Issue #59  7/3/2003
Christie's London Sale of Daguerreotypes By Girault De Prangey Sets World Auction Record For a Photograph At Over $925,000

After previewing and leaving bids at Yann Le Moel Auction House (more on that in the next newsletter), I took the Eurostar from Paris through the Chunnel to come over to London on May 19, Monday. As in France, it was raining off and on, but the weather was not a reflection of the auctions in London.

Previewing went smoothly at both Christie's and Sotheby's with only moderate traffic at both. The buzz was primarily about how well the Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey daguerreotypes and the Coburn vortographs would do at Christie's, and how well the Tripe lots and a mixed early album would do at Sotheby's. More on the latter later.

One of the interesting things about the Girault de Prangey sale was that it contained so many "first photographs" of so many exotic places. These were very early images from some pretty difficult-to-get-to places--at least during the first half of the 19th century.

The "smart" money (so much for that designation) was that there would be heavy bidding by Middle Eastern interests, including perhaps Sheik Al Thani, on the Middle Eastern dags in the sale. The hope was that one might snatch a French, Italian or Greek piece away.

Before I viewed the daguerreotype sale, I felt that many of the lots were frankly overestimated, especially in view of the sheer quantity of material (here and in reserve) and the quality, which was very erratic. But I also felt that most of the estimates were relatively dead-on (although close to full retail), and I congratulated Christie's 19th-century expert Lindsey Stewart for her fine work in this regard. That notion might not have been evident if you only looked at the catalogue instead of viewed the sale. There was considerable variation in condition, contrast and how a particular daguerreotype presented in person. Apparently some of this variation was due to the conditions in place when Girault de Prangey took his daguerreotypes (heat, water quality). But Stewart unerringly took each of those factors into consideration, even if her bidders did not.

But if you think the Christie's staff wasn't a bit nervous, consider this: it appeared from where the auctioneer started and the few lots that did not sell that the reserves in this sale were set at only about 50-70% of the low estimate. My thanks to Nigel Russell for this keen observation.

The Christie's staff did an excellent job with the catalogue research and accompanying articles and chronology of Girault de Prangey's work. There was even a champagne reception and lecture on the Monday night prior to the auction. I do applaud these fine efforts on education, which are too rare in the auction world today. It very much reminded me of nearly the same approach that Sotheby's NY made with the Southworth and Hawes material.

On my way into the auction room, I bumped into Sylvie Aubenas, director of the collection of prints and photographs of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. Was she there to bid? I asked her timidly. "No," she replied. She was only there to see how good a purchase she had made when she bought 158 daguerreotypes from the archives earlier through Christie's. She need not have worried. By the end of the evening, she was one of the few people in the room with a broad smile on her face.

Code named "Mosque" (no, I am not making this up) by the Christie's staff, the Girault de Prangeys got off to a modest start, after all, the auction record for a Girault de Prangey was a "mere" 29,375 pounds sterling (about $45,000 at that time), set just three years ago at Christie's London. That image, "The Haram al-Sharif, Jerusalem," was bought by Michael Wilson, with Badr el Hadj, a noted collector of Middle Eastern material, underbidding him. At the time, Christie's was still posting more modest estimates and so gave that lot a £5,000-7,000 range. That is about what happened this time out too, except the estimates were a touch less modest.

I should note that all prices below include the buyer's premium and that the pound sterling was about $1.65 during the sale (although Christie's P.R. release says it was $1.632; I guess that is right if you run billions through your bank, but for the rest of us it was a bit above $1.65 and now a bit higher still). And, for the most part, I have confined myself to lots that sold for over £19,000.

Lot 1, a frozen fountain of the Chateau d'Eau, sold to the phone (bidder 906) for £17,925 against the estimate of £9,000-12,000. It seemed a fair price.

A French collector in the room picked up the second lot of the night, the Central Pavilion of the Tuileries Palace, Paris, for only £5,000, but the image was not the strongest.

