Issue #206  9/5/2014
Bizarre Enghien Photography Auction Weirds Me Out, But Still Brings in Nearly $1.9 Million

By Alex Novak

I have gone to hundreds of auctions, but none of them were as strange as the one at Enghien. Looking over the material online before I left for Paris, I was highly impressed. Many of the prints looked rich and dark on the Internet, and there were some major photos and interesting group lots. They all seemed reasonably estimated. In fact some lots looked incredibly cheap. It was an event that convinced me to come to Paris this summer in fact.

Enghien auction room during Man Ray bidding (photo courtesy David Guiraud)
Enghien auction room during Man Ray bidding (photo courtesy David Guiraud)

Unfortunately what I found was not quite so positive a picture. My first inkling that things would not be what they seemed came from several French dealer friends who warned me that the prints were part of the estate of Georges Aboucaya, who was a Saint Ouen flea market dealer known for picking up large lots of left-over prints. I recognized the name even though I had no direct dealing with him myself.

The expert for the Enghien auction was Yves di Maria. Yves had been a long-time Paris photo dealer with his brother before they parted company. He first had a gallery in the Marais, but then took to being the expert for a number of French auction houses. He was the expert during the Le Gray sale where—briefly at least—a world record was established for a 19th-century photograph when Gustave Le Gray's "Bateaux Quittant le Port du Havre" sold for just under $1.3 million.

I have always liked Yves and generally have found him to be honest and knowledgeable, but this auction had me questioning my judgment. Perhaps, as he himself said, the estate's need to sell quickly in the face of taxes forced a too hasty auction, which could not be prepared for properly. However, I found too many mistakes and the reproductions consistently favored the auction house, and in major ways, in my opinion.

It started with the heavily Photoshopped images up on the auction website and in the printed catalogue, and then with the previews in Paris itself. Usually the Paris previews are held in a spacious apartment that Yves maintains. This time it was held in a single small room across the street from his apartment where as many as 16 people would find themselves squashed together trying to look at the material in difficult circumstances and only over a very short period of time. I spent two preview sessions like this and over eight hours in that little space.

Yves and his wife Agnes were as accommodating and pleasant as they could be under the circumstances, but to say that it was difficult to see nearly 600 lots--many, if not most with multiple images--is an understatement. With over 1,500 images to view, this was a serious challenge. Yes, you could go out later to Enghien-les-Bains to preview the sale (and I did as well, adding another three hours to my previewing time), but a lot of the Parisians preferred to preview earlier and in more "privacy", which was in short demand with this auction. By the way, no magnifying loop or decent light was available at the Paris preview.

Copy of Man Ray's Tears from auction illustration
Copy of Man Ray's Tears from auction illustration

After the first appointment, I came back with my own loop to check things. The first thing I looked at under the loop was the "Man Ray" of Tears. It was a large blowup of maybe his most expensive and important work. Only problem was that it was a simple copy from a book, and I believe probably done in the 1950s or later.

As Sotheby's expert Simone Klein pointed out to me and others, there is the photographer's name and the title set in type below the image, just as it is in a book. Interestingly enough this line of type was not shown in either the catalogue, or online. Under the loop you could easily see the half-tone dot screen that indicates that this was copied from a book. The description for the lot indicates dates for when the image was made and published, but gives no such information for this actual piece in the auction. This copy photo had gone through intense conservation, removing mold marks as best as possible; however, spotting from the mold as well as blue staining from something else that appeared to have been spilled on the photograph still marked the image here (although virtually absent from the catalogue and website illustration, as you can see at the right). More importantly, this was a mere later copy that had nothing to connect it to Man Ray himself that I am aware of, except that it was a copy of one of his images from a book.

So the question is: Why do you put essentially something that probably should have been thrown in the trash in a respectable auction? The estimate of 4,000-6,000 euros was inappropriate either way. If this were a copy, it was essentially worthless in my opinion. If it were a print made by Man Ray from his negative, it would be worth perhaps two million or more. After all, one cropped version in a small print was supposedly the first photograph to sell privately for over $1 million many years ago. When I asked Yves this question, he merely shrugged. The catalogue description was a master of auction obfuscation. Given the French legal system, I doubt a winning bidder would be able to do much in the French courts.

So what happened to the piece at the auction? You'll have to read down further just a bit to find out.

