THE EXPERT’S CHOICE
The Drouot auction house, in Paris, has something of a 19th century brothel look with its tiny staircases leading to different rooms, upstairs or downstairs, the red carpeted walls, the confidential and cozy atmosphere. Everything here is but luxury, peace and pleasure – but behind the velvet curtains, fierce and dark passions are at work. Anyone can enter this sanctuary, no questions asked. Paintings, furniture, jewellery, antiquarian books... the seven wonders of the world have gone through Drouot ever since it opened its doors in 1852. In this living and free museum, touching, smelling and manipulating items is not only authorized but recommended. You are your own man in Drouot. I remember casually attending an exposition of pre-columbian art, one day, as I was waiting for another sale to begin. I was mesmerized by some incredible small figures of animals shaped in pure gold when I heard two aged gentlemen besides me. One of them was so moved, his voice was uneven as he said to his friend: “do you realize that this is the most impressive exposition of this type that ever happened in France?” That is Drouot.
On March the 7th, around 11 A.M, I found the room number 7 quietly busy as some potential buyers were sitting in front of a red carpeted table, religiously studying the books some assistants would present to them on demand. Stored in the usual glass chests, the 151 items of the Pierre Bergé’s sale were patiently enduring the covetous looks of their next masters. The former owner (at least for a majority of them), Jean-Paul Morin, is the grandson of the painter Jean Sala, and also the former financial director of the famous Publicis company. A traveller himself, Morin has focused on travel books over the years, paying attention to both the contents and the binding. To make some room in his life, he recently decided to part company with a few books...
I picked up a catalogue on the table and started to go through the pages with excitement – Pierre Bergé’s stands amongst the most famous auction houses and the quality of its catalogues is always impressive (Mr Bergé is the former companion of the late Yves Saint Laurent). Not only are they an everlasting source of bibliophilism but they also contain gorgeous pictures of bindings, engravings - they are just the perfect coffee table book.
The expert for this sale was Mr. Benoît Forgeot, a well-known bookseller who has been in the business for 25 years, from Geneva to Paris where he currently runs his own bookshop - he was, amongst other things, responsible for the sale of the Napoleonic library of Mr Dominique de Villepin, a former French Prime Ministre. Talking about the catalogue he established for Pierre Bergé’s, he said: “the idea was to describe these books in a way that reminds that they are, first and foremost, the results of some incredible human adventures. These authors were real travellers who were risking their lives across the globe. These are their testimonies.” Mr Forgeot has seen many books in his life and simplicity seems to move him above all things today. He picked up a small octavo volume on the shelf, Viaggio dell’Indie orientali, by Gasparo Balbi, a gorgeous book printed in Venice in 1590 and bound in contemporary vellum. “It is not necessarily the most impressive item of the auction, said he. It is a small book, with no illustration... But it is the quintessence of a travel book. The author was a diamond merchant in Venice, no doubt a very comfortable social position. Nevertheless, he decided to travel as far as the remote Burma, in a time when traveling was very dangerous, to look for precious stones and to report on what he saw. It is a simple and genuine relation.” Mr Forgeot is not the only one to value “simplicity” as the book was eventually sold at 20,000 euros (appraisal 6-8,000 euros).
Another book attracted our expert’s attention: Brazil Pittoresco, by Charles Ribeyrolles and Victor Frond (Rio de Janeiro, 1859 for the text / Paris, 1861 for the atlas), a very rare set hardly seen complete, as the 3 volumes of text and the atlas were published separately on two different continents. “If you take a quick look at the 69 plates, said Mr. Forgeot while opening the gigantic atlas, you might think they are photographs. Victor Frond was a photographer, indeed – a pioneer. But take a closer look and you will see that these are lithographs! Frond had them made from his own photographs. This philosophy is at the crossroad of two periods of art and history. It is the symbol of an expanding world, a world in motion, full of energy and of creativity. The binding is contemporary but quite modest.” The appraisal was still impressive, ranging from 35,000 to 45,000 euros - it went for 41,000 euros. Appraisals are a crucial part of an auction. Too low, they undermine the quality of the auction and upset buyers attracted by unrealistic expectations; too high, they discourage everyone – even worse when you consider the very expensive commission of 25% announced by the auction house for this sale. “Pierre Bergé’s, like most of the auction houses, followed the movement recently initiated by Christie’s and raised its commission,” the expert said. Prices in the following article will be given free of commission.
