Issue #56  5/2/2003
Breton Sale At Drouot Auction Sets Records For Surrealist Images

The always-controversial André Breton would probably have thoroughly enjoyed the goings on this April as his atelier (studio) went up at auction at the old Drouot auction site in Paris. Breton wrote the Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924. He argued that artists should reject the constraint of reason--that they should let themselves be inspired by dreams and the stream of consciousness. And perhaps a few nightmares thrown in for good measure.

Protestors took to the Internet, the streets in front of Drouot and even the auction rooms themselves. The protesters claimed the collection should have been kept together and accused the French state of neglecting its duty. After filing web petitions to the French government to save the collection and even Breton's cramped apartment in Montmartre as an intact museum that were largely ignored, frustrated protestors set off stink bombs and harassed some collectors. Inside it was occasionally not much better, as some protestors handed out fake 10-euro notes with the legend "your money stinks of the corpse of the poet that you never dared to become". Others yelled and clapped as the auctioneer attempted to sell works. One man interrupted the auctioneer by reading a text by Breton and Leon Trotsky out loud.

It was only because of Mrs. Breton's stubbornness that the sale was taking place in Paris at all. Breton's widow, Elisa, kept the pieces together, barring a few donations to museums, in the hope that the French cultural authorities would one day acquire the lot and open a Museum of Surrealism.

After Elisa's death, it became clear to Aube Elléouët-Breton, Breton's daughter, that the French government would not buy the entire collection, nor keep the apartment as a museum (it was apparently too tiny), so she reluctantly decided to sell it at auction but chose to keep a decidedly French approach. Expert and dealer Marcel Fleiss was an old friend and someone with a long association with Surrealism and Breton. Because of the Fleiss association with the Camels Cohen auction house, it was very natural that the collection would go there and to Drouot.

As late as February, the heirs and the French government were still negotiating for some works to be used as donations in place of inheritance tax payments. In lieu of these death duties, Breton's family has gifted the wall behind his desk as an installation display at the George Pompidou Centre in central Paris. Consisting of shelves, pictures, photographs and many "objets trouvés," it will be the one lasting relic of 42, rue Fontaine.

After the sale, Elléouët-Breton graciously forewent payment on half of the value of the objects that were preempted by French institutions at the sales. These institutions had planned to spend more than 11.8 million euros in one of the largest group purchases ever made by French institutions at a single sale. The Pompidou received a number of photographs and a painting from the sale gratis because of Elléouët-Breton's largess.

As might be expected the event was a spectacle worthy of Breton. Most of Drouot's rooms were taken up by the Camels Cohen Breton sales for nearly two weeks between previews and the actual auctions themselves. More than 50,000 people viewed the 6,249 lots while hundreds of spectators packed the small salerooms during the 21 sessions. Bidding was often wild, with records set for paintings by Magritte, Miro and Arp and several others when state museums stepped in to outbid private buyers. All in all, it was the biggest auction to hit Drouot in over two decades. Estimated to sell for about 30 million euros before the sale, the actual auction netted over 50% more at over 46 million euros.

According to Associated Press, "the most contested part of the sale was a collection of photographs by Man Ray and lesser known photographers." Lesser known indeed! Brassai, Ubac, Bellmer, Cahun, Cartier-Bresson, Duchamp, Freund, Izis, Krull, Klein, Levitt, Maar, Nadar, Platt-Lynes, Styrsky, Weiss, Colomb and Bravo were just some of these "lesser known photographers". Not surprisingly, world auction records were set for many of these artists.

Lot 5046, Hans Bellmer's garishly colored La Poupée, sold for an astounding 185,000 euros plus premium, or with premium and conversion to dollars over $236,000--a new auction world record for Bellmer and the top lot of the photography sales here. Many in the trade thought the price to be extremely (some said ridiculously) high. The presale estimate was only 35,000-40,000 euros, which with premium might have been considered low retail before the sale.

Other prices, while perhaps not as extreme, were also very high. The provenance definitely worked its magic at this sale. Before the sale I would have said that expert David Fleiss' estimates were mostly at reasonable retail or a shade lower on the important pieces, but what could one say after the sale when hammer prices were two to over 50 times estimates? Not surprisingly, the photography portion of the Breton sales brought in a very strong 4.5 million euros before premium. With premium and converting to dollars the sale hit about $6 million, well over 10% of the total Breton auctions. The selling percent was virtually an astounding 100%. Only two minor lots out of over 500 failed to sell.

