Issue #189  2/28/2012
French Police Investigate Possible Forgery of 19th-Century Photographs Auctioned At Artcurial Deauville

By Alex Novak

Several sources, including the Art Newspaper and numerous blogs and internet publications, have been reporting on a French police investigation of a possible forgery of early French photographs auctioned off at the end of last March at the auction house, Artcurial Deauville. Commandant Philippe Huet told the newspaper that there is an investigation against "persons unknown" for alleged faking but could not comment further.

Since I have been quoted in the article by the Art Newspaper and that paper has chosen to editorialize the situation incorrectly in my opinion, I will report what I can here, especially in light of the fact that the Art Newspaper has so far refused to publish my complaint about its editorializing or to correct its false premise of some kind of dealer cover-up, which is just nonsense.

For the record, as the Art Newspaper's writer (and former editor) Georgina Adam notes, I did not buy or bid in this auction and have no horse in this race, so to speak. My observations are just that.

An auction was held on March 29, 2011 in Deauville, France, of what was touted as the "primitive photographs" of Charles-Edouard de Crespy Le Prince. The auction had a fair amount of bidding action associated with the 83 lots of "calotype" paper negatives and positives of rocks and trees. In fact, some 554,200 euro was taken in--about three-quarters of a million dollars--for 185 positive salt prints and 73 paper negatives. Some lots sold for ten times the estimates. Many leading French and American dealers and collectors were in attendance or on the phone for the auction, although not all were there to bid apparently. Many later complained that the material had too many issues that led them to consider the photographs inauthentic. More on that later.

Crespy-Le Prince (1784-1850) was a minor painter and lithographer (the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Museum in Montmorency has one of his works). A hand-written day and month on one of the images were extrapolated to date the photographs to 1848. Now even that handwriting is being called into question, as well as the authorship and dating of this work. The initials "CLP" on some of the prints allowed the auction house to build on the story of this newly discovered calotypist with what seems like today very meager proof indeed.

The outside independent expert for the auction was Gregory Leroy, who had been the photography auction expert at Artcurial's Paris location and worked with Sotheby's Paris more recently. Leroy told me last June that, as a part of his research, he had shown the work to both Sylvie Aubernas and Patrick Lamotte, respectively the chief photography curator and head photo conservator at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. Leroy and Artcurial also showed the work after the auction to Malcolm Daniel, head photography curator at the New York Metropolitan Museum. Each had indicated, according to Leroy and Artcurial in court documents, that the work might not be wrong for the period, although, admittedly, they certainly did not have an opportunity to do a thorough research of these images at that time and, bizarrely, that might even have been against French law, reportedly because an auction house could not submit such work to experts for an official opinion without the agreement of the consignors prior to the auction.

Leroy said he tried his best to vet the body of work prior to the auction, but was having second thoughts after so many parties were questioning the authenticity of the work. Without definitive proof though, he felt stymied.

In a further twist, the curators and conservator cited claim today not to have validated the authenticity of the work to Leroy. And a German publication notes that art and photo dealer Daniel Blau was more straight-forward about his doubts about the work, claiming that when shown the works at TEFAF Maastricht just weeks before the sale, Blau had told Leroy to have them thoroughly tested before putting them up for auction because he felt that they were no more than 40-50 years old and likely to have been made even more recently than that.

Apparently more substantive proof was on its way, given that Leroy reportedly filed a complaint with the police in January. "This seems to have been a carefully prepared swindle, we were all taken in," he is quoted in the Art Newspaper. He also told the paper that he "spent 140,000 euros reimbursing three of the main buyers, and I have had nothing back so far." At least another dealer indicated that Leroy had promised them their money, but that funds had not yet been sent. Leroy has told other sources that after he read the report from conservator Paul Messier, he was convinced that the photos were not what they had been claimed to be. The report had been commissioned by a group of buyers in the sale and apparently has also been shared with the French police.

Prior to Leroy's own action, the consignors, Jean Reverdy and Jean-Marie Malzieu, brought a legal action at a local commercial tribunal in December in an attempt to recover 336,000 euros from the auction house for their part of the auction sales, above the reportedly 140,000 euros which they had already received as an advance. The judge did not award the sum. But he did question the auction house's consistency, and in the ruling, he noted that he did not understand why Artcurial Deauville did not immediately cancel the sale once doubts about the photographs were raised. The judge is not the only one who doesn't understand why the auction sale wasn't cancelled. The buyers in the sale also want to know why the sale wasn't cancelled.

