By Michael Mattis
If I were to summarize the sale in a single sentence: I truly thought the collection on view at Millon & Associes was sensational, with masterworks, as well as lesser-known but still interesting studies, from all facets of Brassai's storied photographic career: portraiture, surrealist still life, abstractions, nudes, transmutations (in which Brassai, urged on by Picasso, etched into his negatives of nudes, creating a hybrid cliché-verre), graffiti, architecture, landscape, genre and street photography, reportage--and of course, his notorious "Secret Paris of the 1930s" work, with the prostitutes, the seedy bars, the lovers and losers, street punks and beat cops, transients and transsexuals, nudists and canoodlers, along with the closely-related mist-filled Gothic views of Paris at Night, which evoke stills plucked from any number of films noirs up to and including Tim Burton's Batman Returns and, much more overtly, Philip Kaufman's Henry & June--in which the character Brassai even makes a bit appearance (the Henry here being of course Henry Miller, who originally coined Brassai the "Eye of Paris").
But fortunately I have considerably more room than a single sentence.
Let me begin by explicitly complimenting Millon's photography expert Christophe Goeury, who did a terrific job distilling this collection from the estate's larger holdings. It helped that he was already intimately familiar with the material, having carried out the official estate appraisal after Gilberte Brassai's death last year.
As my Air India red-eye from Newark touched down at Charles de Gaulle the morning of the sale and I emerged from my ambien-and-curry-induced stupor, I fumbled for my passport which was nestled inside the front cover of Millon's gargantuan black hardbound auction catalog. By sheer luck I glanced at the fine print, so I correctly directed my taxi, not towards the usual Hotel Drouot, the Wal-Mart-like venue for most Parisian auctions, but towards its upscale sister location, Drouot-Montaigne, in the tony 8th arrondissement. Drouot-Montaigne is typically reserved for the "high prestige" (read: big-money) sales. The choice of this venue was but one of Millon's many astute marketing moves in promoting this auction, including a full multi-media blitz at home and abroad, culminating in a New York Times piece on the Saturday prior. And indeed I arrived to find that the salesroom was packed, including the mezzanine--quite uncommon in the auction world for a day session.
The marathon 764-lot sale itself was divided into three three-to-four hour sessions: Art, Jour and Nuit. Art was devoted to Brassai's portraits of artists and writers, nudes, transmutations and graffiti, as well as to his non-photographic work as a sculptor and draughtsman. The sculptures were in the neo-Cycladic mode much like Arp's; they did very well, with the marbles Galatee (50 cm, lot 149) and Astree Blanche (66 cm, lot 294) hammering respectively for 58,000 and 25,000 euros and the editioned bronze Femme Cygne (45 cm, lot 207) going for 14,500. [Note: all prices henceforth are hammer prices and are given in euros. To convert to the equivalent "all in" price in dollars, including the buyer's premium, add 50%; thus 4,000 euros translates to $6,000.]
The monetary--and comedic--highpoint among the drawings was Brassai's jaunty gouache and ink self-portrait, lot 204. Shortly before the lot opened, a Greek billionaire made his entrance to the salesroom, an entourage of bodyguards in tow, and assumed his reserved seat in the front row. He bid on the lot with brio, with a tip of his cap or a wave of his cane, all while egging the auctioneer on: depechez-vous, j'ai un train dans cinq minutes! When the last phone bidder finally dropped out and the lot was hammered down to him at 27,500 euros (against an estimate of 3,000-3,500), he arose and made his exit. His grandfather had been a close friend of Brassai's, he explained on his way out, and the room applauded in appreciation. This lot notwithstanding, the auctioneer, Alexandre Millon, despite his evident gifts on the podium, had a tough time eliciting enthusiasm for the nearly 200 figurative drawings, an aspect of Brassai's oeuvre with essentially no prior auction history. Generally speaking, the first half found buyers at or near the low estimate (typically around 2,000 euros), while the second half bought in, accounting for 100 of the 125 unsold lots. But this would prove to be the only systemic weakness in the sale, which, of course, was dominated by Brassai's photography.
After an opening run of drawings, the first photographic lot in the sale was lot 20, the iconic portrait of Picasso seated next to a stovepipe, cigarette in hand. The print was in the impressive 40x50 cm (16x20 inch) size, which was the largest size that Brassai himself printed, starting immediately after the War. To me, this was an appropriate way to lead off the photo offerings; for what was perhaps the most striking characteristic of the collection on offer was the sheer number of superb images, previously familiar only in the 18x24 or 24x30 sizes, which were for sale in the 40x50 cm format for the first time. While Brassai photos in general have been relatively plentiful on the marketplace, prints in this large format are exceptionally rare: fewer than a dozen (and mostly of minor subjects) have come up at Sotheby's and Christie's New York salesrooms in the past 20 years. Against an estimate of 3,000-4,000 euros, lot 20 spiraled up to 13,000, which over the course of the sale would prove to be an average price for this large format.
In general, the nearly 80 photographic lots of artist portraits and studio interiors performed solidly, averaging 4000 euros apiece. As independent works of photographic art, some of these seemed quite slight, for instance the four shots of Picasso's torn-up, cigarette-burned cocktail napkins (lots 37-40, a sad doggie, a cyclops, etc.), which totaled 13,500 euros. According to Christie's photography specialist and Brassai expert Stuart Alexander, these particular photos had long been considered the only records of this evanescent aspect of Picasso's oeuvre--at least until Dora Maar's estate was inventoried, and it emerged that she had dutifully kept these torn napkin scraps for six decades!