Camels Cohen's auction buyer's premium inclusive of non-refundable VAT was 19.6% on the first 100,000 euros and 11.96% of amounts over that. The dollar was a little over 1.1 to the euro. Multiply the following hammer prices by 1.32 to get an equivalent dollar amount after premium.

I have tried to keep just to items over 15,000 euros hammer price to prevent this from becoming another War & Peace, but there are a few exceptions just to give you a flavor of what exactly happened here. Condition was reportedly a problem on many lots, as might be expected from an archive of this type, but much was in surprisingly good condition.

The opening Tuesday evening sale on April 15 provided much of the fireworks for the three days of photography auctions here.

After an early portrait of Breton in military uniform was hammered down at 5-1/2 times estimate at 5,500 euros, Lot 5007 (all the photography items began with 5, so this was the seventh lot of the photo portion of the sale), an image by Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray entitled La Tonsure was the first lot to really get the buyers' blood pumping. Estimated at 22,000-25,000, it hammered down at 52,000 euros.

The next lot, 5008, a Man Ray portrait of Breton in front of a De Chirico painting, was estimated at 18,000-25,000, but sold for over three times estimate at 58,000 euros. This was a pattern that was to be repeated many times throughout the sale.

A rather mediocre Man Ray portrait of D'Yves Tanguy (lot 5019) then sold for 21,000, about double the estimate. This was followed by an intriguing Man Ray study of the La Centrale Surréaliste, which sold for the same 21,000 euros over an estimate of 18,000-20,000.

The Toilettes did well--not the ones at Drouot itself which cost you a half euro to get in, but the Man Ray images in Lots 5026 and 5027, which brought 50,000 and 40,000 euros respectively for developer-stained images. These were just some of the examples of items going about ten times over estimates. Condition here didn't seem to play a part.

For all those who had hopes of "stealing" the photomaton strips, those hopes were not just dashed but smashed. Estimated at 500-600 euros per lot, lots 5028-5030 and 4232A (the only weirdly out-of-place numbered lot) went for 10,000, 12,000, 6500 and 10,000 euros respectively. That--in case you were not estimating--is over 15 to 28 times low estimate when the premium is figured in.

Henri Cartier-Bresson's Monument au 1er Gouveneur Général de l'Indochine (lot 5036) came in at 30,000 over estimates of 18,000-20,000 euros.

Two lots later, Claude Cahun's Les Mains stunned the crowd by going about 42 times over low estimate with its premium. It hammered at 28,000 euros over an admittedly low estimate of only 800-1000. It set a world auction record for the artist in the process. Two other Cahun lots that followed "only" did 4-5 times low estimate.

But it was Hans Bellmer's work that got real attention here. Lot 5042, a self-portrait with poupée (manikin), started things off with a hammer price of 62,000 euros over an estimate of 20,000-25,000. New York dealer Adam Boxer nailed this important and rare image.

At a hammer price of 68,000 euros lot 5043, another poupée, easily beat its estimate of 15,000-20,000 euros, but then was preempted by the George Pompidou. The next lot, still another poupée with the same estimate, did even better at 70,000 euros. It sold to dealer Adam Boxer. Lot 5045, one more poupée, was preempted by the Pompidou at 80,000 euros.

But it was lot 5046, a highly colored poupée with the photographer's brother behind a tree, which sent Bellmer into world record territory and topped the photography portion of the Breton auction. Estimated at only 35,000-45,000 euros, it hammered down at 185,000 euros to Belgium collector Sylvio Perlstein.

Next up were Manual Alverez Bravo's images, which also vaulted into record territory. The first lot (5047) was scooped up by US collector David Raymond, who paid a mere 35,000 euros for a very fine Escala de Escalas. This was one of my favorite "smaller" (if that term can be used on an item that cost over $46,000 with premium) images. Estimated at a low 10,000-12,000 euros, the 35,000-euro final hammer price did not seem to be out of line for the image. Indeed the Bravos seem to reflect current retail on most of these very top images.

