Issue #182  8/5/2011
Beaussant Lefevre Sale Breaks Dag Records; Totals Over $2 Million With 83% Sold Rate

By Alex Novak

France had its share of fireworks too. At Beaussant Lefèvre, its own photography expert and a good friend, Pierre Marc Richard, put up his own collection for sale. Temporarily taking over Richard's spot as expert on this sale was Serge Kakou, who had been the expert at Tajan several years ago.

The work reflected Pierre Marc's eclectic taste and sharp eye, and attracted an international following to the auction. While condition was often an issue here (Pierre Marc's budget limited what he could buy for his collection), the quirky quality of the pieces drew spirited bidding on most lots, particularly the daguerreotypes. Once upon a time collectors in France did not appreciate the artistic qualities of the work by their fine daguerreotypists, but after the Musee d'Orsay show in 2003 and the highly successful auction of French photographer Girault de Prangey's daguerreotypes at Christie's in London, which set new world records for daguerreotypes (indeed for 19th-century photographs), that all changed. And the change was evident, not only in Austria at Westlicht, but here in Paris at the Beaussant Lefèvre sale.

I will only hit some of the auction highlights, particularly the pieces that reached 15,000 euro or higher, which put the lot into the "needing an export license" category. Prices below are without the buyer's premium, which added 23.97% to the totals here. You can multiply the euro hammer price by 1.78 to get the total price in dollars.

Lot 7, a unique set of three paper salt prints of statuary by Auguste Salzmann from 1863 went to a phone bidder for 16,000 euro ($23,000; about $28,500 with premium) over my own bid in the room. Likewise an English-speaking phone bidder took lot 11, a rare Le Gray albumen print from a paper negative of the Nile, for 42,000 euro (over $60,000; about $74,500 with premium). They had to beat Paris book dealer Jean-Claude Vrain, who was very active at this sale.

Lot 60, an anonymous 1850c full plate of a locomotive, was the first of the daguerreotypes to come up in the sale with an estimate of 10,000-12,000 euro. Many of the daguerreotypes in the sale had serious condition issues, as did this one, which had major wipes, low contrast, scratching and no original case. That used to dissuade many daguerreotype collectors, but new collectors are clearly changing their view. This lot gave us a better understanding of what was to come. Jean-Claude Vrain again entered the fray against a phone bidder. He drove the bidding up to 35,000 euro before ceding the piece to the phone. That is about $62,500 with premium--pretty steep for a very beat-up daguerreotype.

The very next lot, a half plate of the interior of the train station at Tours by Stanislas Ratel, was estimated at 25,000-35,000 euro. With lots of chemical staining, this dramatic daguerreotype had at least a chance at conservation, although a lot of collectors might have taken a pass at that estimate range. But not our two bidders: back again was Vrain and the phone, who battled all the way up to 130,000 euro hammer price (or over $231,000 with the buyer's premium and in U.S. dollars). Vrain was again frustrated by that phone bidder.

But Vrain wasn't to be deterred. Bidding against me, Paris dealer Serge Plantureux and others, Vrain took lot 65, a ¼ plate of the roofs of Paris by Charles Choiselat, for double the low estimate at a 20,000 euro hammer price. Then he took lot 68, a ¼-plate view of the steeples of Saint-Sulpice, probably taken from the studio of the photographer Frederich von Martens, again for double the low estimate at 20,000 euro. Each of these dags sold for over $35,500 with premium. Just a few years ago they might have sold for less than half that amount.

But the cherry on top was still to come. The very next lot was another view of the historic Saint-Sulpice church, but this time from the inside. A magical interior view which was solarized blue in all the right places, this 1844 full-plate daguerreotype was estimated at a too-reasonable 40,000-50,000 euro. OK, it wasn't in its original mount, but... The daguerreotypists were Choiselat and Ratel, who often worked together. My one-word note on my catalogue page reads: "Amazing!"