Not surprisingly, the top lot in the artists and studios category, lot 31, also involved Picasso: it was a 30x40 cm photo of a plaster cast of Picasso's right hand, and it hammered at 20,000 euros against a 6000-8000 estimate. The price was no anomaly: a smaller print of this compelling conceptual portrait had sold for 15,000 euros at the Claude Berri sale at Christie's Paris last November.
It is clear from this section of the sale that no significant member of France's artistic and literary firmament in the period between the Wars could escape the "Eye of Paris." In this regard the Millon catalog gives nearly as complete a record as Brassai's own book, "The Artists of My Life" (1982).
Another long-term project of Brassai's was his "collection" (by use of his camera) of street graffiti over a 25-year period, which can be viewed as a grand conceptual art piece culminating in his classic 1961 book, "Graffiti". This aspect of Brassai's work has been on a roll lately, starting with the Claude Berri sale (where the 20 graffiti's averaged a very strong 12,700 euros hammer, with individual prices as high as 30,000), and extending across the Channel to Christie's London, where the maquette for Graffiti, comprising 143 original silver prints sequenced and glued into an album, hammered at 135,000 pounds sterling (or just over $300,000 all in) in the May "Rare Photo Books" sale. At Millon, the two-dozen graffiti studies came in all sizes, like stacking Russian dolls. They sold brilliantly. The first graffiti to come up was lot 84, a choice 9x6 cm contact print of the cover image of the first edition, depicting a carved pug face having a bad hair day nicknamed 'Le Roi Soleil'. Against a 600-800 euro tease of an estimate, it rocketed to 18,000. Lot 245 featured the same image in the 40x50 cm exhibition size. Estimated more rationally at 8,000-10,000 euros, it hammered at 27,000.
And the graffiti's came even bigger! Lot 188 was an 80x108 cm print mounted on wood, made by the Picto laboratory circa 1960; somewhat lacking in focus and clarity in this size, and lacking also the deep inky blacks that Brassai himself was able to achieve so consistently in the darkroom, it nevertheless squeaked by at its low estimate of 40,000 euros. Possessing much more gravitas was lot 291, an original photo-collage pieced together from 23 individual graffiti prints, featuring the figure of a "chicken woman" in the center surrounded by repeated carved heart motifs. Measuring an astounding 140x70 cm, this was the maquette for a tapestry entitled La Harpie, which was executed in 1968 in an edition of one. Given its object quality, the 80-100,000 euro estimate actually seemed quite reasonable in today's effervescent photo market; at least two phone bidders agreed with this assessment as it slowly rose to 170,000 euros (all in, over a quarter-million dollars), the top lot of the sale and a world record for a Brassai photograph, and second to the aforementioned Graffiti book maquette overall.
Nor was this the only photo collage in the sale: lots 363, 364 and 367 were interesting geometric composites of paving stones, leaves, and butterfly wings, respectively, that were used as maquettes for high-fashion fabrics for the houses of Dior and Balenciaga. Despite condition problems, they sold for 16,000, 32,000, and 6,000 euros respectively. The latter two were preempted by the state, which, in light of its already voluminous Brassai holdings, only exercised this legislative right 11 times in the entire sale.
The 34 nudes and 11 transmutations also sold extremely well. These categories were actually spread over the first two sessions of the sale, Art and Jour, which were held on consecutive afternoons. Like the graffiti's, the nudes could be had in a wide range of sizes. Prices for the contact prints ranged between 1,500 and 14,000 euros, the intermediate format (around 24x30 cm) sold for up to 28,000 euros, and the exhibition format (up to 40x50 cm) up to 25,000 euros.
In terms of imagery, Brassai's photographic nudes range from the classic (reminiscent of Edward Weston's 4x5 inch work from 1933-34) to the kinkier, in which the models sport various bits of lingerie or leather. Reviewing my catalog notes, it seems like the presence of a little kink was generally good for an extra couple of bids.
Even stronger were the transmutations, which ranged in price from 8,000 to 46,000 euros. As mentioned earlier, transmutations are photographic prints made from negatives of nudes in which Brassai has etched in a Picasso-esque manner directly onto the negative. Depending on the degree of handiwork, some "read" more like photographs, others more like photo-etchings (i.e., clichés-verres).
Surprisingly, the highest prices in this category were not for the pre-War prints (the transmutations were first done in the 1930s) but for the deeply sepia-toned exhibition prints executed, not by Brassai himself, but by Claudine Sudre in 1967, in an edition of 6. Might the retro sepia look, so contrary to the aesthetic of a usual neutral-toned Brassai photo, have more crossover appeal to traditional painting and print collectors who would naturally gravitate to this facet of Brassai's work?
This seems as good a time as any to digress for a moment and discuss Brassai's prints. From the 1930s into the early 1960s he favored single-weight glossy paper, which he then ferrotyped for even greater reflectivity. In general Brassai's pre-War prints are slightly warmer-toned, lower contrast and lower gloss than his post-War prints, but there is definitely a continuum in the look and feel of his prints over this 30-year period.
In 1967, however, he was advised (presumably by his dealers at Marlborough Gallery) to switch to double-weight semi-matte paper, as collectors and curators at that early time in the photography marketplace were taught to equate matte surfaces with "fine art" prints and glossy surfaces with "press prints." As often as not, these semi-matte prints were then mounted, and signed by Brassai (and frequently editioned out of 30) on the mount. It is ironic that today, serious collectors and curators eschew Brassai's later prints (even though he continued to make them himself), and seek out the vintage and "period" (i.e., mid-vintage) ferrotyped prints. And, with only a handful of exceptions, it is these ferrotyped prints that Goeury had selected for the auction. Interestingly, in reviewing the auction results, it appears that there was generally very little difference between the prices achieved for the earlier ferrotyped prints (1930s-1940s) compared to the somewhat later ferrotyped prints (1950s to early 1960s); more important is that ineffable quality, "presence." End of digression.