The Art Newspaper said it was unsuccessful in its attempts to reach the vendors' lawyers, but quoted the French website Rue89 where one of the consignors said that he had acted in good faith and had bought the photos in an antique shop in the 1990s, paying 10,000 French francs, or less than 2,000 euro. At the same time, Artcurial Deauville and Leroy had always implied that the photographs came from the Crespy-Le Prince family.

Paris book dealer Jean-Claude Vrain told several sources, including the Art Newspaper that: "After the sale I heard there were doubts, and when I received the lots, I immediately thought they were fakes. I have refused to pay, and have made a deposition to the police. It is totally disgraceful that the auction house did not cancel the sale once it was clear there was a problem." Ironically, Vrain is reportedly being sued by the sellers for some of his comments to the French internet press, and one of the websites is being sued apparently as well.

As the previous auctioneer James Fattori reportedly left to join the Piasa auction house in Paris, the new auctioneer replacing him at Artcurial Deauville, Bernard de Reviers, told the Art Newspaper, "This is a complicated case; I cannot comment further while the police investigation is continuing."

Interestingly, Artcurial Deauville is more noted for auctioning race horses than photographs, although its parent company has an auction house in Paris that is more aimed at art and design. With articles about this strange auction appearing now in more mainstream press and even being satrirized in CANARD ENCHAINé, it is a wonder that the parent company doesn't just deal with this issue in a more straightforward way than it has to date. The company shares ownership with the Dassault Group, which is a multi-billion euro French defense and civil aeronautics company, which also owns the newspaper "Le Figaro". This can't be good for that company's overall reputation or business.

Many of the dealers who bid at the sale are waiting on testing results and the police investigation. The photo trade of 19th-century photo dealers and other experts caught this early, as even the Art Newspaper notes. No photos have been resold out of this group to my knowledge.

The reason that this has taken so long to surface is not due to embarrassment or trying to protect the market, as Adam implied at the end of her article. It is simply because key evidence needs to be developed and that takes time, and the French legal system is terribly complicated. One series of tests won't be available until more than a month from now in fact. And, most other photography dealers simply don't deal in 19th-century images and were not aware of this situation.

To me, this is almost a non-story from the dealer side, since it was resolved by the bidders involved very quickly and professionally once the situation was known. However, it remains to be seen how it gets resolved by the auction house and its parent company. But given how this story has spread through the internet and other media, I felt a more balanced report was necessary.

I think it is fair to say that most of those in the photography trade who have seen these photographs and negatives and had a chance to review things more thoroughly do not now believe that these are calotypes from the 19th century. But it is sometimes difficult to prove these kinds of things legally, and the legal process in France takes a longer time than any one wants. In fact, both the auction house and the sellers--despite law suits--are currently in agreement that the photographs in question have not been proved to be fakes under French law. That is what most of the reluctance from dealers involved to be quoted is about, not some made-up conspiracy. As one such dealer told me, "We are still waiting for the denouement." When I asked how that was coming, he said simply, "Slowly." And, according to one German publication, the new director of the auction house Eric Hoyau has agreed with the sellers' French attorney Francois Honnoratas that as long as there is no report by a court-certified expert, the allegation of forgery is not justified--apparently no matter what proofs are made from other sources or what their own "expert" now tells the auction house. This approach certainly doesn't inspire confidence in Artcurial and its other auctions.

Reportedly, the results from the first round of testing might not even be available for public scrutiny, and I am not sure it will provide a "smoking gun", although I am sure it raised many serious issues about these suspect images for numerous reasons, including some of the ones that I note below. The second round of testing, which will approach things from a very different basis, might eventually be made available within the conservation community. If it works, it might provide a very definitive proof, but then that proof would have to be accepted by a French court--not a slam dunk.

While it might be frustrating for some readers, I really don't want to give any more information than necessary to potential counterfeiters. I know that is a double-edge sword, but that is what is in the balance.

