The Tears of Jesse James
Among the most striking items was a peculiar face book that grouped a hundred of New-York criminals’ portraits in a wooden box. Names and occupations (horse thief, burglar, pickpocket, murderer...) were written on the back of these photographs that were taken around 1880, probably for the sake of a detective agency. (Appraisal: 30 to 40,000 euros—but it was also ravalé.) There was also a morbid photo album entitled Chinese Torture relating the martyr of a Chinese convict slowly cut into pieces by his executioner. Fu-Zhu-Li, as he was named, was the last victim of the famous Lingchi torture—or languishing death—, abolished in 1905. In his book Les Larmes d’Eros (1961), the French author Georges Bataille wrote about one of these pictures: “It played a key role in my life. I’ve never ceased being haunted by this representation of pain—both ecstatic and unbearable.” In fact, the victim was given a strong dose of opium before the torture started. (Appraisal: 2 to 3,000 euros—sold for 2,700 euros). There was also an outstanding portrait of Jesse James in a gorgeous golden frame; his widow allegedly sold them on the outlaw’s grave. (Appraisal: 2 to 3,000 euros—not sold).
Ups and Downs
According to M Forgeot, the sale generated 490,000 euros (before the outstanding 27.60% commission—as a sale is always more or less about money), and a third of the items weren’t sold. “This is a satisfying result,” he said, “especially if we consider the difficult topic of the collection.” This was a consequent sale (423 items), and there were good surprises, as well as bad ones. “Among the unsold items, feature a series of documents about Ravaillac (the murderer of King Henry IV, who suffered an incredibly savage execution), an edict against sodomy, and several documents linked to the trial of Damiens, the man who tried to kill Louis XV.” The first edition of L’Esprit des Loix by Montesquieu, estimated between 12 and 15,000 euros, was sold for 11,000 euros only. On the contrary, a letter written by Emile Zola to Dreyfus’ lawyer was sold for 20,000 euros. “After the idiotic controversy over Mein Kampf, I’m glad the best adjudication of the sale concerns a document linked to the Dreyfus affair,” rejoiced M Forgeot (Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army, was wrongfully convicted for treason, mainly because he was a Jew. Emile Zola took his side—the famous J’accuse...!—and had him acquitted after a twelve year-long battle. This affair has become a symbol of the fight against anti-Semitism in France). There was also the rather insignificant item 379, a book entitled 9m2. Published in 2006, it compiles the works of various artists who reflected over the living conditions of a human being in a tiny prison cell. “I didn’t care about the price, I just wanted it to be sold,” underlined M Forgeot who had added this book to the sale as a Trojan horse. “It was a way for me to say that this collection was more than about books.” These documents indeed reflect a face of our society we tend to ignore. Crime is here, and is inevitable. It was, is and will always be. But the way we choose to cope with it tells a lot about ourselves. Tell how you deal with crime, I’ll tell you who you are.