The second session, Jour, featured tranches of material that would be decidedly less familiar to an American audience, including storefronts and street vendors, ballets, circuses and carnivals, wineries and winos, dogs and cats, landscapes and travel shots from the alps to the south of France, to Istanbul and Marrakech, to New Orleans and New York--'Brassai light', in short. Despite the atypical nature of much of the material (the subject matter seemed more like Ronis or Boubat than the dark brooding Brassai we Americans know and love), the success of the session had been pretty much guaranteed in advance by Millon's brilliant tactic: the tantalizing underestimate. Most of these lots were estimated at 1,000-1,500, 600-800 or even 300-400 euros. Typically, multiple paddles would be raised, and the lots would finally hammer in the 2,500-5,000 euro range. Once this pattern was understood, there would be few surprises that afternoon.
A pleasing but unremarkable quartet of circus snapshots made at the Cirque Medrano in 1932 was unexpectedly preempted by the Pompidou, reportedly because they already possessed a suite of closely-related circus etchings executed at the same time by Brassai's seat-mate at that event--Picasso.
Aside from some of the nudes and transmutations, most of the highpoints of the Jour session were post-War exhibition prints in an impressive scale, including Escaliers de Monmartre (lot 374) at 13,500 euros, Femme au Parapluie (lot 381) at 18,500 euros, Le Fort des Halles (lot 408) at 23,000 euros, Les Coulisses de l'Opera (lot 409) at 19,000 euros, the charming Doisneau-like Le Baiser (lot 424) at 25,000 euros, the Cartier-Bresson-like Pique-Nique au Bord de la Marne (lot 478) at 12,500 euros, Qui Dort Dine (lot 492) at 18,000 euros, and Le Jardin Exotique (lot 529, can you spot the nuns?) at 13,000 euros. Except for lot 408 in the 30x40 cm size, all the others in this list of top performers were in the impressive 40x50 cm size.
To clear my head and regain the feelings in my lower limbs, I took a brisk 90-minute roundtrip walk to the St Germain des Pres gallery district across the Seine for a little window-shopping during the break between the two sessions. As the sun set over the Eiffel tower, a surprisingly pleasant aromatic drizzle filled the air, the streetlights flickered on, and the ancient cobblestones glistened underfoot. I was ready for Nuit.
Did you ever wonder if it is mere historical coincidence that Brassai--the most famous artist to emerge from Transylvania--specialized in photographing the creatures of the night? Never mind.
Nuit opened with eight evocative little contact prints of Paris by twilight, like tasty little hors d'oeuvres before the main courses to come. Not surprisingly, they averaged ten times their generally 300-400 euro estimates. Soon thereafter there began an hour-long run featuring many of the images at the heart of Brassai's Paris de Nuit and Secret Paris of the 1930s photo-essays, many in the 40x50 cm format including Paris, vue de Notre Dame (lot 594, 24,000 euros), Filles de Joie dans un Bar, Montmartre (lot 602, 32,000 euros), Couple d'Amoureux Assis (the cover of the Pompidou's Brassai monograph, lot 604, 46,000 euros), Couple Fache (lot 607, 42,000 euros), Fille de Joie, Quartier d'Italie (lot 631, 34,000 euros), Les Mauvais Garcons de la Bande du Grand Albert (lot 634, 32,000 euros), and Couple Amoureux, Rue Croulebarbe (lot 637, 25,000 euros). Several smaller-format prints also shown in this section included Place de la Concorde (lot 595, 16,000 euros, the cover of the American reprint edition of Paris at Night), Couple dans un Bistro (lot 605, 18,000 euros), Depot de Charbon (lot 619, 13,000 euros), Couple Amoureux, Blvd St Jacques (lot 623, 15,000 euros), La Bande du Grand Albert (lot 627, 30,000 euros), the marvelous unpublished contact print of a fight scene Bagarre, Bande du Grand Albert (lot 638, 9.000 euros), and two classic photos of lovers, lot 641 at 14,500 euros and 649 at 15,500 euros (each estimated 4,000-6,000 euros), the former despite serious condition issues and the latter despite being a standard double-weight semi-matte 1970s print (one of only a handful in the sale).
Lot 622 was a vintage 18x24 cm work print of Mme Bijou, an icon of 20th-century portraiture and unquestionably one of the earliest prints in the auction. Despite its problematic condition (most notably rectangular cropping marks inscribed into the surface), it rose to 41,000 euros against a 6,000-8,000 euro estimate.
Fans of the movie Titanic may recall that Mme Bijou is one of the characters sketched by Leonardo diCaprio; the ensuing copyright infringement lawsuit against director James Cameron resulted in a reported hundred-thousand dollar settlement to Gilberte Brassai--technically making that the most costly Brassai drawing to date.
A short run of industrial night views allowed the audience to catch its breath in anticipation of lot 660, Paves (paving stones), a spectacular vintage print of the cover image of the first edition of Paris de Nuit. Aggressively estimated at 40,000-60,000 euros--and the subject of some debate prior to the sale about whether it would buy-in as a consequence--it easily blew past the estimate, ultimately selling for 85,000 euros (nearly $130,000 all in) to Charles Nes, the American dealer largely based in Paris nowadays. With that sale--a record for a single (non-composite) Brassai photo at auction--it is evident that Brassai has now joined the short list of classic photographers for whom the "right" prints of the "right" images can be six-figure pictures. There is a longer such list of contemporary photographers, but that is a rant for another day.
