PARIS AUCTIONS DO WELL DESPITE LARGELY
DULL MATERIAL AND LACK OF ANY BLOCKBUSTERS AS AUCTION MONOPOLIES COME TO A CLOSE; CORRECTION
PARIS AUCTIONS DO WELL DESPITE LARGELY
DULL MATERIAL AND LACK OF ANY BLOCKBUSTERS
AS AUCTION MONOPOLIES COME TO A CLOSE
Leafing through catalogues this November during Paris Photo week at the counter of the huge auction building Drouot, my eyes detected alien publications: Sotheby's and Christie's auction catalogues--their first ever auctions in France. This signals the final barrier to the big houses' assault on the Continent and a real end to the monopolies of the French auctioneers. What this means to photography auctions here is anybody's guess, but it is safe to assume that there will be an impact and sooner rather than later. Drouot, which has been the required auction venue of all Paris auctioneers, may fall victim to the changes.
There is already talk of a takeover by Pierre Bergé of Yves Saint Laurent's to "save" Drouot. But Drouot's ownership structure is very complicated because its shares are divided equally among the 110 auctioneers working in Paris. This may make any takeover virtually impossible or certainly very expensive. It has been estimated that about ¼ of all 456 auctioneers in France will go out of business eventually. In France the auction business was a monopoly for over 150 years with licensed auctioneers, or commissaires-priseurs, who followed ancient rules in exchange for preserving this monopoly. They even had the status of judiciary officers and acted under the supervision of the French Justice Ministry.
While many of the auction houses have begun to professionalize their activities, there still seems a dearth of great material, so it will be interesting to see if Sotheby's and Christie's will be able to uncover any great new treasures/collection or only churn the same old material that we are seeing more of at the current group of French photo auctions.
In any case, this time around during Paris Photo week the auctions had material that was only lukewarm at best, although they managed to do about average on the financial side of the equation.
First up was Beaussant Lefevre, which mostly featured the work of just two photographers. The calotypist Ferdinand Tillard's paper negatives were a revelation. Expert Pierre Marc Richard has once again produced a fine piece of research with his excellent catalogue notes on this important and early French master from the Normandy area. Active buyers of these paper negatives included me; UK dealer Robert Hershkowitz; Malvern, PA dealer Charles Isaacs; French collector/dealer Nicolas Derville; London dealer Daniella Dangoor; a French and a UK collector; and the phone. I took the top lot of this portion of the sale, a boat grounded by low tide, for about 89,000 francs (a little under $13,000). The piece sold immediately after the auction to a collector. Many of the pieces were preempted, especially some of those that a frustrated and unlucky Derville bid on, although others also had their bids preempted. Clearly these paper negatives went very reasonably considering their importance, rarity and beauty, but paper negatives have often been more appreciated by photography dealers, who understand the intrinsic value of these, than by many collectors and institutions, who still are learning how to appreciate and exhibit them. Hans Kraus' recent show on paper negatives may be a start in this direction. My understanding is that the negatives sold very well at his exhibit.
After the auction I was interviewed by Norman television about why I had bought so many of the paper negative of the Normandy area. They thought it must be because of the American interest in the WWII landing here. I told them: No, it was because the early French calotypists had a unique artistic vision unequalled any where else.
The next photographer featured at Beaussant was Paul-Emile Miot, whose work has appeared at past Beaussant auctions. There were some fine prints in this sale and prices reflected this. Lot 61, a woman of the Canadian Mick-Macks tribe on board the Ardent, sold to a British collector after a battle with the phone for just under 142,000 francs, including the premium. The same collector than took lot 64 of wigwams of the same, now extinct tribe for just under 80,000 francs.
The big disappointment of the day for the auction house was on lot 94, an important half-plate daguerreotype of Rachel, which failed to go at the 80,000-franc mark.
San Francisco dealer Robert Koch took a nice salt print of a street in Milan for over 53,000 francs.
The total take for Beaussant, including the premium, was just under 1-1/2 million francs and the buy-ins were only a very respectable 23.5%. All in all, it was a small, quiet, but nice sale.
PHOTOJOURNALISM TAKES CENTER STAGE
The next auction up was a new entry and perhaps the most important of all the Paris auctions this time around. The photo dealer father and son team of the Herschtritts (Leon and Laurent) with the auction house of Thierry de Maigret put together what must be the first photography auction to focus solely on photojournalism.
