up the very sweet lot 11, Philae Temple with Palm Trees, for 11,950 pounds, well over the estimate of 3,000-5,000 pounds.

I bought the next lot, the Nile and Temples of Philae, for 20,312 pounds, which seemed to me to be an absolute steal for such an important and artistic image. This was an extremely colorful daguerreotype that had appropriately gone blue for the sky and water areas and brown for the rocks and sand, with the temples glowing white in the midst of all this. Grant Romer had singled this image out for his talk the night before to show how Girault de Prangey utilized technique to achieve rather astonishing color results. But it was the dramatic composition and lighting that initially attracted me to the plate. I do not think I would have had a chance at this image if it were in the first sale. In this auction the price was high enough to put this lot just into the top ten prices in the sale.

Lucky lot 13 bought in at 13,000 pounds (plus premium, of course). I doubt it would have gone unsold at previous sales. Perhaps this was the first real indication that some of the sale would have difficulty finding buyers and prices similar to the first sale.

Phone buyer 901 was back with lot 14, the Grand Mosque in Damascus, taking how this panoramic prize for 19,120 pounds. It was not a particularly appealing plate for me. It was ok, but I preferred even the previous lot that bought in.

Buyer 901 then took lots 16, Mosque El Generous at Alexandria, for 8,365 pounds (against 3,000-5,000 pounds estimate) and lot 18, the edge of the Wind Tower in Athens showing, for 19,120 pounds, which was below well estimate.

Lindsey Stewart was juggling her phone between two numbers, which indicated that the bidder was possibly bidding for two parties. On lot 19 the number 904 was used instead of 901. This image was a superb plate of the top of the Wind Tower. It sold for 29,875 pounds--again less than estimate, but still good enough for sixth place in the auction's top ten lots by price.

Number 20, which was a very light oversized full plate of the Wind Tower, had been estimated at a reaching 70,000-90,000 pounds. It passed at a mere 35,000 pounds with no interest at all. Likewise lot 21, another oversized full plate of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at Athens, bought in at the same amount despite being featured on the cover. It too had a 70,000-90,000 pound estimate. It was not a particularly appealing plate. On the other hand, the mood in the room seemed to become more somber after these two large lots went down without finding a buyer.

Lots 22 to 27 all found buyers, but largely at uninflated prices. Finally, the fabulous lot 28, which shows the wall facing the Pool of Bethesda where Jesus reportedly performed a miraculous cure of a crippled man, built some excitement back into the room. Estimated at a too low 15,000-20,000 pounds, the image soared to 50,190 pounds on the active bidding of phone bidder 904, who was challenged by New York dealer Hans Kraus, Jr., who was apparently bidding for a client. The bid put this lot into a tie for second highest price of the sale.

Unfortunately the room was deflated by the very next lot, a very good oversized full plate of the Parthenon. Estimated at 100,000-150,000 pounds, the image was bought in at 75,000 pounds.

The fog on some dags in the first sale did not seem to bother bidders in the first sale, but in this auction it clearly seemed to affect the bidding. For instance, lots 31, 32, and 33 were all important pieces, which were bought in at 8,500, 60,000 and 15,000 pounds (plus premium) respectively. All three were also fogged.

Lot 34, a panorama of part of the Roman forum, which, except for a couple of wipes at the center of the image, was quite interesting. Estimated at a reasonable 30,000-50,000 pounds, it sold for only 28,680 pounds--well below what might have been expected for this image.

Lot 35, which was a spectacular image of the Propylaea, entrance to the Acropolis, was clearly the top image of the sale. Had it been in the first sale, it would have sold for well over a half million dollars quite easily. But this sale did not have the high drama of the Getty facing off against the sheik and perhaps other Middle Eastern influences. More on that later. Phone bidder 901 took the lot, which had a very low estimate of "only" 90,000-120,000 pounds, for a mere 89,250 pounds, including premium, or about $160,000--a true bargain for such an important piece, and another indication that this auction reflected the difficulties in duplicating the first sale's rather extremely high results. Especially when the lot was the most expensive of this sale. The first sale's top lot sold for approximately six times this price.