The magic dust from that lot was surely sprinkled over some of the similarly evocative urban landscapes to follow, including Pont Neuf dans le Brouillard (lot 666, 13,000 euros), Le Pont des Arts (lot 667, 15,000 euros), La Place Denfert-Rochereau dans le Brouillard (lot 705, 20,000 euros), Premiere Neige (lot 706, 22,500 euros), Le Marechal Ney (lot 708, 17,000 euros), Blvd Montparnasse (lot 731, 16,000 euros), Le Pont Neuf (lot 752, 18,000 euros) and Avenue de l'Observatoire dans le Brouillard (lot 755, 15,000 euros), proving that, for Brassai at least, fog ("brouillard") on a print is a good thing.
Other classic slices of Brassai's photographic night work rounded out this session. A run of 10 lots featured the legendary house of ill repute, "Chez Suzy", where Brassai made some of his most famous photographs. Not surprisingly, these too did very well: La Presentation (lot 671, the cover of Secret Paris) made 12,000 euros; Une Maison Close (lot 673) sold for 11,000 euros; the Magritte-like Armoire a Glace dans un Hotel de Passe, Rue Quincampoix (lot 674) rose to 25,000 euros; Chez Suzy (the couple on the bed reflected in mirror, lot 675) reached 16,000 euros, despite being annotated "contretype" (copy print) by Brassai on the verso; and the 40x50 cm overhead view of the seedy Rue Quincampoix (lot 678) made 15,000 euros. In contrast, the photos of drag bars dragged ever so slightly, with prices between 2,000 and 6,500--not that far above estimate for a change. But the fly's-eye studies of the fly-girls of the Folies Bergeres sold brilliantly, with the top four lots in this section (lots 721-724) hammering between 16,000 and 26,000 euros. And the Cult of Kiki de Montparnasse kicked into high gear with lots 747-749 totaling 31,000 euros, roughly triple their combined estimate.
The penultimate lot of the sale was also the last of the 40x50 cm exhibition prints, the fireworks display La Nuit de Longchamp (lot 763); appropriately, it exploded past its 4,000-6,000 euro estimate, selling for 22,000. The auction ended on a post-Modern note with the subtle Friedlander-like "self-portrait," featuring Brassai's tripod and torso visible in shadow on the Pont des Arts. As it achieved its low estimate of 10,000 euros (and for the auction slightly over five million euros including the buyer's commission), the room burst into grateful applause for a truly unforgettable night in Paris.
By Alex Novak
With the help of many friends (you all know who you are)
It is not often that a Paris auction that primarily consists of photography will sell nearly 84% of its lots (and nearly all of the photo lots) for a total of over five million euros, including buyer's premium (or frais). Converted to dollars this means that the sale took in nearly $6-1/2 million, which put it in the rarified company of only a few Paris photo auctions (Jammes II and III, $11 million; Breton, $6 million for the photography section).
Leading Brassai dealer Edwynn Houk, who had represented the Brassai family for many years until Gilberte Brassai passed away a year ago, told me tongue-in-cheek that the Brassai auction at Millon was "a resounding success, which leaves me with remorse that I left all those pictures behind.
"Usually such an auction with as many different prints as there were in this sale would have been disastrous, but the auction house did a very good job in the various categories. Just depending on the ordinary buyers at the regular photography auctions wouldn't have been enough, but Millon was able to draw bidders into this sale who wouldn't ordinarily be involved in photography auctions…There was a breathe of awareness and participation by the French themselves, especially at the lower price levels and early in the auction. But later the French largely disappeared, and on the Paris Nuit section of the sale you could hear the phone bidders bidding in English, as American bidders became the more prominent players."
Serge Plantureux, an AIPAD dealer based in Paris, seconded what Houk told me. Plantureux said, "French CEOs and politicians, who never show up for a normal photography auction, were there to buy a piece of Paris history, a piece of old France and its culture--whether it was a drawing, a portrait of one of its artists, or simply a photograph of the era."
What all this means is that contrary to public wisdom there will likely not be very many Brassai images from this sale on the market. The remainder of the prints in the family possession has been donated to French institutions.
Michael Mattis has certainly given you a taste for what it was like in the room and a rather good analysis of Brassai's prints and market. But Michael didn't report on who all these high rollers were at the auction. So on a lot by lot basis, where the photograph was over 10,000 euros hammer (over $15,000), we will try to do this below.
Before I go into the specifics though, I should give you a few of the points of view shared by others who attended this historic auction. And a few of my own observations.
First the catalogue, which was hardbound, 1-1/8 inches thick and 472 pages! It will be a necessary classic for any collector of Brassai or 20th-century French photography. With much information on Brassai, as well as the most comprehensive illustration of his work in one place (although by no means a catalogue raisonné), no substantive photography resource library should be without a copy. There was also a limited edition version in slipcase. This is certainly the photography catalogue of the year.
On the auction itself, one Paris dealer reported, "The usual dealers and collectors were actually a minority in the room. Most of the faces were unknown to the rest of us. And the majority of the lots under 5,000 euros were bought by individual collectors. You could see people going up just after their successful bid to pay and pick up their photograph [Editor's note: unlike in London or the U.S., most Paris auctions--the exceptions being Sotheby's and Christie's--allow a bidder to actually go up to the front counter, pay and then pick up their lots even before an auction is completed.]. These people bought photographs in this auction with creases, scratches, glazing problems, and so on, that you could not sell to real collectors who understand condition. Most of the average French dealers who attended, as well as some of the American ones, did not get anything at all or really only a very few things."