The Man Ray wasn't the only lot that was problematic. Here's what I said before the sale:

"The huge sale at Enghien-les-Bains with nearly 600 lots that looks so good online and in the catalogue will prove disappointing to the extreme for those who don't preview the work--now something nearly impossible since you can only preview with the general public going forward (no private appointments). What look like beautiful dark, rich purple prints are mostly in reality washed-out yellow prints with many other condition issues."

"Many of the Atgets and Le Grays are a true mess. The daguerreotypes are mostly badly cleaned, scratched and resealed. Most images simply don't look like the catalogue and Internet images at all. I fear many will buy through the Internet and phone without seeing them. Just beware. The only truly great 19th-century image for me is the Bayard sculpture, and even that one has slight surface issues and will go very high. The color and tones at least on this one are very good."

Most of the auction room was empty, but, of course, we all sat at the very back of the room.  From left to right sitting at the back is the author, and French dealers Frederic Hoch, Sebastien Lemagnen, Bruno Tartarin and Serge Kakou.  Man sitting in front of us is Alexandre Dupouy (Larme d'Eros).  The room was nearly empty for much of the sale, except for our group up against the back wall. (photo courtesy of Philippe Jacquier, Galerie Lumière des Roses)
Most of the auction room was empty, but, of course, we all sat at the very back of the room. From left to right sitting at the back is the author, and French dealers Frederic Hoch, Sebastien Lemagnen, Bruno Tartarin and Serge Kakou. Man sitting in front of us is Alexandre Dupouy (Larme d'Eros). The room was nearly empty for much of the sale, except for our group up against the back wall. (photo courtesy of Philippe Jacquier, Galerie Lumière des Roses)

The 20th-century material had problems too. As I said in discussing some of the 20th-century images:

"The Lartigues are not vintage (1910-13) in my opinion, but are from about the 1930s-40s; still a reasonable deal if someone doesn't bid them up like they are vintage (note: they stayed reasonable, and went to a phone bidder). The documentation on the "Duchamp" photograms is rather weak. These rather small photos were probably made in the 1950s, maybe by Duchamp, maybe not (note: the lot went unsold). The Moholy-Nagy composition has a piece of old wrinkled plastic glued over it. A real mess unfortunately. (Note: The auction house later corrected its own catalogue description from silver gelatin photomontage to "vintage printed paper collage", but, of course, you had to be at the auction to get this and other corrections.) The Blumenthal Dictator has major damage at the lower left of the image. Too bad. A great vintage image though."

"Yellowing, spotting, creases, tears, washed-out prints. You will be disappointed if you make the trip, and even more disappointed if you don't and bid on these photos sight unseen. Just a warning."

When I talked with fellow dealer James Hyman about the general condition of the Atgets, he laughed since he had managed to preview those privately the week before. We both agreed that the one benefit was that the auction house had put most of them in a three-ring binder that you could flip through quickly. Most were mediocre and/or over-estimated. Some of the bidding started though well below the estimates, although only those in the room or on the phone knew that apparently. It did allow you to buy some of the better images at a more realistic price.

So with all these serious issues how did the auction actually do then? Ironically, Enghien did pretty well overall at over 1,387,216 euro, or about $1.9 million. Some of the big New York and London auctions would have often liked to bring in that total. The sold rate was just under 80%--also reasonably good in comparison to American or London auctions.

As I note above and below, I felt that this auction was loaded with mediocre and problem photographs, along with some very worthwhile and decent material. Despite that, the auction had a good day with most lots selling, although quite a few sold well under estimates and some sold after the auction (I bought four lots myself afterwards). Not surprisingly, the phones and Internet bidders went after the bad lots like piranhas to a slaughtered pig, while the rest of us sat on our hands. One might say that is a typical scenario for an auction: buyer beware. But this auction made that admonition a necessity.

To complicate things, Paris was snarled in a train and RER strike, and the taxis had taken to blockading the airports over Uber's impact on their business, as they did all over Europe that week. French TV and the press showed video and pictures of stranded passengers actually dragging their luggage miles to and from the airport. Many who had planned to fly in to preview last minute were just out of luck. More than a few dealers called me for advice on pieces, which I tried to give as best as I could. In fact, I was highly concerned myself about getting to Enghien-les-Bains, which is about ten miles north of Paris. It is on a train line that was included in the strike/slowdown, but fortunately it was not very affected at all as it turned out, although things were a mess at the Gare du Nord station itself.

