14.11 2018. Good Old Days Story of a Recent Paris Auction : Le Gray’s Photographic Expedition along the Nile


Good Old Days Story of a Recent Paris Auction : Gustave Le Gray’s Photographic Expedition along the Nile     (illustration: lot 34)

« La Gazette Drouot » is the weekly publication dedicated to auction activity at Paris Drouot, with some interesting general articles as well. Online subscribers get the issues on Thursday evening, one day before the distribution of paper numbers. That’s how on Thursday late afternoon 27 September 2018 spread the buzz in the passionate community of Le Gray afficionados : a treasure had been found, a full page anouncement reproduced 4 of the 71 Egypt albumen prints by Le Gray. The auction would be organized on November 14, after Paris Photo week, in Drouot, salle 6, the auction house being Delon-Hoebanx – Who are they ? The expert Mario Mordente – Who is he ?


Mario, aged 84, is a well known figure in the collectable postage stamps Paris market. Delon-Hoebanx is a recently founded auction house, which more recently moved to fresh new premises, rue Descombes, near Porte de Champerret, Paris 17th.

That is where a few early visitors were cautiously allowed to view the prints, starting on Tuesday 9 October afternoon. More than half of the prints were considered unique or at least unpublished.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 passions affecting the rare photography market; most probably they were quite right as suspicious comments on provenance became popular among the community.

The story I personnaly 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 organized 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, and the plates were mostly loose. One album was found with 36 and the other with 35 mounted prints, with French captions on the mounts. 36 is in fact a good number for an album, as a multiple of a dozen. One noticed that 35 was 36 minus 1 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 could he get the set ? Probably by inheritance. We have little information about what the surviving son of Le Gray received.

It was smart to have the auction announced since late September as soon everybody became intensely busy with Paris Photo. Is it an excess to say that the offer during that period was in excess ? So much to see, so much to hear, so much noise also.

Paris Photo closed on Sunday 11 November 2018 and Parisians were amused to see that a consistent group of foreigners were not leaving the city, just waiting for Wednesday afternoon.

Somebody said that the room 6, one of the large rooms at Hotel Drouot was full up as in good old times (10-20 years ago, before the Lehman accident), and it was indeed.

Famous American, German, British, French actors were there, all the art advisors and agents you can think of, auction experts and most of the surviving dealers, let us say about 60 persons sitting in the room, plus 20 standing against the wall – protecting shoulders, plus 20 getting in through the main door, 10 on the phone and 35 on internet and you have a complete vision of the dramatic theater.

Lot number 1 was much expected. It was not the most important lot, nor in the best condition but it was lot n° 1 and would provide the temperature or the cadence of the ballet.

Difficult to say if it was one of the « nice » compositions, as nobody agreed on esthetic values, except on n°37. For many lots, there were 3 to 4 bidders to the surprise of the others who reserved their weaponry for totally diverse lots.

Anyway, against 3 bidders, I got Colonne Pompée for a client for 6,500 euros hammer against an estimate of 1500. For dollars plus premium just add 50 % to the figures here yielding about 9750 dollars.

Then we had 9 prints (Lots 2-10) of the Tombs of Mamelouks, it could have been a difficult series but the smart auctionneer 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 to hope to grab something. Every single lot was sold.

Lot 11 was a composition designed in tondo making a link with Le Gray’s 12 years of activity as a photographer in France. This link convinced American museums and starting at 3,000 the vue sold for 50,000 euros.

Lot 12 was a very unusual capture of the pyramids, hidden among trees, in good condition but with the background affected by the natural light of the sun. A strong 19,000 euros with an estimate of 4,000.

Lot 13 Sphinx was a bit light and made only 11,000

The boats at Girgeh made 8,000 euros. Boat collectors were an active minority on that day.

Lot 16 were a pair of inscriptions, quite a panorama, I bought them for 10,500.

Interesting lots 17-27 made solid prices 2-5 times the low estimates, bought for example by collectors Serge Kakou and Daniel Wolf, agent Adnan Sezer and myself.

Lot 28 was the cover of one of the catalogues. Note that this auction had two printed paper catalogues, one dedicated exclusively to Le Gray prints and the other to both Le Gray and the complement. Lot 28 was a vertical (the only vertical) view of Karnak Great Hypostyle Hall. Seven bidders brought the result up to 38,000 euros

Then were coming up the Edfou temple views with human presence. Could we guess Le Gray’s silhouette among them ? The answer is certainly yes, but let’s reserve the answer for the pleasure of the owner.

Lot 29 went for 18,000 euros, 31 for 31,000, 33 for 34,000. Let’s await announcements from the Getty and the National Gallery (Washington) as to which ones they bought.

Lot 34 was a pure photographic pleasure of composition, perspective through the royal doors in Thebes, 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.

Lot 37 was the flagship of the sale, the print which made major American museum directors change their Paris-Photo busy agenda to find an hour to view the print, and made also many visitors reorganize their Paris travel plans. Great Hypostyle Hall as a horizontal view (Sylvie Aubenas catalogue notice 210) a rich print with strong contrast, reminiscent of the chef-d’œuvre printed by Le Gray 10 years earlier.

Starting at 5,000, 15 to 20 potential bidders were waiting in line to be invited by the auctioneer, and if some lost the occasion when the bid reached 50,000 there were still seven at 80,000, three at 150,000 euros, and then Charles Isaacs just stopped, followed by Denis Canguilhem and Hans Kraus got it for 156,000 euros.

The room was happy, the audience has had its show.

Lots 38-47 made 2-5 times the estimate, except lot 44 with characters which went to 30,000 euros.

Then boat composition lovers watched a big fight between Adnan Sezer and the internet, lot 48 went for 33,000, 50 for 6,000 and 51 for 52,000 euros.

The interesting minimalist composition n°52, Nile at Assouan, had a small defect in the lower waters and went for 32,000 euros.

Lot 53 was considered the second strongest print in the auction, while some bidders did not consider it at all. Anyway American bidders went up to 90,000 euros.

Lots 55 and 57, animated but well known and published and described went only for 10,000 and 5 200 euros. The room prefered the totally unknown prints.

Collectors Serge Kakou, Daniel Wolf, agent 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 1,200 euros.

The 67 lots representing 71 prints (2 lots with 2 prints, one with 3) were sold for a total of 913,900 euros. A nice success. A strong result. The emotion was so great that Journal des Arts sent an alarm : « Le voyage sur le Nil de Gustave Le Gray fait un carton, the Auction goes over 900 millions euros !»

Optimists will say it is a real market rebound that has hit a solid footing. Pessimists will consider it is a singularity. But then, I will add that a week before, in Italy where the law is smoother now about export, 3 Le Gray prints of the same views of Egypt went for 7,000, 8,000 and 43,000 dollars. The whole story of Photography is a story of singularities, and we will observe the contemporary art market fly away on different rules, without return.

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