Indeed, as New York dealer Houk had suggested above, many of the bidders had never seen the inside of a photography auction before, but were used to getting their way in the world of high finance: from a Greek billionaire to Patrick Poivre D'Arvor (the anchor for the top French television news program) to Philippine de Rothschild (who bought images of her family's wine domain) to several presidents of famous luxury French companies, such as Vuitton.
Among the regular contingent of expected American and French players, some of the most active (read: successful) were Edwynn Houk himself (buying largely for a Chicago collector), Michael Mattis, Sam Stourdzé (bidding and winning 18 lots for several clients, mostly American and Canadian), Charles Nes (buying for his own collection) and Paris dealer Christian Bouqueret.
One French collector said they were disappointed in many of the prints: "The fact that most of the images were going to be used for books can explain the way Brassai printed them. As a small collector who has to make choices because of lack of money, I did not buy anything. I want to keep on buying images in good condition, and in addition to that, most of the images I could afford were really boring to me or with not enough charm."
The same collector was less than enthused even on the large exhibition prints, saying "you had to get used to all the scratches and marks that you could really see under oblique light."
Edwynn Houk conceded some of this wear and tear, but noted that most of Brassai's prints had "a life as a print to be used in magazines and newspapers, and as a magnificent object to be exhibited, and it was often repurposed for book publication and then put back in the file again, etc…And, unlike many other photographers, he rarely delegated his printing to others."
About the larger exhibition prints, Houk noted that today, "Scale is playing an increasing role, and such scale is rare with Brassai. More prints being sold are actually going up on the wall."
Yes, Brassai's vintage prints, like Bill Brandt's, were usually made for publication and often show the marks of heavy use and circulation. Often prints have lower contrast values in order to print a longer range of tones more easily. These are realities that most collectors are not aware of when they buy from catalogues. But because so many of the prints will be displayed behind glass or acrylic up on the wall, most of the surface flaws are acceptable when it comes to collecting someone like Brassai or Brandt, whose vintage (or even late) prints are rarely perfect.
Still, some dealers felt that these realities made certain Brassai images less desirable than at first glance. For instance, a French dealer friend told me, "I was not enamored with Brassai's method of printing. For example, I reviewed lot 420 ("Taudis"), a vintage print, out of the frame on three separate occasions. Apart from the condition (some light creases and surface marks and a lot of scratches), I was not really convinced and attracted by this print. Otherwise I would not have let it go at 2500 euros. I know that at least 15 other people asked for this image out of the frame, but no one really bid on it who viewed it."
What concerned me was the fact that so many of the best images and/or prints were printed 20 and even 30 years after the fact. Most prints in this sale could not be called vintage. Many prints originally said to be 1940-50s in the catalogue were simply made much later. And, while the larger, exhibition-size prints are rare, they were still printed in the mid-1950s to 1960s, but as Houk noted above: size is now counting for more and more.
In fairness many prints were actually made earlier than how they had been catalogued. Some were catalogued circa 1960 that were actually from 1945-50. When the house erred, it did so equally in both directions.
If the condition, vintage and presence of the prints sometimes left one a bit disappointed, most potential buyers felt that their frustration came from something else entirely--low, tempting estimates that were mostly eclipsed by the actual winning bids that were often multiples of the high estimate, ranging from 5-10x that estimate. My readers know by now that my mantra is: "ALWAYS ignore the estimates and focus on the object." They are too often too high or too low. Auctions have learned that the best strategy when it comes to large collections is to estimate the lots very low to make bidders feel that they can 'steal' a lot. Of course, that rarely actually happens.
Houk told me that, despite the teasingly low estimates, he felt the best deals were actually on the priciest lots. As he put it, "There was too much competition on the lower end and not any bargains there." He felt a lot of those types of images went to people wanting to buy a piece of French history or culture.
Many bidders found out the hard way that the estimates, especially the lower priced ones, would be blown away in the actual auction. One of Millon's experts on the sale, Cecile Ritzenthaler, remarked: "Most of my clients bidding with me on the phone were upset because they didn't get a single lot."
The exception to bids that exceeded estimates at this sale was Brassai's drawings. As Michael Mattis noted in the article above, Brassai's drawings and tapestries did not generally do as well as the photographs, or sculptures for that matter. The single exception was his self-portrait, which did manage to get about $42,500, including the commission, from that Greek billionaire. Most of the rest fell into the 1000-4000+ euro range, and this category was responsible for most of the buy-ins. The entire drawing, tapestry and sculpture portion of the sale only amounted to 8-1/2% (about $550,000) of the total auction take. Brassai is known primarily as a photographer, and it was his photographs that rightly attracted most of the audience and the money.
As Mattis also noted above, the house expert Christophe Goeury got pretty universal praise for his work on this material and catalogue. I know that he worked very hard to keep some of the most important prints in the sale in his three-way negotiation with the family, the French state and the Millon auction house. The research and information in the catalogue was also prepared with above average care and detail, although some prints were misdated in the catalogue itself (although Christophe Goeury did try to correct the information when he had it; and the degree of misdating was no worse than at other major auction houses). This was a premier sale handled in like fashion.
There were also high marks given to the auctioneer, the young Alexandre Millon. He kept the auction light and moving, while still wheedling out the best bids from sometimes reluctant participants. For instance, he seemed to recognize the uneasy camaraderie of the odd couple of dealer Edwynn Houk and collector Michael Mattis (our writer of the main piece on this sale) sitting in the first row, often pushing one or the other to bid. When the pair began to bid actively against each other on various lots, such as lot 671, Chez Suzy, la presentation, Millon would exclaim, "J'adore !" (A short French version for "I love it!").