Bravo's Assassination, a difficult but seminal image, sold for 48,000 euros over an estimate of 20,000-30,000--frankly a very low price considering its importance. The next two lots were lesser-known images that sold for 14,000 and 13,000 euros respectively. One (lot 5049) was then preempted by the Pompidou.

Lot 5051 Parabola Optica is one of those archetypal images that you always know will be hard fought over, and it was indeed. Estimated at 50,000-60,000 euros, this important and magical image reportedly sold to the J.P. Getty Museum for a 130,000-euro hammer price, a tie for the second most expensive photograph of the Breton sale at about $172,000 with premium and a world record at auction for the artist. It was also my own personal favorite of this auction.

The last two Bravos of this session sold for 17,000 and 21,000 euros respectively over estimates of 10,000-12,000 and 12,000-15,000 euros. The latter lot (5053) was quickly preempted by the Pompidou.

The next lot, the Brassai of Crystals was also preempted by the George Pompidou Museum for 21,000 euros, which later was gifted by Aube Elléouët-Breton, who also gifted some of the Bellmers.

David Raymond scooped up another beauty at a reasonable price when he bought lot 5055, a Dora Maar photomontage, for a mere 13,000 euros and at less than double estimate--the mark of a true bargain in this sale.

An unusual album (lot 5057) documenting Breton's travels with 83 prints was knocked down for 19,000 euros, against an estimate of 10,000-20,000.

Then came a string of rare Raul Ubac images, which--while not quite as strong in person as in the catalogue--were still very good. The first, lot 5058, a Penthésilée, which was estimated at 15,000-18,000 euros, managed to bring 40,000 euros plus premium. The next, also a Penthésilée, brought 23,000 euros and the third Penthésilée brought 25,000 euros. Both of the latter images were estimated at 12,000-15,000 euros. All three images were about 9 x 5-1/2 in. Larger prints go for a premium as you will see shortly.

The next lot (5061) was a "Surimpression" that sold for 19,000 euros, just above its estimate of 15,000-18,000 euros.

The fourth Penthésilée, Le Triomphe de la Stérilité ou Penthésilée, was a larger version at 15-3/4 x 9-5/8 in. Estimated at 40,000-60,000 euros, it promptly set a world auction record for the artist at 95,000 euros hammer price, over $125,000 with premium.

Some manikins from the International Surrealism Exposition of 1938 by Ubac and one by Man Ray all went for about double to triple estimates except for the first Ubac (lot 5063), which sold for 21,000 euros over an estimate of a mere 2,000-3,000 euros.

A decent but fairly run-of-the-mill anonymous portrait of Antonin Artaud sold for 17,000 euros over a reasonable estimate of 1,500-2,000 euros. Then another portrait by George Platt Lynes of the painter Yves Tanguy sold for a steep 21,000-euro hammer price over an estimate again of only 1,500-2,000 euros. That was good enough for a world auction record for Platt Lynes.

Just as a reference point, the true vintage Helen Levitt of the tree sold for 13,000 euros (a little over $17,000) over an estimate of 6,000-8,000 euros. A fair price, by the way. If you think that the ones in the recent Seagrams sale were a steal, you may be mistaken. I and a number of other dealers did not think any of the Levitts in that sale were true vintage, but the prices there did reflect current retail for later printed prints--they just were not bargains. More about that sale in a later newsletter.

The rest of the Tuesday session sort of trailed off but most items sold for well over estimates.

Wednesday afternoon's session started slowly enough with a few items even falling under the estimates. What the auction needed were some photomaton strips to get it going again, so...

Lot 5113 was indeed another group of photomatons. Again, only estimated at a mere 500-600 euros, the lot soared to an astounding 23,000 euros (about $30,000). If any one cares, that was about 55 times the low estimate. As I have said many times before NEVER use estimates as your guide. This group had some of the most important names in surrealism (Breton, Ernst, Eluard, Bunuel, Tanguy, Dali, Aragon and Magritte), each on a strip with his eyes shut. New York dealer Jack Banning picked up this important lot and four other good photomaton lots in this sale. Reportedly he will break these up for resale.

Lot 5114, another strip, only managed a "mere" 7,500 euros over its 500-600 estimate.

