Issue #255  12/9/2022
  • Issue #255
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Millon's Lepage 19th-century Photography Auction Brings in 2.4 Million Euros

By Michael Diemar and Alex Novak

This stunning full-plate daguerreotype by Alphonse-Eugène Hubert, who was a member of the Daguerre studio, sold for nearly 530,000 euros to the Houston Museum of Art.
This stunning full-plate daguerreotype by Alphonse-Eugène Hubert, who was a member of the Daguerre studio, sold for nearly 530,000 euros to the Houston Museum of Art.

On November 10th, the auction house Millon sold the François Lepage collection, and brought in over 2.4 million euros (nearly $2.5 million) in the process.

Lepage was one of the pioneers of the modern photography market. He and Gérard Lévy, graduates from the Ecole du Louvre, and both located in the same alley of the Vernaison section at Saint Ouen flea market, decided to join forces in the early ‘70s. Their partnership lasted until the early 1990s, when they decided to go their separate ways. The process of dividing the tens of thousands of photographs took them several years.

These special collection sales are few and far between. Co-author Michael Diemar attended the early part of the auction and said that coming into the room felt like a flashback from 20-30 years ago, with leading dealers, collectors and curators from both sides of the Atlantic present. Just to see the material was worth travelling to Paris, for much of it was simply spectacular. Having come down with COVID, fellow author Alex Novak was on the phone for much of the sale, buying work himself that totaled about 53,000 euros.

The auction included a whole-plate daguerreotype by Alphonse-Eugène Hubert, a beautiful still life. Estimated at 60,000-80,000 euros, it was finally hammered down to curator Malcolm Daniel for The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston for 420,000 euros, plus commission, bringing the price to nearly 530,000 euro (and a bit more in dollars, given that the dollar was at about $1.02 to a euro interbank rate at the time of the sale).

Dealer Alex Novak placed the first bid on this amazing daguerreotype at the low estimate, "just to be able to say that I bid on such an exceptional item. For me it is the most important 19th-century photograph to have come to market since the series of auctions based on Andre Jammes collection. It isn't just by a relatively unknown early French photographer, but it's really by Daguerre himself, since he was directing his assistants on this project.

"Furthermore, I believe it is the only known daguerreotype from this still life series by the Daguerre studio to remain in this pristine condition since most were wiped in an ill advised attempt to clean them. It's a true masterpiece and one of the most historically significant photographic images to ever be sold at auction. It was an absolute steal and I still don't understand why the French institutions did not preempt it, except perhaps because it went to an important museum and that they simply lacked the funds.

"The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and its photo curating staff are to be congratulated on this stunning acquisition."

There was a large group of works by Hippolyte Fizeau, of which several were pre-emptied by French institutions. There were wonderful and rare prints by André Giroux, Charles Marville, J.B. Greene and Baldus. A partial album by the latter, "Chemin de Fer de Paris à Lyon et à la Méditerrannée", had prints with extraordinary tones and was in perfect condition. It was the subject of a bidding battle between New York dealer Hans Kraus, Jr. and Philadelphia dealer Alex Novak. Unfortunately for Novak, his auction phone person forgot to pick up during the bidding, and he thought his left bid with the auctioneer was the winning one, but it was not. Being in the room really can make a difference. Kraus told Novak later that he had sold half of the group already just days after the auction.

Lot 148, Felix Nadar and Adrien Tournachon’s "Pierrot à la Corbeille de Fruit", was estimated at 120 000-150 000 euros, but surprisingly for such a strong print, sold at the low estimate again to dealer Hans Kraus, Jr.

In case you missed the auction, you will find images and the results on the Millon website. Christophe Goeury, the specialist in charge, had reason to be happy but I also heard from several exhibitors at Paris Photo that they felt they had been given a boost by the results.