The prices quoted below will be hammer (without premium added) and in euros. To convert to dollars with the premium, just multiple the numbers times 1.5 for a slightly lower rounded figure (if you want to be more precise, multiply times 1.54).
I will only remark on those lots where I know who the bidder and/or underbidder were or have at least a better description than just "the phone", which was often the winner at this sale. Many of the early lots were drawings and sculpture, or were photographs that sold to an unknown French collector or to a phone.
On lots 84 and 85, two lots of Brassai's graffiti images which sold for 18,000 and 13,000 euros respectively, Paris dealer Leon Herschtritt bid up the phone, but to no avail.
On lot 208, Ciel Postiche No.1 en Haut, Mattis underbid the winning phone bid of 19000 euros (estimate 10-15000 euros). Mattis told me that it was a "marvelous surreal nude. It reads either as a nude or as a landscape with stormclouds."
Lot 291 was a collage of 23 photographs that was made for a unique tapestry. Was it was "one print" or a collection of prints? To get to the budget-busting bid of 170000 euros, it had to get a lot of attention from the room (Charles Nes was one of the players there) and the phones. But the real battle in the end was between a pair of the phones. If it was considered one print, it might hold the record for a Brassai. It is certainly the second highest lot of Brassai material to come to auction.
Lot 374, Escaliers de Montmartre, went for 13500 euros after a fight between several phones and a woman in the room, who ultimately prevailed.
Lot 381, Femme au parapluie, sold to the room for 18500 euros.
Lot 409 (Les Coulisses de l'Opera)--one of the larger, but late exhibition prints--went to New York/Paris dealer Charles Nes in the room for 19000 euros (over an estimate of 6-8000), who apparently enlisted his mother to bid on this one. Nes told me that he bought all the prints for his own collection.
Lot 424, Le baiser, went for 25000 euros (estimate 10-15000) to a phone bidder against an absentee bid. A French dealer asked the expert about its condition and was told that it had a significant crease and was not in very good condition. "If an American is interested in it, forget it", implying that it would only be worth it if it went low.
Lot 442, Nu, hammered to Houk for 18000 euros (estimate 8-10000).
Lot 444, Nu, sold for 28000 euros to the room and was underbid by Houk, as was lot 447, which sold for 20000 euros.
Lot 454, Courses à Longchamp, hammered for 15000 (estimated at a mere 600-800 euros!) to Sam Stourze, bidding for a client.
Lot 483, Nu, was sold for 25000 euros and then promptly preempted by the Musée National d'Art Moderne Ville de Paris.
Lot 489, Gravure (cliché verre), went to Houk for 23000 euros.
Lot 492, a large print of Qui Dort Dine, was underbid by Mattis. It sold for 18000 euros against a meager estimate of only 2-3000.
Edwynn Houk bought lot 547, Corset noir, for 12000 euros, as well as lot 549, Le casque de cuir, for 23000 euros (estimate 8-10000). The phone won lot 548, Nu, from the same series for 14000 euros (estimate 3-4000) against Houk.
Mattis took home lot 594, Paris, vue de Notre Dame, for 24000 euros against an estimate of 6-8000.
Lot 595, La Place de la Concorde, sold just over high estimate at 16000 to the room.
Then it was all Mattis again. The collector took lots 602, Filles de joie dans un bar, for 32000 euros (estimate 8-10000) and lot 603, Couple d'amoureux, for 6500 euros.
Lot 604, Couple d'amoureux, sold to Houk for 46000 after Mattis initially took on a phone bidder and then dropped out. Houk also picked up lot 605, Couple dans un bistrot, for 18000. Lot 607, Couple Fâché was one of the battles that Alexandre Millon loved to see. Mattis bid up Houk to 42000 euros on this important, but late printed exhibition-size print before retiring from the field in favor of the New York City dealer.
Lot 622, La môme Bijou, went for 41000 euros to a French collector who bought it for a friend who was on the phone with him. Michael Mattis has already reported that the print had a lot of damage.
Mattis came back on lot 634, Les mauvais garçons, another exhibition-size print, which he took for 32000 euros (estimate 10-15000). Mattis told me afterwards, "While it LOOKS like the two toughs are standing next to a dark wall (which fills the right hand side), the 'wall' is pure darkroom invention: it's just burned in by Brassai photographically. So, it's marvelously inventive."
Lot 637, Couple amoureux, rue Croulebarbe, hammered down for 25000 euros to Houk.
Then the auction came to lot 660, Pavés, the cover image of Paris de Nuit, which had been estimated at 40-60000 euros. Dealer Charles Nes did battle against several phone bidders and in the end set what is the record for a single Brassai photograph at auction: 85000 euros or about $130,000 with the frais. When I asked Nes about the sale and this print, he told me, "There were some interesting pieces in the sale. In the end, I thought the Pavés was the résumé of that early work by Brassai--modern but simple. And I am thrilled to have it."
As noted above, the auctioneer Millon often had a little fun with his bidders. Lot 671, Chez Suzy, la presentation, was one of those instances, first proclaiming, "J'adore !", when Mattis and Houk started bidding against each other for the piece. When Houk made a bid higher than Mattis, Millon leaned over and asked Mattis "Is that ok for you?" The jibe did the trick, and Mattis wound up winning the lot at 12000 euros.
On lot 674, Armoire à glace, the phone outbid even the intrepid Mattis at 25000 euros (estimate 6-8000).