The activity level picked up dramatically with the third lot. All of a sudden Christie's London Photo Department Head Salome Michell began bidding for a phone that was to be the most influential of the evening--and, of course, rumored to be Sheik Al Thani, who had been so active in previous years at the Jammes two sales and at Bearnes. Even in rough condition, the marvelous full-plate tree (a la Douy) sold to her bidder 909 for a total of £29,875, which actually broke the previous record for a Girault de Prangey (but nobody noticed at the time). Of course, this was just the beginning for 909.

Salome's phone was back on lot 6, a wonderful vertical panorama of Trajan's Column. But 909 had to fight off other phones and New York dealer Hans Kraus's persistent attacks. Estimated at £50,000-70,000, the column fell for a whopping £318,850 (about $525,000), which made this only the third most expensive of the night. Girault de Prangey was climbing up the top ten list and fast. Hans Kraus, ever the cautious auction bidder himself, was probably bidding much of the time during this sale for the Getty Museum, which he often bids for on 19th-century material.

A panorama of the Ponte Rocco in rough shape sold to an Italian looking man in the front rows for the midpoint of the range at £31,070.

Lot 8, the fabulous panorama of the top of the Temple de Vesta, Rome, became a battle between the phones and Hans again. This time Kraus nailed down the lot at £106,050 (about $175,000), which was good enough for eighth place on the sale's top ten list. Considering the rest of the sale, the price on this fine piece could be called a great bargain. It had been estimated at £50,000-80,000, but I thought it would go much higher than even Kraus's winning bid.

Lot 9, Cypress Trees in Tivoli, sold to a collector in the room for below estimate range at £20,315.

Lot 10, Villa d'Este, Tivoli, then sold to the phone (bidder 907) for £23,900, again below estimate range.

Another breakaway bidding session was in the cards for the beautiful full plate Parthenon façade (lot 11). Estimated at £60,000-90,000, the piece became a matter of contention between dealers Hans Kraus and Lee Marks, who often bids for collector Howard Stein on important pieces at auction. In the end it was Kraus who took home the prize at £162,050 or about $265,000--good enough for sixth place in this sale's top ten.

Kraus scored on the next lot as well, an interesting dag of shattered Greek sculpture, by bidding £20,315 over fellow dealer Robert Hershkowitz's efforts.

But Kraus was not about to complete his "hat trick". On lucky lot number 13, an iconic full plate of the Temple of Jupiter in Athens, Kraus found himself on the losing side as Salome's phone bidder 909 (probably Sheik Al Thani) took home the prize for a new world auction record price for a daguerreotype AND for a photograph of £565,250, or $922,488 if you use Christie's too low exchange rate, or over $932,000 if you use my more accurate rate--but what's $10,000 give or take to the Sheik. As collector, semi-retired world-class physicist and stand-up comic Michael Mattis put it, "Look for prices at the pump to go up two cents per gallon to pay for those purchases." Oddly Christie's was too modest in its press release, only claiming a world auction record for a 19th-century photograph, but this one clearly eclipsed the Le Gray Grande Vague Sette, which held the previous 19th-century and overall world auction record for a photograph.

This particular lot also put to rest the previously reasonable idea that the Sheik and fellow Middle Eastern collectors would only focus on Middle Eastern subjects in this sale, causing some bidding strategies to collapse in on themselves. In some cases to follow, the Middle Eastern material actually looked reasonable against this last bid (but then, of course, everything did), probably because other non-Middle Eastern bidders had put in commission bids with dealers and the house with the idea that the focus of the "big" money would be on the Mid East material.