That set up a repeat of the earlier battles, and, unfortunately for Vrain, with the same result. The phone bidder, despite Vrain's increasingly frantic bids from the back of the auction room, still outlasted the book dealer, but had to pay an astonishing 190,000 euro hammer, over 235,500 euro with the buyer's premium, or nearly $340,000. That was a new auction record for a daguerreotype in France and in Europe proper. Only the Girault de Prangey's in London were higher.

While I won't say that the rest of the sale was an anticlimax, this certainly was the high point of the sale.

But we weren't completely done--with the auction or the daguerreotypes.

On lot 96, a ¼ plate of the Venus de Milo from 1840c by Alfred Donné, which just might be the earliest known photograph of the famous statue, dealer Serge Plantureux decided to challenge all comers including the phone bidders. Estimated at 5,000-6,000 euro, Plantureux pushed the bids up and up, until he finally nailed down the lot for nearly 41,000 euro or just a bit under $60,000, all in. He told me later that he had a major archive on the Venus de Milo, and that this would be a high point of that collection.

Lot 101 was a unique but odd lot of a Gustave Le Gray panoramic oil painting over several photograph prints from paper negatives of Baalbek, Lebanon. The 266 x 568 mm piece was interesting but needed conservation, and was estimated at a not-unreasonable 20,000-25,000 euro. Book dealer Vrain was back, waving his hat in frantic motion with his bids. It almost looked like he would get this one from the phone, but when the phone offered just a one-thousand euro increment over his 80,000 euro bid and it was accepted, he seemed deflated and had to retire from the field of battle. At just over 100,000 euro (nearly $145,000) with the buyer's premium the painting became the third most expensive lot in the auction. Only the two earlier daguerreotypes would also get up into that six-figure level.

Vrain tried once again on lot 125, a photo by Charles Marville of his assistant Charles Delahaye. Even though he pushed the final price to three times the high estimate, he still lost out to the phone bidder at the 15,000 euro hammer price.

Probably the real sleeper at the sale was the mysterious image of the English photographer Charles Thurston Thompson taking his own photo in a mirror. It was estimated at a mere 2,000-3,000 euro. It seemed like half the room and half the phone bank tried for this one. I saw bids from New York collector Michael Mattis, art buyer Timothy Prus, Paris dealer Denis Canguilhem (on a mobile phone) and many others--all unsuccessful in the end as a phone bidder took this one home at a 30,000 euro hammer price. All in with the buyer's premium that was over 37,000 euro or over $53,500!

While Vrain and his hat also failed to capture lot 143, the phone bidder still lost the 12,000 euro bid to a preemption from the Musee d'Orsay. The photograph was a very good Charles Marville cloud study.

As I've explained in the past, French institutions of all stripes can, after a final bid is made, stand up and declare that they are preempting the bidder and then buy the piece at that last hammer price. It may occasionally be frustrating for the bidder, but at least France is a country that actually seems to value its art and heritage enough to support and protect it. One day I would love to see a representative from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Library of Congress be able to stand up and declare that they preempt an auction bid because our nation's government values that art so much that it will provide the institution the funds and use this method to protect our heritage. I know, I know. You can all stop laughing now. Sad, isn't it?

Moving on to lot 145, an image by Paul Miot (or at least attributed to him) of an Easter Island statue (a small one) aboard the H.M.S. Topaze, sold to a South American collector for an Easter Island statue size price tag: 29,000 euro or nearly 36,000 euro with the buyer's premium (over $51,500).

Nadar's Hermaphrodite close-up sold to a single commission bid for a 35,000 euro hammer price. With buyer's premium the total came to over 43,000 euro, or over $62,000. American collector Michael Mattis told me later that he had purchased the piece, which was certainly the finest such print to come on the market in many years. Other prints have been rather poor examples.

With the buyer's premium the sale totaled just over 1,430,000 euro or $2,061,000 with only 17% going unsold (or bought in). It really didn't even seem like that many unsold, because most were scattered through out rather than coming in a long run. Except for a six-lot run from 117-122, most unsolds were simply ones and twos amidst the sold lots. Interestingly, 35% of the total sales came from just three six-figure lots.

I am happy for my friend Pierre Marc, and glad I could help out a bit, walking away with 11 lots for myself and clients.