On lot 675, another print of the Chez Suzy series, Houk bid up the action until he had to retire from the field when the winning bid hit 16000 euros.
Lot 678, La rue Quincampoix, gave Millon another chance to strut his stuff when he said to an undecided female collector, "Bids are tricky. Look at the image one more time." Then he thanked Sam Stourdzé, who was bidding her up and ultimately won the lot at 15000 euros (estimate 4-6000), for his patience.
Lot 705, La place Denfert, went to a man in the room for 20000 euros (estimate 3-4000), who had been very active and very secretive. He seemed to have been buying for at least two different people.
Lot 708, Maréchal Ney, went for 17000 euros to an absentee bid (one of the few that won major lots). The lot had been estimated at 4-6000.
Lot 720, Le dompteur et ses fauves, was scooped up for a mere 9000 euros by Houk. It had been estimated at 2-3000 euros.
Houk also tried on lot 721, Les coulisses des Folies-begere, but was only the bridesmaid on this one when it soared to 26000 euros (estimate 15-20000).
Nes won lot 722, Une Girl aux Folies-bergere, for 17000 (estimate 2-3000) but found himself preempted by the Musee d'art moderne ville de Paris.
Sam Stourdzé picked up the next lot 723, Folies-bergere, for 20000 euros (estimate 6-8000 euros).
Lot 760, Maraîchère dormant aux halles, went to a French collector in the room for 11000 euros.
Nearly at the end of the auction, Lot 761, Feu d'artifice du 14 juillet, gave Millon a chance to kid expert Christophe Goeury about his estimates. At 7000 euros Millon turned to Goeury sitting on his right and quipped, "7000. Pour une fois que ça dépasse les estimations. (For once it goes over the estimate.) The estimate on this lot was a measly 400-600 euros. The winning bidder in the room got it for 7,200 euros, or about 22 times the low estimate when the commission is added in to the total!
The last lot, #764, Le pont des arts, went fittingly to a French collector in the room for 10000 euros, which was the low estimate for the lot.
Thus concluded one of the most successful photography auctions in Paris.
Artcurial will hold a two-part photography sale on Saturday, November 18th, at 8:30 pm and on Monday, November 20th, at 8 pm. The auctions will be held at Artcurial, Hotel Dassault, 7-9 Rond-Point des Champs-Elysées, 75008, Paris, France. A printed catalogue is available for these sales and can be ordered through Artcurial.
Again, the first part of the sale will be held on Saturday, November 18th, at 8:30 pm at the Artcurial facility in Paris. The auction can be previewed from Wednesday, November 15-Friday, November 17 from 11 am-7 pm, and on the Saturday of the sale from 11 am-2 pm. There are only 48 lots in Part 1 of the sale, but all of the lots are strong and rare images, with an emphasis on 19th-century material. Notably, 15 important daguerreotypes will be offered.
One of them, from the John Wood collection, is a quarter-plate portrait of the noted French writer Gustave Flaubert in fine condition. This previously unknown portrait was probably taken at the request of Flaubert's mistress Louise Collet, and sent to her in the summer of 1846. It is the only known daguerreotype portrait of Flaubert. The estimate is 40-60000 euros.
Also of the utmost rarity is a quarter-plate view of Chateau de Fontainebleau, dated September 1840. It is the oldest known image and the only known daguerreotype of the chateau. It is in fine condition. The estimate is 25-35000 euros.
Several other arresting daguerreian images are part of the sale, including a 1/4-plate horseman by Lobert(?), at 40-60000 euros (the cover of the catalogue) and a 1/4-plate Japanese Castaway, at 4-6000 euros.
Twelve paper negatives by Frédéric Flachéron, views of Rome dating from 1849 to 1853, will be offered starting at a low estimate of 2000 euros.
In addition several important works by Robert Mapplethorpe and Diane Arbus are the highlights of the 20th-century selection.
Other artists in this sale include: Baldus, Ballen, Baltz, Brassaï, de Clercq, Fizeau, Flacheron, Haskins, Le Gray, Marey, Humbert de Molard, Nègre, Salzmann, Schall, Strand and Vaillat.
The second part of the Artcurial photography sale will be held on Monday, November 20th, at 8 pm. The focus of the sale is: "Trésors de Photographes des agences du groupe Hachette Filippachi Photos".
This auction pays a particular homage to the late Edouard Boubat, with more than 30 vintage exhibition prints, including the famous Lella, Bretagne 1947 and Première Neige au Jardin du Luxembourg, 1955, both estimated at 12 000-15 000 euros. Also, a remarkable self-portrait with Lella, signed and dated 1951 on the back. All the Boubat prints in this sale come from Bernard Boubat, Edouard's only son. It is the first time that such a strong body of prints from this important French photographer have come to auction. The sale will also boast some great prints by all the "humanistes" photographers from the Rapho agency, including Ronis, Weis and Niepce.
The catalogues for both auctions are now online at: http://www.auction.fr/cp/artcurial/ . Just go to the left section on the calendar and click on the photography auction. For catalogue information or to contact the expert for the sale, email Grégory Leroy at firstname.lastname@example.org or call +33 (0)1 42 99 20 15, or call the general auction number at +33 (0)1 42 99 20 20. When calling from the U.S. add 011 in front and eliminate the (0).
