Issue #3  6/25/1999
Notes From The French Auctions

As I've mentioned in previous newsletters, great original source material seems to be drying up. The French auctions in Paris and Chartres were just not as exciting this year, and this month in particular, as they've been in the past. The dramatic images and good albums were simply missing.

That doesn't mean that there was nothing to buy, just that buyers had to be selective and that hundred thousand-dollar images were simply no where in sight. So far this year images haven't quite hit the $20,000 mark, a far cry from the past few years when Nadar's Clown Mime hit over $210,000 and Le Grays went for over $100,000.

What does this mean to the American market? Prices are going up on European master works and on even lower end material that most dealers buy in the form of albums. I didn't see a decent tissue stereo in the ten days that I spent in France looking over thousands of images at over two dozen dealers and four auctions. And dags were harder to come by, less interesting and decidedly more expensive. Good salt prints were scarce and decent vintage 20th century material even scarcer.

There were few steals and if you didn't act fast they were bought up by another French dealer and offered at double the price. I actually found several French dealers who had bought major groups of photographs in the U.S.A. to market in Europe and then back to the States.

Before I get to the auctions themselves, I should mention the role of the experts and how the French auctions differ from the British and American auctions. Experts in France are freelancers who work with the house to bring in consignments and help to stir up buyers for those consignments. They work on a straight commission (usually 5%) of anything that sells (hammer price, which is the sales price before the buyer premium is added).

Many Paris sales are viewed at Drouot Richelieu, a large building honeycombed with display rooms. Viewing is usually only the day before and the morning of the auction. Most auctions are in the afternoon in the same room as the viewing, but then display units have been moved out and chairs moved in. The bidding is generally a bit quicker than in other markets.

After your first successful bids, you are expected to give the house a signed blank check for your bids and then you are given a paddle number. I sometimes wonder what exactly would happen if someone were to wander away with these checks. But the French are a very honest lot.

And there are a few other differences as well. When it comes to reserves, the French auctions don't play by the American/English auction rules. In France, a reserve can be at less than 50% of the low estimate or even higher than the low estimate. In fact it can be any amount! Although in practice most auction houses in France, use the same system as American and London auctions. And bidders often jump increments that are either higher or lower than you would expect, although this practice can and does lead to controversy. At this June's auctions, an outright fight nearly broke out between dealers at Millon & Associates sale. And, finally, the premium is a shade below 11%.

Now to the auctions. I should note that all prices quoted are the hammer price, excluding buyer's premium, and that the French Franc was about six to the dollar. The first group of photographs and photo books came up on Thursday at an unheralded small book sale. With only about 20 lots of largely so-so albums being offered, the real target of most of the dealers in the room was a lot of 16 early large-format Baldus salt prints.

About 11 were saleable, seven good and three excellent. The best prints were purple-tinged and extremely interesting and rare views from the south of France. Of course, there were the normal views of the Louvre, the Tuilleries and monuments.

That lot sold to dealer and expert at Chartres and Pescheteau-Badin auctions, Marc Pagneux, for 145,000 FF, plus premium, a great value considering how early these prints were.

The first of the actual photographic auctions was Millon & Associates with Viviane Esders as expert. The auction consisted of a mix of largely 20th century material, Viviane's area of expertise. While there were no blockbusters, some wonderful and quirky prints could be had for reasonable prices.

The major items were a group of Man Ray's. The first was a late printed Rayograph signed and dated 1959. It appeared to be a print made for reproduction and sold for 80,000 FF, plus premium.

American dealer Alex Novak (yes, moi) bought the next Man Ray, signed and dated 1944 and anotated 'detrui te' at the bottom of the photograph. The image has been reproduced and most observers felt this was the best of the Man Ray's offered for sale.

Two of the other Man Ray lots were bought in and a last lot, one of the 'late' prints done after Man Ray died, sold for about $300--a tribute to collector Werner Bokelberg, who blew the whistle on 'fake' Man Rays. Viviane was very honest and up front about this print.

