Issue #168  1/6/2010
On to Paris: The Ilse Bing Auction

By Alex Novak

I left the Daguerreian Society Symposium immediately after the trade show, unfortunately missing the dinner and auction that night. You can see the auction results, which go to benefit the association, here: http://daguerre.org/symposia/auction2009.php . The most expensive item was a rare daguerreian cane that concealed three different daguerreotypes, which sold for $4,000 (no extra buyer's premiums at this sale).

My plane to Paris was the very next day. I took a ragged Delta-fied Air France flight (small uncomfortable jet, wine in cartons, crappier food, no more ear plugs/sleeping masks, charges for bags, etc.), which is a recent and serious downgrade of the normally-ok Air France flight. The changes just made me determined not to fly very much any more--and this was even before the latest air scare. (Anyone else out there feel like that these days?)

From Charles de Gaulle-Roissy I took a taxi and got to my rented apartment on rue Reaumur in the third arrondissement. I simply dropped off my bags and scurried down to Drouot Montaigne via the metro.

Drouot Montaigne is the ritzier auction location in Paris when compared to the Wal-Mart-like Richelieu Drouot, the normal location for most Paris auctions. Montaigne shares its locale with all the major haut couture houses on this very upscale street. Unfortunately the bistro across the way wasn't quite so chic, but I used it later for a quick bite before the auction. I frankly don't even remember what I ate.

It was a very long day of previewing and later attending the actual auction. The sheer number of photographs here was nearly overwhelming, and, to make matters even more challenging, many of the images were top-rate. Expert Christophe Goeury did another great job on this auction's catalogue. As I've said in the past, his catalogues are troves of information on the photographers whose estates he has auctioned off, including Brassai, Blanc et Demilly, and Studio Stone. The information includes biographies in French and English, extensive bibliographies and copies of the artists' stamps and signatures, so these catalogues are really useful well beyond the auction.

In the past, Goeury--as virtually all auction "experts"--has made mistakes from time to time about dating prints. In Christophe's case I always felt that the mistakes were always even-handed and honestly made. In other words, he would as often misdate a print later as earlier, which is not the case for many other auction "experts". But for this sale, he "really did the job", as my good friend Arnaud Delas would say. All the photographs in the Bing sale were black-lighted, which for her prints in particular is an excellent way to date those prints. (For more information on this technique click here: http://www.iphotocentral.com/collecting/article_view.php/12/10/1 ) I saw virtually no misdating of prints here, except possibly for a few that might actually be considered to be a bit earlier than cited in the catalogue.

Condition here overall was excellent with mostly only minor handling crimps, primarily on the largest unmounted prints. Add in the rarity of most of the images, Bing's fine printing and the relatively low estimates here, and you had--for me--an unprecedented opportunity to buy some of the top work from one of the greatest underrated photographers in the market. But that also meant that there were nearly 300 lots that needed to be viewed carefully, including many lots with multiple images. To view this many lots quickly in and out of frames was a very tough assignment. My thanks to Christophe and Béatrice for all their kind help. It was a very busy day for all of us.

The auction didn't start until 7:30 pm, despite the earlier notice in the catalogue. This was done to help a number of clients who were obviously on the West Coast of the U.S.

The room was initially packed with people--mostly French, but with some American dealers during the early going. It was also stifling hot. The whole process was to take four hours. A very long day indeed.

The sale sold virtually all of its decent lots. The total percent sold was 72% and the sale brought in approximately 520,000 euros total, which at the time of the sale was nearly $800,000. It was to be the best selling percentage of any of the four Paris auctions going off during Paris Photo week.

That consignment came from a single collector, who ostensibly bought the images from the Konrad Wolff-Ilse Bing Estate (Bing was married to Konrad Wolff, a noted pianist and teacher). Well, sort of. The collector had reportedly bought much of the collection from Wichita State University, KS, which had been the recipient of much of Bing's largess over the years (well into the millions of dollars). In fact in 2001 alone the estate made a $1.5 million bequest to endow scholarships for chamber music students at Wichita State University. Photographs from Bing's personal collection were also sold at Sotheby's to benefit the foundation in 2003. It is somewhat sad though that the University did not deem it important enough to hang on to what was certainly one of the most important collections of her work. Perhaps it was the foundation that approved the sale, but the University's lack of foresight is certainly the market's (and that collector's) gain.

I will review some of the lots that broke over a 7,500 euro hammer price (add on nearly 28% to the hammer price totals if you were European and about 22% if you were outside the EEC and shipped). Because this consignment actually came from the U.S., you could get a substantial VAT return when you shipped outside of Europe/UK. Oddly enough there were that many inexpensive lots here, and you could get some amazingly good buys if you were patient enough to sit through this excruciating auction. I was either patient or stubborn enough to do so.

The first lot to hit my 7,500 hammer minimum (and just barely) was lot 24. This was an odd image of two light fixtures, but it was a VERY large print with a nice matt surface, except for a few light surface marks over it. A woman in the room grabbed this one for well over its estimate of 2,000-3,000 euro for that 7,500 euro hammer price.

Lot 56 was the series of a dozen smaller images from the Moulin Rouge. It went to a phone bidder at more than double its high estimate at 42,000 euro (over 53,000 euro with the premium and VAT and more than $80,000).

One lot that was a big temptation was lot 65, an image of the New York elevated and a reflection of the photographer. It was estimated at a mere 2,000-3,000 euro, but it quickly floated upward, finally settling down to a phone bidder for a whopping hammer price of 25,000 euro. But certainly a great piece, although not my absolute favorite of this sale.

Another lot that easily tripled its estimate of 2,000-3,000 euros was lot 117, which went again to the phone (when the phone was active, lot generally soared in price; but the phone was an erratic participant). The image of children dancing in front of a decorative barrel organ in Amsterdam was simply lovely, but it came at a price: 9,000 euros hammer.

Another image that was highly sought after was lot 210, a Street Cleaner's Broom, Paris. Estimated again at a very low 1,000-1,500, it attracted many bidders. It was a bit more neutral in color than in the catalogue, and I frankly didn't think the print quality was as high as on some other images, but it was still a stunner with its large size. But it became again a battle of the phones. Finally one nailed it down with a 7,200 euro hammer bid.

By the time I checked out and grabbed a taxi back to my apartment, the time was past midnight. I slept the sleep of the dead that night.


Novak has over 45 years experience in the photography-collecting arena. He is a long-time member and formally board member of the Daguerreian Society, and, when it was still functioning, he was a member of the American Historical Photographic Society. He organized the 2016 19th-century Photography Show and Conference for the Daguerreian Society. He is also a long-time member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers. Novak has been a member of the board of the nonprofit Photo Review, which publishes both the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector, and is currently on the Photo Review's advisory board. He was a founding member of the Getty Museum Photography Council. He is author of French 19th-Century Master Photographers: Life into Art.

Novak has had photography articles and columns published in several newspapers, the American Photographic Historical Society newsletter, the Photograph Collector and the Daguerreian Society newsletter. He writes and publishes the E-Photo Newsletter, the largest circulation newsletter in the field. Novak is also president and owner of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, a private photography dealer, which sells by appointment and at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Classic Photography LA, Photo LA, Paris Photo, The 19th-century Photography Show, etc.