A view of the lovely lake, the casino and restaurant (photo courtesy and copyright Office de Tourisme Enghien-les-Bains)
A view of the lovely lake, the casino and restaurant (photo courtesy and copyright Office de Tourisme Enghien-les-Bains)

Just 20 minutes north of Paris by train, Enghien-les-Bains is actually a lovely little town with a nearby park, lake and casino. The best restaurant in town is actually on the lake (Pavillon du Lac), and a group of us dined together there before the auction. At least one dealer joked that our chances for a good result from spending our money might be better over at the casino across the lake.

Besides those of us in the room, at least a few major dealers had previewed earlier, including Jean-Claude Vrain (Paris), Hans Kraus (NYC) and James Hyman (London), who were all on the phone during some of the auction. Add on New York City dealer Daniel Wolf, who had not previewed in person but told me in an email that he couldn't "believe prices...cheaper than Wagstaff days." Well not exactly, unless Daniel was confusing francs and euros, although there were bargains if you really dug through the material. Wolf had picked up a group of Blanquart-Evrard prints here, which he correctly points out continue to be some of the great bargains of 19th-century photography, but are also often difficult to sell despite their importance.

One note on the auctioneer himself, Laurent Belaisch, who was also a partner in the auction company (Goxe-Belaisch): he was at times funny and at other times quite frustrating. His pace and sense of humor saved this very long auction from devolving into a rather boring affair, and he got very good results for the estate. However, before the sale, Yves di Maria had told me and others that the material would be sold no matter what, and certainly implied there would be no reserves. The auctioneer took his cue from many a Paris auction where some of the bids against you appeared to be purely out of thin air. Even though he would sometimes drop the bid level when no bids materialized, he would then continuously bid you back up despite no opposition. Sometimes a bidder would be jumped a level from their bid. It was annoying and I often broke off bidding because of it. Likewise some of the staff would bid as if there were a competing commission bid left with them. Apparently a lot of the time there were no such bids, as later results would show. The auctioneer was also very unclear about what had sold or not.

French dealer Bruno Tartarin and I took to berating, complaining and joking about all this loudly to the auctioneer, who, I will say, took our jabs with good humor and often turned them right around at us. New York dealer Hans Kraus, who was on a phone, told me later that he was highly entertained by all this banter.

The people at the auction house were extremely helpful, courteous and always pleasant. I have to admit that I have few complaints about the auction house itself, just with the material and how it was reproduced and presented.

Le Gray, Pont du Carousel.  The white scum and all-over spotting can barely be seen in this reproduction used by the auction.
Le Gray, Pont du Carousel. The white scum and all-over spotting can barely be seen in this reproduction used by the auction.

With nearly 600 lots in the sale, I have to generally limit this article to those lots that hammered for at least 15,000 euros, or about $25,000 with currency conversion and buyer's premium. Here is a report on the results from most of the top lots in the first day's sale:

--The Le Gray of Pont du Carrousel sold for 22,500 euro (hammer prices on all these so you need to add the 25% premium to these numbers and dollar conversion; figure about 1.75 x hammer). Five phones and the Internet battled it out for the dubious attempt to fix all the problems with this otherwise reasonably well toned print. It was spotted all over and had a white scum likely to be mold over the sides of the print. Bonne chance! If conservation doesn't work out, you just lost about a $42,000 gamble.

--The Charles Marville, lot 38, was a beautiful print but unmounted. I went after it earlier, up to 7,000, but then the phones and Serge Kakou battled it up to a steep 18,000 euro-hammer price. Score another expensive piece to the phone, but at least it was a good one.

--Le Gray's marine study of clouds (lot 183) became a small tempest among several phone bidders and Frederic Hoch in the room bidding for another dealer. The photo had a series of major scratches over the face of it, and it wasn't as rich as in the catalogue; but that didn't stop one of the phones from taking it at 17,000 euros (plus premium, of course). That was actually not a bad price for this image, despite the flaws.

--The Bisson daguerreotypes of medical maladies all sold well over their estimates, as they were expected to, despite some with condition issues. I was surprised though that none of the French museums was there to fight for them and/or to preempt them. These are quite rare. The real action on the group was over lot 237, a great if slightly revolting image, which sold to a persistent phone over first Hoch's efforts and then later that of Sebastien Lemagnen of Antiq-Photo. Final hammer price: 26,000 euros, or a little over $45,000.