The very next lot helped confirm this. Lot 36 was an excellent 6-1/4 x 7-3/4 inch plate and a strong image with good presence of the Temple Athena Nike. Estimated at what appeared to be a reasonable (compared to the first sale's results at least) 60,000-90,000 pounds, it bought in at 42,000 pounds. While it was not a complete Girault de Prangey whole plate (although the size certainly matched other whole plate standards), the image would normally have had a better fate. When the pendulum swings, it always seems to swing too far providing opportunities for the courageous.

Lot 40 was a virtual repeat of this: a wonderful and important whole plate image of the Osirid Pillars of the Ramesseum at Thebes that failed to find a buyer at 60,000 pounds. I tried to buy this image and another "smaller" lot after the sale and was turned down by the family that owns the group, even though I was offering nearly the buy-in rate or even much higher. That is very unusual for the consignor to have rights to turn down offers at reserves immediately after the sale. I will explain my theories about the possible reasons for this negative answer later.

Lot 41 continued this string of important and large images going down without bidders. A very strong daguerreotype of the Great Entrance Gate at Medinet Habu, this lot was bought in at 65,000 pounds against its estimate of 100,000-150,000 pounds.

Collector Michael Wilson, who produces the James Bond movies, picked up lot 46, an excellent image of a decorative capital at Edfou for 10,755 pounds against an estimate of 3,000-5,000 pounds.

Many, if not most, of the decent smaller plates oddly enough held their own in this sale, as individual collectors and fewer dealers scrambled to pick up an important piece of photographic history. However, the prices were usually at more reasonable levels than in the first sale.

But not everything smaller that should have sold did. For instance lot 52, a wonderful example of a 14th-century Islamic pattern on a cupola of a mausoleum of Hassan Sadaqa, failed to find a buyer at 13,000 pounds against its reasonable estimate of 20,000-30,000 pounds. It did have some scratches, but, as I have explained, most plates in these sales are not perfect.

Lot 54, with wipes, did appeal to phone bidder 901 at 15,535 pounds. It was a strange but very interesting image and composition with its chequered pattern against the sculptural detail of a minaret in Cairo.

Lot 58, a very beautiful and oversized full plate of Medinet Abou, Pavillon de Ramses, bought in, as so many others of the higher priced pieces. Its buy-in level was 65,000 pounds, against a very reasonable estimate of 100,000-150,000 pounds. The buy-in started a string of seven straight buy-ins, including the next lot of another, slightly more problematic oversized full plate of the Popylees, also at Medinet Abou, at 42,000 pounds (estimated at 60,000-80,000).

The very early (circa 1841) and delicate Fontaine des Quatre Fleuves was a fascinating image (at least for me). Lot 65 was estimated at 8,000-10,000 pounds. I underbid phone bidder 901 once again in a heated bidding war for this fountain, which now stands opposite the old Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. At nearly 18,000 pounds with premium, the price became just a bit too dear for me, although I still have a bit of regret for not having gone higher.

Then 901 got into another bidding battle on the very next lot, a shadowy and interesting view of pillars and capitals of the Cathedral at Genoa, Italy. This image was one of the first made after Girault de Prangey began his Grand Tour. But another phone bidder (902) took away this prize, but at over 50,000 pounds--good enough for a tie for second highest price of the night. The estimate was 30,000-50,000 pounds.

New York dealer Hans Kraus, Jr. bought lot 70, a light but still very interesting image of a man sitting between the ionic columns of the temple of Apollo in Didyma, Turkey for 28,680 pounds, still under the estimate range.

Lot 71, an oversized full plate of the Cybele (or Artemis) Temple at Sardis followed the trends and was bought in at 45,000 pounds. It had a lot of marks on the plate, but the problem was more the price than the condition. Then lot 72, a really great, almost modern image of a single capital of one of the columns of the colonnades in the Mosque of Amr in Cairo, Egypt, also bought in at only 17,000 pounds (estimate 30,000-50,000 pounds). This was becoming a more disappointing sale by the minute for Christie's and the consigning family.

A series of three vertical minarets caught the attention of the bidders. Dealer Hans Kraus, Jr. picked up the first one, lot 75, a small, slightly overexposed plate (6-1/4 x 3-1/4 inches) of a minaret of the mosque of Amr, for 13,145 pounds--just under the estimate.