On lot 15 Christie's 19th-century consultant Lindsey Stewart also started bidding somewhat schizophrenically, dividing her attention between two very active bidders (900 and 908). At least one was apparently another Middle Eastern interest or had the money of an oil sheik, leaving more than a few pundits in the room to weakly joke that the bidders were dancing sheik to sheik, or that they were two sheiks to the wind while bidding (for my European friends, I don't really know where to start with trying to translate those puns). Lindsey mumbled the bidders' numbers, so much so that the podium kept asking for clarification. Obviously she was trying to keep the numbers from being heard in the audience--one more piece of interesting absurdity for the evening. I have tried to be careful on reporting those numbers (even checking them against several other observers' notes), but I may be off on one or two lots. In any case, lot 15, Temple of Minerva, Athens went to Lindsey's bidder 908 for £33,460.

Her other bidder (900) took the next lot, a full plate of the Temple of Minerva, Poliade Façade, for under estimate at £89,250--just good enough to make this the tenth highest price of the evening.

Number 17, a full plate of a nondescript cathedral in Athens, passed at £50,000 against an estimate of £70,000-90,000.

Bidder 909, our erstwhile Sheik Al Thani, took this lot, one of the first of the Middle Eastern items, a full plate of the Mosque Nabedemiane, Alexandrie, for under estimate at £47,800.

Lindsey Stewart was back with the other phone (bidder 900) on the next lot, a date palm tree and one or the other of her bidders on lot 20, a cactus plant. Both lots went many times over estimates at £10,755 and £8,365 respectively.

But the bidder (909) that I felt was Sheik Al Thani started to make his phone presence felt again. Starting with lot 21, the bidder took the next eight lots in a row. In some cases it appeared that just the fact that Al Thani appeared to be bidding seemed to scare off competitors. While some of the lots below may actually look somewhat reasonable, you should consider that the prices would have been considerably higher if there was a second bidder really pushing 909. To Christie's credit, the house did not play any games with reserves or "air" bids to boost up the prices.

Lot 21, a panoramic daguerreotype of Fouah, Egypt, sold to 909 for £33,460, still under the estimate.

A double panorama on one full plate of Rosetta, Egypt was the next lot. Bidder 909 took it for £57,360--again well under low estimate.

Number 23, a very interesting vertical panorama of a minaret in Cairo, was even more of a bargain for 909 at a mere £19,120.

Lot 24 fell for the same amount as the last lot; and lot 25 sold for half its low estimate at only £11,950. Lot 26 sold for the same amount as 23 and 24--£19,120, again for just above the 50% mark against the estimate. Lot 27, a poor plate, sold for under its small estimate at £2,629. All went to bidder 909 with little to no competition.

Finally, on lot 28 the phone sheik got some competition. Lee Marks, probably bidding for Howard Stein, took on 909 for this very pretty half plate dag of windows in the Mosque Gmr Ebn Touloun. When the bidding stopped, 909 was still the winner at £45,410, but had to go well into the estimate range to do it.

On the next lot, two quarter plates on one half plate, dealer Robert Hershkowitz gave 909 some competition, but it sold for only £21,510, still below the estimate range.

On lot 30, a little sixth-plate gem of the interior of Mosque Gmr Ebn Touloun, Salome Michell's phone bidder got even more competition. Both Hans Kraus and French dealer Serge Plantureux pushed 909 up to £31,070 over an estimate of only £5,000-7,000.

After losing lot 31 to a collector in the room, 909 came back on lot 32, snatching it up from bidder 900. The 909 repeated this on lot 33 at £22,705.

UK dealer Ken Jacobson took the next lot, number 34 of Mendiants, one of the few dags focusing on people. I wondered if it might find its way to Princeton University, which Jacobson sometimes represents at auction. Hans Kraus then took lot 35, a Barque of the Minaret.

Then 909 was back, taking lot 36, the Minaret of Mosque Gmr Ebn Touloun, for £19,120.

The images up next were from Asia Minor and they all looked like they had been taken on a foggy day in San Francisco or London. Fog, fog and more fog. Apparently Girault de Prangey ran into technical problems here, either impurity in the water or climatic problems, or maybe just fog. Many of these images really did look a lot worse in person than in the catalogue.