The house experienced its one real disappointment when one of its major lots, attributed to Henri-Victor Regnault, failed to attract a buyer. It was a poor print with staining, yellowing and irregular fading. Otherwise there would have been a lot more interest. But two other important vintage prints by Ilsa Bing found homes at around $5,000 U.S. per print, including the premium.

Viviane, by the way, is a joy to work with and is very helpful and supportive of her sellers and buyers.

Also I should note that New York City photo dealer, Patricia Laligant helped me with my bidding at this house. Patricia always has some some interesting prints and you should visit her web site at:

http://www.laligant-photography.com/ .

She has some very nice 20s-30s French material, including Atget, Krull, Kollar, etc.

The next sale-- Beaussant Lefevre with Pierre Marc Richard as expert-- was the auction that most had come to see. The Charles Marville Le Bois de Boulogne photographs were the big draw, but plenty of other intriguing buys could be made too.

A Henri Cartier-Bresson and two very large Robert Doisneau prints brought a lot of interest and hammer prices of 20,000 FF, 23,500 FF and 17,000 FF respectively. Not bad, considering that none of the prints had been signed, but seemed to be period prints from the 1950s.

A playful and exceedingly rare George Melies print of his set of Conte de la Grand-mere et Reve de l'enfant was bought in partnership by American dealers Charles Nes and Alex Novak (moi, again). Reproduced in the catalog, 'Melies' by the C.N.P., this 1908 cabinet card by one of the true pioneers of film is a part of film archeology. The item more than doubled the high estimate.

The real action for the afternoon was focused on the Marvilles, which were a minefield when it came to print quality. I walked away with six of the Marvilles outright and one in partnership, again with Charles Nes. The images included one of the big (by franc or dollar amount) prints of the day, as I wrested the Route de Suresnes from a persistent phone bidder for more than double the high estimate.

To me that image was the single most beautiful of the sale, although two others attracted my attention as well. The team of Novak and Nes found itself underbidding the cover lot (Kiosque Imperial) and the following lot (Ruisseau sous bois), which topped 63,000 FF hammer price. If I had any regrets, it was in not bidding up the cover lot more. Charles and I bought the image of the restaurant, which was probably in the best condition of any print in the sale.

Charles Nes also bought several of the Marvilles on his own. His bidding style (and 100-Franc tip) kept the pit man awake, often bidding with one twitch of a finger below his chair.

India Dhargalkar, formerly of Christie's South Kensington, also bid successfully for a client on a number of good lots, although she had to bow to the phone and the room on the very top lots.

And English-based dealer Robert Hershkowitz walked away with a nice print of a fountain.

But many prints in the sale, contrary to their description ("prints of extraordinary richness of color and in a superb state of conservation") were pale, pitted in a few cases and lightly spotted particularly in the sky and highlight areas. Many of these lesser pieces went to French dealers and collectors apparently looking for bargains. This was a sale to preview--and carefully. Even some of the top lots had minor problems. But the material is rare with most images only existing in French institutions.

French dealer Sylvain Calvier had found and consigned this rarity. I had dinner with Sylvain a few nights later at l'Excuse, a restaurant with no excuses at all, just beautifully prepared food and marvelous service. The proprietor Jean-Denis Barbet was a terrific host. Bill Clinton and the French Minister of Finance have both eaten here. This auction's proceeds should let Sylvain eat as well as his Minister for the foreseeable future.

The only disappointment at Beaussant came shortly after the Marvilles, when an early half-plate daguerreotype of Romania (or Bulgaria) failed to find a buyer. The low estimate was 150,000 FF and the buy-in stopped at 110,000 FF. London dealer Daniella Dangoor noted, with tongue in cheek, that there wasn't much of a photo market in Romania or Bulgaria these days.

The next lot of big interest provided the most humor for the day, when Nes and Novak, who had been partnering and bidding together for most of the day, encountered a lot that both had to go after individually: a rich group of small Desire Charnays including a self portrait. The auction house was confused to say the least. After the dust settled, Novak had won the lot, with Nes, who was bidding for a client, the underbidder.