While many items brought high multiples over estimates, it was another Hans Bellmer, La Poupée that lit up the board. Estimated at 15,000-20,000 euros, Lot 5139 more than doubled the top estimate at its 48,000-euro hammer price.

Lot 5145, Man Ray's De la Hauteur d'un Petit Soulier Faisant Corps avec Elle sold for a very high 23,000 euros over an estimate of 1,200-1,500 euros. While the estimate was a bit low, the final price was more than high.

Another Bravo was the next lot (5163) to draw spirited bidding. Estimated at 20,000-25,000 euros, Los Leones de Coyoacan, hammered down at a reasonable 23,000 euros (about $30,000 with premium). Lot 5168, another Bravo of a Mexican welder brought in 35,000 euros over an estimate of 10,000-12,000. Reportedly, the image went to the Getty.

Then a great Bravo of wooden horses (lot 5171) drew lots of action with its low estimate of 12,000-15,000 euros. Final price? Only 50,000 euros (about $66,000 with premium), but I think well worth the money on this one. Perhaps it was because this lot number was not listed under the artist index in the front. David Raymond underbid this one to the successful phone bidder. He told me that unfortunately the auctioneer did not see his last-second bid.

Then Raul Ubac, another one of the artists that prompted strong bids at this sale, came through again on lot 5177, another (but large) Penthésilée, which brought a reasonable hammer price of 28,000 euros over an estimate of 25,000-35,000 euros. One of the few lots to just hit within its range.

Then, except for a portrait of Max Ernst by Herman Landshoff (lot 5186 at 15,000 euros, and a world auction record for Landshoff) and a Man Ray of Joyce Mansour (lot 5190 at 13,000 euros), the rest of the afternoon lots were in a more minor key.

The Wednesday evening lots were to provide a little more excitement, beginning with a very early Man Ray photograph of Duchamp's New York studio in 1921. Estimated at a modest 10,000-12,000 euros, the lot took on wings and flew to 55,000 euros (over $72,000 with the premium).

Claude Cahun's Showcase of Shoes (lot 5285) stamped its way to 14,000 euros over an admittedly underpriced estimate of only 1,200-1,500, but then was promptly preempted by the Pompidou.

But Man Ray was the photographer of the session. His lot 5286 Moi, Elle, easily doubled its low estimate with a hammer price of 16,000 euros. Then his Cette Espèce d'Hélianthe (Sunflower) absolutely clobbered its 6,000-8,000-euro estimate after it shot up to an astounding 80,000 euros (over $105,000 with premium). That is ten times the high estimate, but then who is counting? In the end, the Pompidou preempted the lot.

Then four more lots by Raul Ubac did very well. Lot 5290, a distorted "portrait", hammered down at 30,000 euros versus an estimate of only 8,000-10,000. Lot 5291, a figure study, hit 22,000 euros against an estimate of 12,000-15,000. Another Penthésilée (lot 5292) sold for 26,000 versus its estimate of 18,000-20,000. And still another Penthésilée sold for 17,000 against an estimate of 12,000-15,000. Other lesser Ubac lots then more than quadrupled their low estimates.

Hans Bellmer again added some punch to the sale. More Poupée images brought startling prices and high multiples over estimates. Lot 5304, which was estimated at only 15,000-20,000 euros, just defied gravity when it was hammered down finally at 130,000 euros to dealer Adam Boxer, which was good enough for a tie for second highest image in this sale.

The next Bellmer lot was not far off that mark. Estimated the same as the last lot, it kept climbing until it was brought down for 72,000 euros.

Lot 5306, another Belmer, had a stronger estimate of 25,000-30,000 euros, but could only manage a "meager" 45,000 hammer price. It sold to Virginia Zabreski, who was reportedly bidding for the Tate Gallery.

Lot 5307 kept the Bellmer string intact with its 38,000-euro price over an estimate of only 10,000-12,000 euros.

Only Manuel Alvarez Bravo could compete with the Bellmer prices, although the Bravo prices more accurately reflected market realities in my opinion. Bravo's lot 5308 was one of the great images in the sale (Los Agachados). Its estimate of 30,000-40,000 euros was clearly only meant to tease. The bids quickly escalated and the lot was finally hammered down for 110,000 euros (about $145,000 with premium), a high but still a reasonable price for such a rare and important image with this provenance.