Lot 38, somewhat foggy but still one of the nicest and most interesting of the group, sold to dealer Lee Marks, who got into another classic battle with Hans Kraus. Estimated at a low £3,000-4,000, the columns and capitals of the Temple of Venus at Aphrodisias managed to garner £33,460, or nearly ten times the low estimate with premium.

Lindsey Stewart's 900 bidder got the next two lots--both well over the estimate ranges. Another phone bidder (903, Mack Lee) dropped by on lot 41. And then 900 picked up the following lot, which was an interesting "Is it right side up or down?" daguerreotype of fragments of the Temple of Venus, for "only" eight times the low estimate.

Robert Hershkowitz then grabbed lot 43, a very nice daguerreotype of a column capital of the Theater at Milet. Pierre de Gigord, a collector of Turkish material, took lot 44, a panorama of Constantinople, for £38,240--well under the low estimate. Then lot 45 was taken by a collector in the room at a price nearly six times low estimate.

Ken Jacobson got a good buy on lot 47, a pavilion near Serail, Constantinople, only having to double the estimate. Then Hans Kraus picked up lot 48, Bosphore, north beyond Pera, for triple the high estimate. And these were the reasonable lots.

Lot 49, a quarter plate portrait (Constantinople, Surudje), was not so reasonable. Estimated at an appropriate (to me at least) £9,000-12,000, it soared on bidding first from Serge Plantureux and then later from Lindsey's and Salome's phone bidders. The latter two bidders spiraled this object up to just over £100,000 or about $165,000 to place it solidly in ninth place for the night. But in the end it was 909 again. This triumph was the beginning of a string of victories for 909, who often sent Salome Michell under the telephone table for more private conferences.

909 was back again on the very next lot, a whole plate of an Iwan in Damas, which 909 scooped up for £57,360--still below estimate. The plate lacked contrast.

And so it went: lots 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56 and 57 all went to this telephone bidder. Occasionally someone would bid against 909. I did on lot 53, a good image of Baalbec (I own most of the good paper negatives and positives of this area by De Clercq and thought it might be interesting to have an early daguerreotype of the same image). Badr el Hadj gave 909 a run for his money on lot 54, which went for £20,315 over an estimate of only £9,000-12,000, and on lot 56, which sold for £31,070 over an estimate of £12,000-18,000. And a French collector tried on lot 57, but still lost at nearly three times the low estimate.

Then there was a slight interruption as bidder 900 took lot 58, dealer Robert Hershkowitz took lot 59 (probably the steal of the sale on Middle Eastern material); and 900 again overbid 909 for lot 60, which sold for £38,240 over an estimate of £20,000-30,000.

Bidder 909 was back on lot 61, a Baalbec half plate, at £22,705, well over the estimate of £7,000-12,000.

Lot 62, a great full plate of the Temple Circulaire at Baalbec, became a battle between collector Badr el Hadj and the phones. Finally phone bidder 908 nailed this one down for an astonishing £128,450 over an estimate of only £20,000-30,000. This result was good enough for seventh place in the Girault de Prangey sale.

Bidder 909 returned on the next lot of Baalbec, which sold for four times low estimate at £19,120. Then 909 took lot 64, the door of a small temple in Baalbec, for £20,315 over an estimate of only £4,000-6,000.

After some "small" stuff, 909 was back in action on lot 68, a long and interesting panorama of palm trees strung out along the Nile River. Estimated at only £6,000-9,000, it was probably one of the few lots that I thought to be seriously underestimated, although it was a bit flatter in person. Dealers Hans Kraus, Charles Isaacs, Serge Plantereux and the phones got down to it. As I recall, Isaacs was the last one bidding in the room, but he had met his match with 909, who grabbed this one away for £47,800.

I don't recall how lot 69, the sculptural profile of Sesostris at Memphis (and we don't mean Tennessee), managed to get up there, but this plate, which was in damaged condition, spiraled way beyond its reasonable estimate of £25,000-35,000 to a silly £195,650. Of course, 909 took this one, which was the fourth most expensive of the night.