Some of the worst lots did buy in, like a Le Gray seascape, lot 184, which was estimated at 25,000-30,000 euro, plus 25% premium. It had about a five-inch closed tear, had been mounted on a late 1880s board to conceal the tear, etc., had tons of scratches on the surface, and was not stamped. Why it was in the sale for such a high estimate is beyond me.

Here are the big lot results on the second day (all are hammer prices, and you have to add 25%; for total dollar amounts including premium, multiply the hammer prices in euros by 1.75 or so):

--Alexis Gouin's lovely color stereo dag of a seated woman showing her legs and lower anatomy led off the day's auction. Lot 284 was one of the few beautiful stereo daguerreotypes in the sale in very good condition. It went to a phone for 13,000 euro over the Internet bidders. That's over $22,000. It seems like these good nude stereos go for a lot more in Europe than they do in the U.S.

Hippolyte Bayard's lovely study of sculpture
Hippolyte Bayard's lovely study of sculpture

--The huge group of Baldus paper negatives of architectural decorations for the Louvre (519 negatives in all!) sold to the Internet for a mere 38,000 euros, which was a real bargain. The bidder had to fight off the phone and a commission bid. The only drawback to the group was that there were no big building images, which were missing from the group. Still it was an incredible bargain, and I wish I had the funds to have bid on it.

--Paris expert Serge Kakou had to battle off two phones to take the very beautiful and probably unique print by Hippolyte Bayard of sculptures for a whopping 26,000 euros, plus premium.

--The William Bradford Arctic Regions sold to a British book dealer on the phone for 70,000 euros over another phone bidder. The book has reportedly been put on the dealer's website on offer for 150,000 pounds sterling, or about $250,000. Considering the just so-so condition of the album, I think that price is very high.

--The wonderful Italian album (lot 409) became a battle for two phones. One won at 18,000 euro, or 10,000 more than the low estimate, but still worth it for this album, which had some just drop-dead prints--an exception in this auction.

--The Constantine album of Athens (lot 428) also sold for much more than its estimate at 17,000 euro to dealer Bruno Tartarin.

A group of us tried to buy the first group lot of Teynards (lot 443), but it went out of sight to a phone at 33,000 euros, against an estimate of 14,000-15,000. For me, it was the only worthwhile one of the three groups. Again, this was a sale where you had to be there in person, but even then you could get blown out of the water.

Then came the blackout. The entire town of Enghien-les-Bains was without power for over an hour and a half. We waited in the sweltering heat of an unair-conditioned room, while the auction house muttered about having to postpone the rest of the auction until Sunday! Finally the power came back on. We found out that the power had gone out in the entire town of Enghien-les-Bains for over 1-1/2 hours. They were setting up for a concert near the lake, and apparently the sound engineers did something very wrong with the electrical power.

When the auction resumed, there were a few less bidders in the room, whose numbers got smaller and smaller as the auction went on. Some of the Internet bidders also undoubtedly lost patience.

The group of Camera Work gravures was fairly nice and reasonably estimated (1,600-1,800 euros). The phone got it over my own underbid at 9,000 euro.

But now we come to the big mess that expert Yves di Maria listed as a Man Ray, Tears. Clearly a copy print from a book--and in bad condition to boot. So what did this piece of junk fetch here at this auction? Would you believe 48,000 euros as a hammer price, or well over $80,000 to an apparently ecstatic American on the phone?! The phone bidder had to fight off other phones and an under-bidder in the room, which was Sebastien Lemagnen again. When I asked Sebastien why he had bid so high on such an obvious copy print, he told me that it wasn't his own bid, but for another person who had told him to bid for him. He didn't indicate whether or not his bidder actually saw the print in person or not, nor did he seem to care. If you bought this print, my genuine apologies and sympathies. I do not mean to demean you, just to take the auction to task for putting this work up in such a way.

Moholy-Nagy collage with plastic over the art
Moholy-Nagy collage with plastic over the art

On to the next lot with problems, the very dubious Moholy-Nagy Composition. Even if it were really by Moholy, it had a piece of wrinkled up old plastic sheeting glued over the top of the art, which would be a conservator's nightmare. It still went for 13,500 euros to another phone versus a clearly disappointed young woman in the room. I wondered if she (and the phone bidder) ever bothered to preview the piece carefully. One dealer who is a Moholy expert expressed serious doubts to me before the auction that it was even by Moholy. Interestingly enough, when I recently checked the auction house results, this lot was showing as "unsold". I suspect that the bidder may have backed out on this one once they realized what they had.