Leon Herschtritt has always loved photojournalism, coming out of that background as a photographer himself, so it was no surprise that he zeroed in on this area. In fact, there were a couple of fine images in the sale by Leon.
Everything about this auction signaled that something different was happening here: from the catalogue, which was the best printed one that I have ever seen in Paris with full-color images inside and out, to the exhibition itself, which was hung on specially constructed red carpeted walls, to the huge (and I do mean huge) crowds of people, most of whom I have never seen attend a photography auction preview. The media coverage of the event was intense. This auction will have consequences to the market well beyond Paris.
Although 35% of the images failed to find buyers, the sale did manage to bring in over 1.7 million francs, largely on the strength of one group. Photographer James Nachtwey's somber images of the destruction of the World Trade Center, one of which made the cover of Paris Match, France's premier magazine, and others inside the pages of Paris Match and Time magazine, brought a bid of 500,000 francs. The proceeds were to be donated to the Widows and Children Fund of the Association of NY Firefighters. Jean-Marie Messier, purchaser of the lot, majority stockholder of corporation giant Vivendi Universal and one of the wealthiest men in France, decided to redonate the images to the firemen of New York. We may still see the images auctioned off once more before everything is said and done. As some of you may recall from my last newsletter on Paris Photo, Vivendi Universal had two of its photo collections on display at that event. Interestingly enough I was actually at Leon Herschtritt's office when Messier called to place his bid. It was an exciting moment for both of us, although Leon would not tell me the bidder at that time. By the way, Messier bought an additional three prints in the sale, so he has a commitment to photojournalism.
Other images did well, as 41 prints made five-figures with the premium. The second highest image, a Migrant Mother, probably printed by Ralph Gibson when he was Dorothea Lange's assistant in the 1960s, brought nearly 45,000 francs against an estimate of 20,000-25,000 francs. Prints by Robert Doisneau, Edouard Boubat, Leonard Freed, Alberto Korda, Eve Arnold, Dennis Stock, Henri Cartier-Bresson, James Nachtwey and Reza also went very well, approaching this mark.
What a great counter to so many vacuous contemporary images on display at Paris Photo, where so much of the focus is on sexually immature self-centered egos. Here were contemporary images with courage, purpose and human dignity. I am not saying that there is only value in photojournalism, but I am suggesting that some of today's contemporary artists and galleries should review their priorities and vision. My genuine congratulations to Laurent and Leon Herschtritt for their time and courage in putting on this sale.
Leon also had another first: he just put out a new color catalogue of his own with some smashing 19th and 20th century images in it. Since he has given over the gallery to his son Laurent, some people thought he was retiring. The catalogue is a statement that clearly indicates that if Leon might be slowing down a bit, he is definitely NOT retiring.
20TH CENTURY SALE TOO LONG, TOO MANY ITEMS
Next up was Libert & Castor's largely 20th century auction with Viviane Esders as expert. The buy-in rate at this rather large (perhaps too large?) sale was 41.5% and the auction brought in just under 1.2 million francs with the premium. Actually I thought part of the sale material was a bit better than average for Esders, with some nice bargains among some of the mid-range French images. I managed to buy a very nice vintage circus image by Ilse Bing, plus a couple of good images by Daniel Masclet. But there was not much big-ticket-item excitement here.
Two later-printed Robert Doisneau's brought top dollar. Lot 159 Mademoiselle Anita--Dancing La Boule Rouge made nearly 39,000 francs; and then the next lot, Doisneau's The Kiss, brought over 83,000 francs. Both prints were on 16 x 20 inch paper and both brought prices that were in the mid to upper range of their estimates.
A large group (361 images) of Italian 19th century prints brought nearly 39,000 francs over an estimate of 4,000-5,000 francs.
And, finally, a huge Annie Leibovitz color photograph of a nude but painted Keith Haring became the top lot of the sale at 116,298 francs, including the premium.
But it was agony to have to sit through all 330 lots of the sale without a break. And I really disliked the auctioneer that they used on the sale. He tried to eke every last franc out of a lot and then did not clearly announce if it sold or not.
