La Gazette Drouot is the weekly publication dedicated to the Paris Drouot auction activity, often adding in some interesting general articles as well. Drouot is the building that houses most of the Paris auctions and is shared by hundreds of different auction houses. Online subscribers get the issues on Thursday evening, one day before the distribution of the paper version. That's how late afternoon on Thursday, September 27, 2018 a buzz spread quickly in the passionate community of Gustave Le Gray aficionados. A treasure had been found, a full-page announcement reproduced four of the 71 albumen prints of Egypt by Le Gray. The auction would be held on November 14, just after Paris Photo week, in Drouot, salle 6. The auction house named was Delon-Hoebanx. But who were they? The expert Mario Mordente. But who was he?
Mario, aged 84, is a well-known figure of the Paris collectable postage stamp market. Delon-Hoebanx is a recently founded auction house, which even more recently moved to new premises on rue Descombes, near Porte de Champerret in the Paris 17th arrondissement.
That is where a few early visitors were cautiously allowed to view the prints, starting on Tuesday afternoon, October 9th. More than half of the prints were considered unique or at least unpublished. That was something--to access to such a quantity of "virgin" Le Gray prints.
The auctioneer and the postage stamps expert were concerned about the gossip affecting the rare photography market; they were probably quite right, as suspicious comments on provenance became the rage among the community.
The story I personally accepted was that the consignor, a descendant of the first owner, had asked the auction house to keep her name secret, to avoid questions from three generations of cousins. She had links with one person in the auction house, who began to organize the sale last summer with his friend Mario Mordante.
The prints were initially bound in two volumes in half-cloth bindings, circa 1880, but the volumes had lost the front covers, and the backs had no inscriptions. The plates were mostly loose. One album was found with 36 and the other with 35 mounted prints, with French captions on the mounts. Thirty-six is in fact a good number for an album, as a multiple of 12 pages. One noticed that 35 was 36 minus one, and one print may have been lost together with the cover. The volumes had no logical order, and the two series were separated.
These details are important, as we can try to exclude two possible identifications for the first owner and the provenance: the Emperor or an important person would have received beautifully bound albums, a traveller or a member of the expedition would have better organized the collection. The person who had the set bound had lost information. How had he received the set? Probably by heritage. We have not much information about what the surviving son of Le Gray had received from his father. Could it be a set that Le Gray's son received?
It was smart to have the auction announced well in advance, since everybody becomes intensely busy with Paris Photo. Is it an excess to say that the auction during this period was in excess? So much to see, so much to hear, so much noise also.
Paris Photo closed on Sunday, November 11, 2018, and Parisians were amused to see that a large contingent of foreigners was not leaving the city, just waiting around for Wednesday afternoon.
Somebody said that salle or room 6, one of the larger rooms at Hotel Drouot was full during the auction, as it was in earlier, better times (10-20 years ago, before the Lehman default), and it was indeed.
Famous American, German, British, French actors were there, all the art advisories and agents you can think of, auction experts and most of the surviving photo dealers. About 60 people in all sitting in the room, plus 20 standing against the wall shoulder to shoulder, plus another 20 getting in through the main door, ten on the phone and 35 on the Internet, and you have a complete vision of the dramatic theater setting of this auction.
Lot number 1 was much anticipated. It was not the most important lot by far, nor in the best condition, but it was lot n° 1 and would set the cadence of the ballet to come.
It is difficult to say if it were one of the "nicer" compositions, as nobody at the auction seemed to agree on aesthetic values, except for lot 37; for many lots, there were three to four bidders, often to the surprise of others, who reserved their bids for totally diverse lots.
Anyway, against three bidders, I got Colonne Pompée for a client for 6,500 euros hammer against an estimate of 1,500 euros. To get an idea in dollars, including the buyer's premium, just add about 50% to the hammer figures here; in other words, lot 1 went for about $9,750. Prices below are generally in euros and without buyer's premium or VAT, so use this formula to get dollar pricing.
Then we had nine prints (Lots 2-10) of the Tombs of Mamelouks. It could have been a difficult series but the auctioneer smartly agreed to permit lot 4 to go for 2,200 euros and lot 5 for 1,600, below low estimates, a strategy welcoming people with restricted budgets. Every single lot in the auction was thereby sold.