Phone bidder 901 was back on the next lot, another minaret, this time at the Mouristan mosque, which was the most interesting and in the best condition of the three in my opinion. The final price was 22,705 pounds, which put it into ninth place in the sale.

Lot 77 also did well, bringing in 19,120 pounds. This minaret was in the complex of Qanibay al-Sayfi, Amir Akhur Kabir.

The buy-in rate continued its climb for the largest (and most expensive) daguerreotypes: full-plate lots 78 bought in at 25,000 pounds versus 40,000-60,000 estimate; 80 bought in at 32,000 versus 50,000-70,000; and 82 bought in at 42,000 versus 60,000-80,000.

In between, phone bidder 901 picked up lot 79, a vertical panorama of the Damascus Gate, for well under estimate at 19,120 pounds. American dealer Lee Marks, perhaps bidding for American collector Howard Stein, scooped up lots 81 for 13,145 pounds (well over the estimate of only 3,000-5,000 pounds) and 83 for 9,560 pounds (again, well over the estimate of 2,500-3,500 pounds).

French auction expert Serge Kakou was the underbidder on the latter lot, but then he came back on lot 85, a very good vertical image of a Cairo street with a minaret, which he took with a bid equaling the low estimate at 17,925 pounds.

The last group, which were portraits, were interesting images but with real condition problems. Hans Kraus, Jr. did get lot 87, a solitary image of an Arab woman in traditional veiled costume. Some thought that the image was abstract and enigmatic, but I thought the actual object was badly fogged and a bit boring when actually viewed. That is what makes a market. In any case, Kraus found himself battling up to 19,120 pounds before finally "parting the veil", as it were, against an estimate of 10,000-15,000 pounds.

Lot 89, the last lot of this night's sale, a nomadic Bedouin woman who wears jewelry and poses without a veil (indeed showing a fair amount of décolletage), did help the auction end on a high note. Estimated at 9,000-12,000 pounds, the beautiful portrait sold to phone bidder 901 for 17,925 pounds over active bidding from several parties in the room itself.

Overall, by normal standards the sale did ok, selling a total of 807,325 pounds ($1.42 million if you use Christie's rather low pound to dollar rate) and just a little less than 63% of the total lots offered. But compared to the first big Girault de Prangey sale (about 3.8 million pounds/$6.2 million; 100% sold), this auction was clearly disappointing.

Let me offer some theories as to what happened. Contrary to some observers' pessimistic observations, I would say that the sale was not as complete a success for several simple reasons. Most bidders from the first sale were intimidated by the bidding of Sheik Al Thani and thought this sale would be more of the same. The primary bidders in the first sale had either primarily satisfied their needs, moved on to other things, or (possibly in the case of the Getty and other secondary bidders) not realized that the prices would be more reasonable this time around. The Getty, for one, was certainly more modest in its purchases this time around (they did indeed buy at this sale). Perhaps the museum would have been more aggressive if it had known that this sale would be so different in result from the first.

A further intriguing possibility: it was whispered that Sheik al Thani may not have paid for his purchases from the first sale (although apparently not actually defaulting on those purchases). Could it be that he was not allowed to bid in this sale? Reliable sources now indicate the sheik did not participate in the sale, although not because of the payment situation but because of what was called "physical problems".

With more limited objectives by the primary buyer of the higher-end pieces and no one to really push the prices up with more competitive bidding, more expensive lots simply either sold at much lower prices than previously or were bought in. The only real question left is: what happened to all the other big phone bidders from the first sale? The answer seems simply to have been that those bidders might have felt that Al Thani would still be there to "protect" his investment, and so were scared away from this sale. Lower-end and more moderate images were still being bid up by a larger bidder pool, which still seem quite interested to own a piece of this important photographic history--especially because the prices were much more reasonable this time around.

The other problem was the fact that such a large group would come on the market only one year after the first sale. The market simply had problems absorbing this without punishing the consignors with poor results.

It will be very interesting to see what the family does next after this sale. I doubt we will see another one shortly--in fact we may not see another one at all. Perhaps a private offer, if one can be made, might seem more appealing after this auction's results. It could be that the very few, perhaps less than a dozen or so, Girault de Prangey daguerreotypes on the secondary market may be the only ones that will ever be available for sale.