The next two Bravo lots did similarly. Lot 5409, estimated at 10,000-12,000, sold for 35,000 euros; and lot 5310, the important Tumba Reciente, estimated at 15,000-20,000, sold for 45,000 euros.

Henri Cartier-Bresson got back into the act with his L'Araignee d'Amour, lot 5315, which was greatly underestimated at 8,000-10,000 euros. It hammered down for 31,000 euros and then was promptly preempted by the George Pompidou.

Another of those greatly underestimated (but not underbid) lots came up next, Herbert Matter's Mobile de Calder, a series of seven images of the mobile in motion. Only estimated at 800-1,000 euros, lot 5316 quickly soared to 19,500 euros or about 29 times low estimate with the premium, which is an auction record for the artist.

Lot 5317 was another Helen Levitt vintage image and it went to 18,000 euros, well over its estimate of 5,000-6,000 euros but just short of an world auction record for Levitt.

Edwynn Houk took home a Brassai, Culotte et Bas (misdated in the catalogue as a 1950 image, but actually a 1930s image), for 28,000 euros. It had an extensive note on the verso from Brassai.

Then, like other sessions, the material petered out.

Thursday's afternoon session was not as strong as some of the earlier sessions, but it had its moments.

Early on a number of Man Ray portraits did well, particularly Lot 5361, a portrait of Robert Desnos, which sold for 20,000 euros against an estimate of only 8,000-10,000 euros.

An "anonymous" collage of cathedrals (lot 5367), estimated at only 1,000-1,200 euros, went to 38,000 euros--over 45 times the low estimate including premium. This was the most expensive of the no-name lots in the sale.

Then three groups of the photomaton strips continue to blow out their estimates at 10,000, 8,000 and 9,500 euros respectively for lots 5372-5374. All had pre-sale estimates of only 500-600 euros.

But somehow you had to know that the fireworks would mostly be set off by the last Hans Bellmer in the sale. Lot 5396 was a real beauty too. Nicely colored and one of the most interesting images in the sale it sold quickly at 110,000 euros, but then was preempted by another French museum. The estimate was, of course, only 25,000-30,000 euros.

Another artist's world auction record fell when Jindrich Styrsky's image of an angel in an archway destroyed its estimate to hammer down at 17,000 euros, or nearly $23,000 with premium.

Bravo also finished up his string of successes with lots 5417-5419. On the first (Mexico, the Two Horses) the hammer brought a price of 23,000 euros against an estimate of 10,000-12,000 euros. The second lot, the very important but difficult Retrato Postumo, reached even higher at 55,000 euros, against a pale 10,000-12,000 estimate. The third lot was reportedly picked up by the Getty, its third Bravo of the sale, for 30,000 euros. Pan Nuetro with its bread deers had only been estimated at 12,000-15,000 euros.

A portrait of Frida Kahlo (a particularly hot personality, especially after the recent movie on her life) by Nickolas Muray easily eclipsed Muray's old world auction record (a portrait of Babe Ruth) at 27,000 euros (well over $35,000 with premium). The estimate had been a paltry 5,000-6,000 euros.

Another vintage Helen Levitt (lot 5457) also hit 18,000 euros against a feeble 5,000-6,000 euros estimate.

Then it was nearly over. The last two lots were albums of the art work of various surrealist artists, which sold for 12,000 and 15,000 euros respectively, against estimates of only 800-1,000 euros on each.

Marcel Fleiss, the Breton sale expert and long-time Paris dealer in surrealist works, said the auction had resurrected interest in the surrealist movement and given long-delayed recognition to neglected artists. He noted that "Breton's magic has done what I have not been able to do in 30 years. I have been selling 90% of these artists all that time and even in my dreams I could never sell them at these prices."

Critic Jean Michel Goutier in the forward to the catalogue quotes a letter from André Breton to Jacques Doucet: "I believe it is into my thought that I put all my daring, all the strength and hope of which I am capable. It possesses me entirely, jealously and makes a mockery of worldly goods." Goutier continues, "The proverbial glass house, like Philalethus' 'open door to the closed palace', may render up its store of treasures and precious stones, but it is Breton's thought, freed from the contingencies of time and place, that will endure." And likewise, the market for surrealism and its fellow travelers will also endure and certainly profit from this important auction.