Lot 11 was a composition designed in a way making a link with Le Gray's 12 years activity as a photographer in France. This link convinced American museums of its importance. It was a beautiful tree landscape, and one of the best prints in the sale. Starting at a mere 3,000, the Vue finally hammered down for 50,000 euros.
Lot 12 was a very unusual image of the pyramids, hidden among trees, in good condition but with the background affected by the natural light of the sun. It also got strong bidding to 19,000 euros against an estimate of only 4,000 euros.
Lot 13 Sphinx was a bit light and made only 11,000 euros.
The boats at Girgeh made 8,000 euros. A strong print, but boat collectors were apparently in a minority on that day.
Lot 16 were a pair of inscriptions, quite a panorama, I bought them for 10,500 euros.
Interesting lots 17-27 made solid prices that were 2x to 5x the low estimates. Collectors Serge Kakou, Daniel Wolf, and Adnan Sezer and myself, acting as agents, were very active on these lots.
Lot 28 was the cover of one of the catalogues. Note that this auction had two printed catalogues, one dedicated exclusively to Le Gray prints and the other to both Le Gray and the rest of the auction. Lot 28 was a vertical (the only vertical) view of Karnak's Great Hypostyle Hall. Seven bidders brought the result up to 38,000 euros.
The next lots were the Edfou temple views with human presence. Could we guess that Le Gray's silhouette was among them? The answer is certainly, yes, but let's keep that determination for the pleasure of the new owner.
Lot 29 went for 18,000 euros, 31 for 31,000, 33 for 34,000. The Getty and National Gallery of Art were among the bidders.
Lot 34 was a pure photographic pleasure of composition: a perspective through the royal doors in Thebes, which I was able to get it for 25,000 euros.
Lot 35 made 13,000 and 36 only 5,500 euros, probably a bargain as the room was focusing on the next lot, number 37.
Lot 37 was the flagship of the sale, the print which made major American museums directors change their Paris Photo busy agenda to find an hour to view the print, and made many visitors reorganize their Paris travel plans. Great Hypostyle Hall as a horizontal view (Sylvie Aubenas, catalogue number 210) a rich print with a strong contrast, reminding viewers of the quality of the chef-d'œuvre printed by Le Gray 10 years earlier.
Starting at 5,000 euros, 15 to 20 potential bidders were waiting in line to be seen by the auctioneer, and if some lost the occasion when the bid reached 50,000, there were still seven at 80,000, and then three at 150,000 euros. Finally in the end American Charles Isaacs just stopped, followed by French dealer Denis Canguilhem. Hans Kraus finally got it for 156,000 euros, or a bit more than $230,000. He told us later that he had bought it for a client.
The room was happy; the audience had its show. The rest wasn't quite anti-climatic, but…
Lots 38-47 made 2x-5x the estimate, except for lot 44 with people, which went to 30,000 euros.
Then boat composition lovers watched a big fight between Adnan Sezer and the Internet, as lot 48 went for 33,000, lot 50 for 6,000 and lot 51 for 52,000 euros respectively.
The interesting minimalist composition, n°52, Nile at Assouan, had a small defect in the lower waters, but still went for 32,000 euros.
Lot 53 was considered by some to be the second strongest print in the auction, while some bidders did not consider it at all. American bidders took it up to 90,000 euros.
Lots 55 and 57, while animated but well known and published/described, only went for 10,000 and 5,200 euros. The room clearly preferred the totally unknown prints, except for the exceptional lot 37.
Collectors Serge Kakou, Daniel Wolf, Adnan Sezer and myself were still active on the last 10 lots, the nice tondo, lot n°65, definitely a bright light in tonality, made 13,000 against an estimate of only 1,200 euros.
The 67 lots representing 71 prints (two lots with two prints, one with three) were sold for a total of 913,900 euros—a very nice success and a strong result for the auction. The emotion was so great that Journal des Arts sent out an alarm: "Le voyage sur le Nil de Gustave Le Gray fait un carton, the auction goes over 900 millions euros!" Who could blame them for being off by a few zeros in their enthusiasm?
Optimists will say it is a real market rebound that has hit a solid footing. Pessimists will consider it is a singularity. But then, we will add that a week before this Paris auction, in Italy--where the law is tricky about export—auctioneer Aste Bolaffi offered three Le Gray prints of the same views of Egypt, which went for $7,000, $8,000 and $43,000. The whole story of photography is a story of singularities.