Times are difficult, even for antiquarian books as it seems. Generating 600,000 euros (according to Mr Forgeot), this sale was “satisfactory in the economical situation,” Mr. Forgeot stated. A third of the lots were not sold but discreetly retrieved from the sale when not meeting the reserve price - when the auctioneer let his hammer fall, you have to hear him say the word “ adjugé ”, or the sale is not completed. “Nowadays,” Mr Fergeot observed, “you hardly get a good bargain for an ordinary book without any specific binding, or a coat of arms. On the other hand, when you have something exceptional, you can expect a very good sale.” Good or bad, this rather short auction of 152 lots (for books only) gave a few surprises.
PROGRESS AND THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF FRANCE
Most people might call it progress, I still call it a flat screen on a stand. There was a time when every item was physically shown, at least partially, during an auction. It was the job of the assistants. I loved it, it added a touch of tragic to the auction and it could also urge the buyers to bid on a book they had not seen during the exposition. Nowadays, maybe because of the recent scandal involving the former assistants of Drouot, we have pictures on a screen – progress. It creates confusion, sometimes. There was this guy sitting on the third row, who started to panic after saying “ 7,500”. Suddenly, he anxiously looked at the catalogue, then around him, frantically asking everyone: “what’s the number of this lot? 46? It is not 46, is it?!”
In those not so remote times, the highest bidder could also say “I keep it!” once the hammer had fallen. Then, an assistant would bring him his item right away. In a lucky day, you could end up with a pile of old books on your knees in the middle of the feverish sale, a taste of Paradise to any book lover. This is over too. Nowadays, all items are stored in a backroom where you have to pick them up when you decide to leave. Well, progress did not prevent the merciless buyers to fight over the books offered this day. Amongst the crowd, two booksellers, well-known for their unfriendly rivalry, outbid each other over a few items to the auctioneer’s delight. Another bookseller spent some 100,000 euros in less than an hour; a lot of people bid on the phone while others had left some absentee bids (not to mention the reserve prices, discreetly disguised under false absentee bids – so that no one becomes demoralized, I guess). But the most unbeatable opponent this day calmly sat on a chair from which he stood at the end of a couple of auctions to loudly declare, as required : “the National Library of France might use its pre-emptive right over this item.” Notwithstanding the frustration of the highest bidder, this guy always has the last word. As the catalogue read, the French State is entitled to use its right of pre-emption on works of art or private document. And it did, this day, on a few items, including two unusual globes. The first one was a Privilegirter pneumatisch portativer Erdglobus printed on silk paper in 1830, coming with its incredible blower - this “globe by Cella has more text with explanations and other records of discovery than the globe of Pocock which served as its model” (Dekker), quoted the catalogue. The appraisal was 2-3,000 euros - it went for 4,500 euros. The second item was a Bett’s Patent Portable Globe printed on silk in London circa 1880 (2,800 euros). The National Library of France has 15 days to make up its mind – if it does not manifest in this interval, the items return to the best bidders.
A representative from the National Archives was also here. She had come, as a few others, for the item number 105, an exceptional set of 19 handwritten lettres taken from the correspondence of Hyacinthe de Bougainville and Paul de Nourquer du Camper during their historical expedition to the South Seas between 1824 and 1826. “This was one of the most promising items of the sale, said Mr. Forgeot. But the day before, we received an official lettre from the Ministry of Defence, stating that these papers were of interest to the State and ordering us to retrieve them from the sale. I wanted to ignore their order but the auctioneer could not take the risk.” The legislation is not clearly applied in those cases and this particular one might take some time to come to a satisfying conclusion.