Chartres was a week late and a dollar short. The house postponed the sale until June 12 from its original June 7 date, a full week later than the other two major auctions.

According to a number of French sources, Marc Pagneux, the expert, is rumored to prefer working with a Paris auction house. He has started to handle the Paris-based Pescheteau-Badin sales and has a very active and attractive gallery close to Drouot Richelieu, a great location and a 'must' stop on any photography collector/dealer itinerary. Again the word on the street is that most of the auction items in the Chartres sale were found by the house itself, a very strange thing in France, where the expert is expected to bring in the items.

Many French dealers that I talked to found the situation sad, because Chartres is an institution. One can only hope the house will work things out with Pagneaux and resolve its problems soon.

In any case, the high point of the Chartres auction for me was lunch with French dealers Bruno Tartarin, private sales only, and Arnaud Delas of the Hypnos Gallery, Paris. We ate at the elegant La Truie Qui File, which is the finest restaurant in Chartres, and the best one that I have personally eaten at in France. Bravo! And thank you, Bruno and Arnaud. You are amiable and entertaining hosts. Another high point of Chartres is a visit to the wonderful Cathedral, which unfortunately I missed this time around.

In any case the auction itself settled down to basically three major lots out of fewer than a hundred (including 34 added after the catalog came out). Before getting to the highlights, though, I should mention the two nearly identical Brassai prints of the Eiffel Tower at night dating to the 1950s that brought 8,000 and 11500 FF hammer prices, respectively-- about three to four times the estimate.

The first major lot was a large group of photographs and plans of Le Mont Saint Michael, some dating from as early as 1863. The lot, with over a hundred photographs, went for 22,000 FF. Not much excitement though.

Likewise the George Royer group. With about 500 pieces, including 400 silver prints, three autochromes and the rest glass negatives, the lot brought 26,000 FF against a pre-sale high estimate of only 5,000 FF. Billed as an Atget look-alike (but don't you believe it!), the lot--with the exception of about 30 prints or so--was a bit boring and hardly warranted the promotion.

Le Gray provided the most excitement of the sale. His massive (nearly three foot long) panorama of Paris was a decent, if not stunning, print. The left side was a bit lighter than the right, but it still made an impressive piece. After a brief spate of bidding the action took place primarily with one persistent phone bidder and Pagneux, who stonily looked out into space while bidding on his own commission. At 86,000 FF he gave it up to the phone bidder.

On June 28, Camels, Chambre, Cohen held a sale of modern art and some important 20th century photography, including interesting works by Man Ray, Raul Ubac, Dora Maar, Germaine Krull, Nic Aluf, Andre Kertesz, Frederick Sommer and others. About 47% sold at about 870,000 FF (hammer) or at over $150,000 with the buyers' premiums.

The highlight of the auction was clearly a 1920 photograph by Man Ray of his studio and the work called "Dancer", which sold for well over estimate at 275,000 FF (about $44,000), making it, I believe, the highest priced single photographic item to sell in a Paris auction this year. The group of PLM prints by Baldus sold in Lyon rather than Paris. A 1934 Man Ray portrait of Giorgio de Chirico also brought a good price of 115,000 FF. Still another Man Ray, a 1923 print of Louis Aragon with a ball of light, brought 85,000 FF.

The other "big" print of the sale was the fascinating and very rare image by Nic Aluf of "Sophie Taeuber Arp derriere sa tete Dada," which sold for 140,000 FF against a pre-sale estimated range of 60,000-80,000 FF.

But condition did appear to be a problem on a few lots, although some of the images, particularly the wonderful Dora Maar (sold for a mere 19,000 FF) and the Raul Ubac (unsold yet, but damaged) looked very impressive and tempting.

David Fleiss is the very helpful expert here, and he and his father maintain a popular gallery in Paris.