TAJAN SALE DOES WELL WITH A. NORMAND; LARGEST SALE OF WEEK
Over at the newly renamed Tajan (no Etude any more in front of the name, I noticed) quantity was also the watchword. Tajan does produce a decent catalogue (albeit without the fine research that one sees from Pierre Marc Richard and Marc Pagneux at some of the other houses) and their auction room is considerably nicer (if occasionally hotter) than Drouot's rooms. It is just that the material sometimes falls short in the condition department, particularly during Paris Photo week sales. This sale was not any different than some others where I have noted this problem. The material just was not particularly exciting this time around, although the auction did bring in over 2.2 million francs including the premium--the best among all the houses for the week. Its buy-in rate was still an anemic 40%.
The two "big" Le Gray lots failed to find buyers. The first, attributed to Le Gray/Le Dien, had a major problem: it appears to be a later-printed albumen print. One expert told me that the image was by Le Gray/Le Dien, but the print was made much later by another photographer, who had bought their negatives. Estimated at 150,000-200,000 francs, it failed to find a buyer at 75,000 francs, which would have been a tremendous bargain if it were a Le Gray printing. The second image was a respectable print of the Brig (Le Brick), but there was restoration over what looked like a scratch and the photograph appeared to have been cleaned. Frankly I think it would have sold for its reserve (apparently 320,000 francs, which is where the auctioneer stopped) if the house (or consignor) had not been quite as aggressive on the estimates and let the image find its own level. The Brig is also one of the least rare of the Le Gray marine images, and people are starting to understand that rarity is also important on Le Grays.
Lot 61, an Altobelli of the Coliseum with a Moonlight Effect, brought 44,304 francs from a phone bidder, against an estimate range of only 8,000-10,000 francs. Two lots later the auction house squeaked by on a big one when an album of rather poor Caneva's sold to a man in the room for 135,000 francs against an estimate of 150,000-200,000. I believe he was the only bidder. The next lot, another image that was said to be by Caneva, sold to the phone for nearly 39,000 francs. The description said that the image came from a paper negative, but I disagree. It sure looked like a glass plate negative to me. And the attribution to Caneva was also a little iffy. Just because Caneva once took another picture at the same location does not mean that this one is his. At least the print had decent tones.
A Palestine album by Felix Bonfils with 61 images brought a final bid of about 72,000 francs with the premium. Another album from Brazil and Uruguay brought over 53,000 francs from a phone bidder with the two experts bidding it up with "commission bids".
A run of Alfred N. Normands did extremely well considering that the prints were later albumens and some were a bit weak (the catalogue was not a fair rendition of the tones, which were sometimes washed out). Nearly all the images went to the phone. Only the first image, lot 148, was bought in. The prints sold from 5538 francs for the interior of a mosque to 57,595 francs for an autoportrait amidst the ruins of Pompei. This group was the success of the day for Tajan.
A photograph of Titayna's Hands by Germaine Krull brought 44,304 from a phone bidder. This was at the low estimate.
I have said it before: Tajan would do better with a smaller but more select group of material. But as long as phone bidders who do not preview still bid, Tajan will do well financially.
SMALL CAMEL CHAMBRE COHEN AUCTION: BARGAIN OF THE WEEK
The final all-photo auction of the week (there were two or three others with photography in them beside these) was held at Camels Chambre Cohen, where David Fleiss of Gallerie 1900-2000 is expert.
The auction was a more modest, scaled-down affair of only 128 lots. Prices were incredibly reasonable, making me wish I had attended this evening session, especially since I had actually previewed the material. Images included a lot of low-end fashion material, nice Paul Wolff images and some contact-size Wols prints. The buy-in rate was 37.5% here, and the total auction take was just a little under a half million francs including the premium.
The top lots included a nice Frederick Sommer image (but with a major crease down the center) that sold for a little over 35,000 francs including the premium and a Man Ray of Nusch Eluard at the Sphinx for an extremely low bid of 54,275 francs including premium. The latter was a real buy, worth at least triple the price in my estimate.
It was a tough week for auction-goers, but a relatively good one for the auction houses, which held up very well once again.
Ken Jacobson told me that I had the wrong location for the Middle East show at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. As he notes: "The Middle East show (stunning installation and some great images) is actually at the new BN, not the old one near Paviot. Though out of the way, it is only eight minutes on the new fast metro from Pyramides (near Louvre)."
GETTING YOUR HOLIDAY GIFTS AT I PHOTO CENTRAL
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