Then there was the Erwin Blumenfeld of the "Dictator". This at least seemed to be what it was described as: a vintage piece of an important image. The only problem was the heavy damage to the entire bottom left section of the print. Whoever bought the print will have to live with much of this damage in my opinion. While it might be improved by conservation, I don't believe you will ever get rid of all of its problems, although the photo might be helped considerably. Again, three phones battled it out, and again an American phone "won" the battle at 42,500 euros. That's a lot of money for a very damaged Blumenfeld, although a Blumenfeld fashion image (Manina, Paris) sold in London at Phillips in their May 8th sale for over $136,000.

Personally, I thought the most interesting lots in the sale (with money no object) included:

--The Hippolyte Bayard of statuary, which was probably unique. It was also a rich dark superb print (lot 319).
--The group of Baldus negatives (lot 313).
--The Charles Marville street scene (lot 38).
--The Alexis Gouin dag stereo of Augustine (lot 284, which was, for me, the best of the dag stereo views and the most beautiful).
--The Bisson daguerreotype of the man with a growth on his face (lot 237). Grotesque, but quite rare and amazing in its way.
--The studies of the nervous system from 1870 (lot 242), which was a rare early work with albumen prints (lot 242).
-- The Italian album (lot 409) with its very rich and striking prints.
--The Erwin Blumenfeld of "The Dictator" (lot 520) even though, as I note, it was terribly damaged.
--Not as "important", but I still loved the Marconi of the entwined female nudes bending over the large globe-like ball (lot 310).
--The Brassai of Picasso "pretending" to be a painter with Jean Marais as his model for a female nude (lot 555). This was the only one of those mentioned that I wound up purchasing for my own inventory. I was lucky because many of my potential competitors for this image and other Brassai's did not contend for various reasons, including the blackout delay.

Most of these were pretty expensive admittedly. There were only a few of these things that were indeed "steals" here. I loved some other work too, but much of it was terribly damaged. One "small" photo of three musicians that I liked a lot was lot 361. It sold to the Internet for a mere 100 euros before I could get a bid in.

For the group who had stuck around until the bitter end, the auction house offered glasses of champagne to the bidders and staff alike, which was a nice touch.

After the auction, I hitched a ride back to the Marais with gallerist and auction expert David Guiraud and his mother. David's gallery--also in the Marais--is: Galerie David Guiraud, 5 rue du Perche, 75003 Paris; phone: +33 (0)1 42 71 78 62; mobile: +33 (0)615-884-4897; email: dgphotographies@orange.fr.

Wall decoration at Verre Luisant
Wall decoration at Verre Luisant

I got back at 9:30 pm after starting out a 9:30 am, near exhausted from the heat and a very long day, and pretty hungry.

I went over to Verre Luisant to get a bite, which is a very good local bistrot just across the way from the apartment that I was renting in the Marais. Many, if not most of the restaurants here are tourist-level places—OK but not great. Verre Luisant is one of the better exceptions. The specials are always tasty and interesting, the general menu and food very good indeed, the prices reasonable for Paris, and the service—although often frantic—has always been friendly. And even my friend Arnaud Delas would like it, since the wait people are almost always smiling.

During the warm months, Cedric and the rest of the wait staff have to handle up to 80 people, usually with only two people. The kitchen likewise was made up of a staff of only two. It was astonishing to watch these groups in motion. Despite the obvious pressures, the two groups—kitchen and wait people—did an amazing job and with grace and good humor. It is one of the few places in the Marais where you will hear more French than anything else. Clearly the locals know that this is their little gem of a place. Try the drinks, try the specials, try the burgers, try the killer desserts, try the Sunday "Le Brunch", just go and enjoy yourselves. Verre Luisant is at 64, rue de la Verrerie in the 4th arrondissement (Phone: +33 (0) 1-42-72-67-63).

Following the publication of the Newsletter article on 9/5/2014, entitled "Bizarre Enghien Photography Auction Weirds Me Out, But Still Brings in Nearly $1.9 Million" we received this right of reply from Yves de Maria that we are publishing entirely and as we received it, according to French law.