909 also took the next four lots. Lot 70, a 1/6th plate of a pyramid at Sakara, sold for £22,705 (estimate £1,200-1,800); and lot 71, a 1/6th plate of Hacan Tomb at Beni sold for £10,157 (or 17 times the estimate of £600-900).

Lot 72 , the pylon at Karnac oversized full plate, was perhaps the strongest of the Middle Eastern images. Estimated at a realistic £90,000-120,000, in this elevated atmosphere it soared to another insane price of £397,250 or over $650,000. This was second highest for the evening only to the equally numbing earlier record. 909 had to fend off Lindsey's phones for the prize.

On the fourth in a row, 909 picked up lot 73, the obelisk at Karnac, for £21,510, which had an estimate of only £2,500-3,500.

Lindsey Stewart's 900 phone bidder got aggressive on lot 74, a Temple colonnade at Gournah, and overbid the field at what normal people would think was a pretty crazy price of £173,250 against a reasonable estimate of £20,000-30,000. That is what happens when people start getting desperate to have something from a sale. The desperation also made this lot fifth highest of the night.

At this stage, there were a lot of people "desperate" for a Girault de Prangey daguerreotype. On lot 75, a truly neat object but with weird crazing over the surface and much lighter than in the catalogue, more than a few people went nuts. Estimated at only £2,500-3,500, this 1/6th-plate head of the Colosse at Gournah actually got to over 31 times the low estimate at £77,675. Of course, it was 909 who walked away with this one.

909 also walked away with the next lot as the stunned room did not have time to recover. This phone bidder did steal this one by bidding just the low estimate on a cancelled but still interesting plate of a bas relief at Edfou. Likewise on lot 77, 909 had light competition and bought it for £10,157, in the middle of the estimate.

I had looked over lot 78 carefully for a client. I told the client that the daguerreotype was foggy, lacked contrast, was scratched, had a wipe and a chemical stain in one area. It was estimated at £1,200-1,800. So with the help of Hans Kraus, Robert Koch, a few French collectors, and in the end Lee Marks and phone bidder 909, it got to £15,535. Once more 909 got the lot. Nice image but in poor condition (much worse than the catalogue showed). By the way, the condition report for a number of these daguerreotypes could have read similarly.

Lot 79 had nearly the same results with 909 taking it over Kraus and the phones for £14,340 (estimate £1,200-1,800).

One last full plate, lot 80, which pictured the Grand Mosque in Jerusalem, got 909's interest. This bidder picked it up at the low estimate at £83,650, about $138,000.

The last six lots read like the last lot: 909 swept the rest of the sale. Lot 81, another slightly smaller view of the Mosque, went just above low estimate at £38,240; lot 82 of Jerusalem for £28,680. The next three for chump change for the sheik. And the last lot (86), which was "a little banged up," according to my notes, sold for £28,680.

Thank god this sale was finally done. When someone had responded to my description of the records falling, they said, "It must have been exciting." My response was that it was one of the more boring events that I have been forced to sit through. But for the Christie's staff, it was certainly heady stuff. Not only did they set a world record for a photograph in this sale, they set an average-per-lot-sold-at-auction record. Even using Christie's too low sales figures of $6.2 million (£3,798,126) for this sale, the average per lot was a whopping $73,810 (£45,216)! I have been to some sales in Europe, where that amount wasn't achieved for the entire auction take.

Christie's London likes teamwork, so the comments for the sale came from both Salome Michell and Lindsey Stewart, who predictably said "the sale far exceeded our expectations."

They added, "It was a spectacular success especially as the photographer was relatively unknown. Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey has now claimed his place in the history of photography." And, one might append, Girault de Prangey has claimed his place in securing the success of the 19th-century photography market.

One other point: the daguerreotype market might have to change its collective mind on condition being a factor on price and relegate that to a far distant second or third after artistic and/or historical importance.