One of the oldest functioning camera clubs in the U.S., the Camera Club of New York has lost its lease as of June 2007 and is actively trying to raise funds to pay for its move and to continue its programs. One of its fundraisers is a silent auction, which will be held Monday, November 20 from 7-9 pm at Daniel Cooney Fine Art, 511 W 25th St, Suite 506, New York City. To preview the current items in the auction (many more will be added in the coming weeks), go to: http://www.cameraclubny.org/auction.html . For more information and bids, call 1-212-260-9927 or email email@example.com . I believe they are also still taking donations for the auction.
Founded in 1888 to promote the photographic arts, the CCNY has a rich and prestigious history. From 1897 to 1901, Alfred Stieglitz served as vice president, overseeing the exhibitions and publication programs. The club journal "Camera Notes", conceived and published by Stieglitz, was a precursor to his seminal magazine, "Camera Work". In addition, a number of great names from the history of photography were members, including Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Joseph Ruzicka and Gertrude Kasebier--an early female member, at a time when most clubs only admitted men.
The auction will feature vintage prints by Joseph Ruzicka (he left his work and negatives to the club), and work by many others, such as Jock Sturges, Bruce Cratesly, Mitch Epstein, Susan Wides, Stanley Greenberg, Sid Kaplan, Graciela Iturbide and Mary Ellen Mark.
The club will also be auctioning prints by younger emerging artists, including those from its new Darkroom Residency Program, which started last January.
In addition to the darkroom residency, the club's primary mission is to provide photographic workspaces--darkrooms, studios, and print finishing areas. CCNY also offers classes and workshops, a lecture series at the New York School of Visual Arts and an annual juried exhibition.
By Matt Damsker
BERENICE ABBOTT, PHOTOGRAPHER: AN INDEPENDENT VISION.
By George Sullivan. 2006; Clarion Books; 128 pages, $20. ISBN No. 0-618-44026-7. A Houghton Mifflin Co. imprint, 215 Park Ave. South, New York, NY 10003; phone: 1-800-225-3362; Website: http://www.clarionbooks.com .
This straightforward biography of one of modern photography's masters is slanted toward young readers, but it is hardly a "children's" book. Author George Sullivan is a prolific force in youth nonfiction, and he delivers a clear, thorough account of Berenice Abbott's rise and her achievements; as such, this is a perfect volume for anyone interested in a concise portrait of the artist, with excellent reproductions of many of her signature works.
Indeed, any neophyte who is serious about considering or collecting photography would do as well to first study Abbott as to study any of the medium's greats, since she was such a rare influence. As an archivist, she played a major role in bringing the immortal work of France's Eugene Atget to worldwide notice; and as a pure modernist, she spanned the Bohemian world, from Paris to Greenwich Village, interacting with the likes of Joyce, Duchamp and Man Ray, and creating indelible portraits of many of them. Her great realist theme, of course, became The City--New York--as it grew skywards during the 1930s, and so she trained her lens on the staggering visual information it afforded. She created such classic bird's-eye images as "Night View" from atop the Empire State Building, as well as of skyscrapers seen from ground level, crowd scenes, the intersecting planes and busy latticework of steel structures and bridges, and the graphic crazy-quilt of newsstands and shop windows. To look at Abbott's work now is to strongly sense her ongoing influence--on everyone from Lee Friedlander to Andreas Gursky and countless others.
Sullivan carefully provides a lot of context for looking at Abbott, and doesn't skimp on her life journey--from the Midwestern beginnings in the U.S. to the European years, her eventual focus on teaching, her wonderful science photographs (soap bubbles, magnetic fields) and her productive semi-retirement in Maine. Throughout his book, he emphasizes that Abbott's independence of vision was hard-earned, rigorous, and marked by energy and devotion more so than by any narcissistic quest for fame. One can only hope that her example and her permanence may mean something to the young readers who turn to Sullivan's account in today's celebrity-obsessed world of fleeting images.
LEE BALTERMAN'S CHICAGO.
2006; catalogue published by Stephen Daiter Gallery; 60 pages, approximately 40 black-and-white plates. For information, contact the Stephen Daiter Gallery, 311 W. Superior, Suite 404, Chicago, IL 60610; phone 1-312-787-3350; email: firstname.lastname@example.org ; Website: http://www.stephendaitergallery.com .
The City--in this case, the Second City, Chicago, or as Saul Bellow put it, "Chicago, that somber city,"--is also Lee Balterman's great theme as a photographer, and he follows in Abbott's wake on his own impressive terms (Balterman, now in his 80s, is still active). Balterman has emphasized "People--not buildings!" and so his studies of his beloved town are mainly studies of humanity defining itself against the urban grid, whether leaping in summery joy from Navy Pier into a placid Lake Michigan, or rallying around the Cubs at Wrigley Field, or in an array of nighthawk moments in bars, greasy-spoon restaurant or on the wintry streets.
Not surprisingly, Balterman was born in Chicago, studied at its Art Institute, served in the Army during World War II (as a war photographer in Europe), and returned home to a busy career in the 1950s and 60s, freelancing for the Black Star and other photo agencies. He landed photos on the covers of Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and in countless newspapers, developing a body of work marked by strong chiaroscuro tonalities and compassionate, naturalistic compositions that capture their human subjects in the act of unselfconscious expressiveness. His powerful series focusing on the survivors and families of the horrible 1958 fire at Our Lady of Angels School, which took the lives of 92 children and three nuns, is a study in pathos that keeps a respectful distance yet brings us inside the nature of shock and despair with remarkable clarity. More emblematic of Balterman, though, are the everyday (and everynight) moments he froze in bars, grills, or on the ball field--as tough Chicagoans connect with themselves and each other for better or for worse. This fine catalogue also contains informative and appreciative essays by Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Paul Berlanga and Robert Guinan.
Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005.
He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.
(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)