Issue #182  8/5/2011
Le Gray Sale Sets 19th-Century Photo Record--Briefly--At Over $1.3 Million to Texas Oil Man

By Alex Novak

There was even bigger action to come in the Rouillac sale in Vendome, a few hours outside Paris. Auction expert Yves di Maria made it convenient though for most of us who previewed at his apartment in the Marais in Paris, which was a 15 minute walk from my apartment. Looking over most of the Gustave Le Gray's, which were the prime attraction, I could see that this was going to be an interesting auction indeed.

The Le Gray prints came from an album or portfolio that had forced the print mounts to be cut down back in the 1850s. They had gotten a bit dirty and had been sent prior to the cataloging for a simple cleaning. The print quality and tones were generally superb (especially on the top four lots), although there certainly were some weaker and problematic images in the group. Of the top four images, only the "Breaking Wave" had slightly more serious issues. It had what appeared to be an ink mark on the verso that showed through lightly and, in my opinion, would be difficult if not impossible to remove. It also had some old retouch which needed to be reworked, but that was not a serious problem.

Several American dealers and collectors were bidding in the auction--most by phone. Numerous European dealers and collectors were also at the auction and on the phone, including German dealer Daniel Blau. Then there were those "Middle Eastern" bidders, most likely representatives from Qatar, which has again been active in the European markets. Both Blau and I were actually at Art Basel while the auction was going on. I had taken a phone myself, always a difficult thing to do at the very noisy and busy fair.

The auction room itself was like a feudal castle with stone walls and heraldic shields on the walls. Some might say a fitting place for the battle to come.

There was a little action both before and after the Le Gray's. For instance, a very good Spanish album made over 21,000 euros just before the Le Gray lots came up. But the auction excitement was clearly about the Le Gray's, which had reportedly been in the continuous possession of a single family after having been collected by one of Le Gray's contemporaries, Charles Denis Labrousse, an interesting personality himself and a hero of the Crimean War.

The first Le Gray lot was "La Reine Hortense, Yacht de l'Empereur Napoleon III, La Havre", which was a very strong image in a solid print. There are only a handful of prints known of this rare and early marine image. With active bidding it quickly sold for over five times its low estimate at about 155,000 euro with the buyer's premium, or over $223,000, which was actually a very reasonable price.

The next lot was the cover lot. With an "estimation on demand" notation, the dramatic silhouette of the "Bateaux Quittant le Port du Havre" was a sure winner. It is also another early image with about four other prints known. One can quibble about the old retouch that needed to be redone at the top in the cloud area or the scuffing on the back of the mount, but the reality was that this was a superb and magical piece that any 19th-century collector would kill for. It was drop-dead gorgeous. So the battle began. Phones and the rooms were engaged. In the end it was a Houston oil executive, according to the excited auctioneer, who took home this prize at a record-breaking--for a 19th-century photograph, as well as a Le Gray--and mind-numbing 917,000 euro or roughly $1.32 million with the buyer's premium.

OK, it is not Cindy Sherman's prices, but it ain't chopped liver either. It almost seemed natural for a Le Gray to once again be on top of the heap. It had several times in the past held the world auction record for a 19th-century image, even briefly holding the auction record for ANY photograph (at the first Jammes auction at Sotheby's London).

Numerous underbidders were rumored: Russian, French, or Qatari. German dealer Daniel Blau even told me rather disgustedly that HE had been the underbidder, but then it's hard sometimes to tell when Daniel is joking or not. All will provide photography cocktail party fodder for a while.

There were still a few more Le Gray fireworks. Lot 36, which was a very good print of "Le Said, Rade de Cette", sold for well over its modest estimate of 10,000-12,000 euro at about 49,500 euro with premium included. That would make it well over $71,000.

Lot 37, "La Vague Brisée", or the Breaking Wave, has come up several times before at auction. Good copies have sold for about $250,000+. This one sold for a lot more: about 372,000 euro or just over $535,000. Again, the photograph is heading to Houston.

Other Le Gray prints ranged from a mere 7,435 euro up to over 32,000 for the last lot of the "Entrée du port de Brest", which got preempted by the Bibliotheque National. Apparently it was a rare variant. Many of the other images had condition issues of various types, and many were not particularly rare. It does show you the great variability of pricing for Le Gray.