But several quick points that can be made about these prints and negatives at the Artcurial Deauville sale: old 19th-century papers accumulate pollution over time that makes the use of them for printing photographs today problematic. The chemical development is interrupted by the pollution and this causes circular spotting patterns (a bit like amoeba) in the old papers. The marks of this pollution are pretty evident in the examples from this auction that I saw when in Paris last summer. My understanding is that might be the case for most such early papers. English conservator Nicolas Burnett has told me that he has done testing of older papers and confirmed that this was his experience as well. Some of this information was published in ROM's April 2011 issue.

Dusan Stulik, senior scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, told me that while this is probably true of stand-alone sheets, there are some papers made for early photographic purposes that still exist in rolls--although their rarity would make it difficult for forgers to find. Most such paper rolls are in institutional hands.

In other words, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to fake 19th-century photographs using 19th-century paper without leaving such evidence of this forgery. According to at least one report, the papers used for the Deauville images were apparently washed in chlorine bleach, an oxidative cleaner, before being used. While silver chloride is used as an element in photography, washing paper with chlorine bleach prior to exposure is a strange--in fact unheard of--technique to have been utilized in 19th-century photography, although it might have been used more recently to try to eliminate some of the built-up pollution contaminants and/or color in the papers--something much more likely.

As a number of observers, including curator Pierre Apraxine, noted in our conversations about this material, the subject matter itself just doesn't jive with a 19th-century style and approach and should raise questions in and of itself. The close cropping and lack of sky did not feel "19th-century". A large body of work was almost always more diverse: the photographer would take photos of his family, workers and chateau. Here the work was only blurry close-ups of trees and rocks with no deviation in subject matter. The fact that Crespy-Le Prince was nearly blind has been used as a rationale for the resulting, almost claustrophobic style; instead I think his partial blindness at the time is one more questionable aspect about the attribution itself.

Some finishing techniques were simply not appropriate for the specific period in question (supposedly 1848). Again, it is better not to note the specifics here, but there were what appear to be many major inconsistencies with photographic work from that period.

Furthermore, the paper chosen was inappropriate for the purpose (too thick and colored) for paper negatives or even positive salt prints. The paper used in the group that came up at the auction in Deauville appeared to be from the 19th century. But it is easy to get blank 19th-century papers and use them in photography without the more specific dating elements of modern photographs, since chemistry is not an integral part of the paper to begin with, as are more modern mass-manufactured papers. It is hard to date the chemistry of such prints in isolation, but perhaps not impossible, according to some conservators. That is a possibility for a future avenue of investigation.

But the inappropriateness of the particular papers in question for photography due to their thickness, coloration and contamination would seem more to have been a serious mistake by modern experimenters limited by their paper resources than one by a 19th-century photographer. Nineteenth-century materials used to make photographs, while somewhat diverse, really did not deviate that far from a norm--at least not as far as the Deauville material did. I have one of the largest and most diverse collections of calotype paper negatives in private hands, and I have never seen the type of papers or range of colors used for this process that were utilized for the Deauville paper "negatives". In fact, most paper negatives are relatively consistent in color and thickness, and quite different than the ones auctioned, which displayed a rainbow of colors on very thick papers. Dusan Stulik seconds my opinion, saying "I do not think that 19th-century artists would use thick or colored paper for negative making, and I only wish we would have their selection of thin negative papers now!"

It is even questionable that the paper negatives were taken directly from life for these and other reasons; several knowledgeable observers feel that it is possible, and even probable, that another technique was used to transfer images to the paper negatives in a darkroom rather than using the paper negative directly in a camera in the field.

Fortunately there have been relatively few fakes or forgeries in the photography trade, unlike painting, prints and sculpture, of which there are billions of dollars in recent examples. The recently uncovered scandal in that part of the art market has apparently been going on for decades and involves some of the top names in the art market including the major auction houses--so much for auction house "expertise". In photography, we seem to have a more responsible group of dealers--at least for the most part--and photographs are difficult to forge without some telltale evidence of the forgery. Detection of most questionable photographs has come fairly quickly.

That doesn't mean though that buyers should not be vigilant. After this event, I actually feel more comfortable with our ability to distinguish any potential modern forgeries from true 19th-century work. But, as dealer Hans Kraus told the Art Newspaper, "It is a salutatory lesson, not to trust catalogues, and to be more careful."