Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2016 Issue

The Golden Calf – the First Pierre Bergé Sale

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Pierre Bergé (© Pierre Bergé and associates)

The first sale of Pierre Bergé’s collection was a success as it generated 11.7 millions euros. But are the exorbitant prices of these books a good omen for the future of old books?

 

«Yes, the sale was a success and Pierre Bergé is very happy about the results,» confesses Benoit Forgeot, the main expert for the sale. The first of the six auction sales took place at Drouot’s on Friday, 11 December, and the room was so packed it was almost impossible to come in. Many prestigious people attended, including the French thinker, Alain Minc, who is the administrator of the Foundation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, and the controversial Jean-Claude Vrain, involved in the Aristophil scandal—a 800 millions euros bankruptcy over old manuscripts with 18,000 abused investors. Many influential people had left absentee bids while others anxiously waited over the phone or behind their computer screens. Pierre Bergé was in a nearby building, closely following the sale. The atmosphere was good, according to our expert, but it was actually a little tense as a lot of money was at stake. Pierre Bergé, said to be a tough man, was very demanding, especially as far as appraisals were concerned. «He required that they should be quite high,» says Mr Forgeot, «and we had to argue with him over several of them to make them as appealing as possible.» At the end of the day, the 85 years-old businessman, and former companion of the late Yves Saint Laurent, was not disappointed.

 

Results

 

« It is one of the biggest collections in the world,» underlines Mr Forgeot, «and it is very open on various cultures, periods and writers. Pierre Bergé clearly chose his books with care. Furthermore, he granted us, the experts an invaluable favour by leaving us totally in charge of the catalogue.» And what a catalogue! A thick in-folio volume that looks like a Bible, the result of an eight-month full-time job. The auction house of Pierre Bergé is used to important sales, as it was already in charge of the sale of Pierre Beres’ collection that generated some 35 millions of euros a few years ago. But Pierre Bergé’s collection should gather even more. «The six sales altogether should generate around 40 millions,» he says. « We’ve just collected 11.7 millions euros with this first one even though six important books (out of 180) had been retrieved from the sale, including the manuscript of André Breton’s Nadja, which was directly sold to the National Library of France.» There were a few disappointing results, though; including the folio edition of William Shakespeare’s works, which didn’t go over 200,000 euros—a very fair price, indeed. The first edition of Montaigne's Essais was sold for 140,000 euros only. Pierre Bergé was personally unhappy about the 368,000 euros obtained for the first edition of Madame Bovary dedicated by Flaubert to “the master”—meaning Victor Hugo. Coming across the buyer, Jean-Claude Vrain, a few minutes after the sale was over, he told him: “You got it for nothing. If you want to sell it back, I promise I’ll buy it back from you.”

 

Yet, Mr Forgeot is quite satisfied with this result: «Pierre Bergé’s reaction is emotional, we can’t fight it. But it is actually a good price.» Other books sold very well, including the manuscript of Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale (470,000 euros), the works of Louise Labé (see previous article—430,000 euros) or Les Fleurs du Mal by Baudelaire (notwithstanding the appraisal of 60,000 euros, it went for 225,000 euros), which was also bought by Jean-Claude Vrain. The first edition of Saint Augustin’s Confessions sold for a very good price too (260,000 euros), and when a gorgeous drawing of Victor Hugo went for 400,000 euros, the audience gave a round of applause. For his part, Jean-Claude Vrain made it clear that he is not retired from business yet. Though said to be ruined, he eventually bought for more than almost 2 million worth of books, shouting his name out loud to the auctioneer as a challenge. He probably had orders from some discreet buyers, and was overheard saying: «I’m still getting hard as wood!»

 

The rich buyers get richer

 

The market is supposedly morose but these incredibly expensive books were sold at very high prices, and the few ones that did not meet the reserve price are already in the process of being sold aside. So, what does such a sale tell us about the market for old books? It might seem a very good omen, but at the same time, the ever-increasing prices of exceptional books go along with the ever-decreasing prices of “ordinary” ones. It is the painful stigma of the general situation: a deep economical crisis that makes the rich richer, and which gives a hard blow to the middle-class. Under these conditions, old books obviously represent a good investment for wealthy people—well, at least the exceptional ones. «Whereas exceptional books become more and more expensive, the ordinary ones get less and less expensive,» commented Mr Forgeot. He then quotes several sales that recently made impressive results, such as Sotheby’s Pirie sale in New York (15 millions) or Christies’ in Paris (3 millions). «You must make the difference between the “learned buyers”, who buy old books that are not available otherwise, and the collectors. The first ones used to buy ordinary books because they wanted to read them. Booksellers would organise the rarity of these books to maintain high prices.”

 

The Internet revolution has freed these buyers from the yoke of their suppliers. Indeed, a quick search on the Addall website, for example, will demonstrate that most old books are not that rare. “These buyers have stopped buying books at over the top prices,” says Mr Forgeot. “They buy reprints or they read on-line, and this is hurting the market of ordinary old books. But the collectors, who are interested in exceptional copies, buy more than ever.” So, who are these “collectors”? “People who do not buy books, but objects. They don’t necessarily read their books, but they simply buy icons. In this regard, the more our world becomes virtual the more these icons become valuable.” Mr Forgeot here quotes an unexpected example: the success of Aristophil. Beg your pardon? “I’m not talking about the scandal here, but about their former exhibitions of old manuscripts. The one of the French writer Romain Gary, for example, was twice extended when hosted in 2010! To be truthful, I love Romain Gary, but I would not have bet a dime on this project. It shows that people are now longing for this kind of relationship with art.” Does it mean that people queue in front of exhibitions just like the Romans queued in front of the temples of their divinities? It has always been a touchy subject; but if Mr Forgeot is right, then bibliophilism will soon be nothing but idolatry. This would be quite ironic, if books, which took Man out the dark cave of ignorance and superstition, should become the objects of Man’s pagan worshipping. No wonder they will get more and more expensive, then. The calf of the Jews was not made of clay, was it?

 

Pierre Bergé, who used to call his antiquarian books his “best friends”, confesses, in one of the promotional videos for the sale that he did not read them, out of “respect”. Just like princesses during the days of courteous love, books are worshipped, but hardly honoured. What’s the use, then, to get “hard as wood”? Mr Forgeot is an optimist, and he rejoices. He who loves building up catalogues and talking about books and their authors, sees a bright future ahead, full of learned booksellers who will explain books, describe them with passion... to impotent (but rich) buyers of pagan icons? Hallelujah! Or should we say, Hallelu-aristophil?

 

(c) Thibault Ehrengardt

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Helvelius. Two Autograph Letters Signed to Francis Aston, Royal Society Secretary, noting his feud with Robert Hooke, 5 pp total, 1685. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Newton, Isaac. Autograph manuscript on God, 4 pp, c.1710, "In the beginning was the Word...."?$100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. First edition, first issue. Untrimmed copy in contemporary boards. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Lincoln, Abraham. Signed photograph, beardless portrait with Civil War provenance. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> IMPEACHMENT. Original engrossed copy of the first Andrew Johnson impeachment resolution vote. $120,000 to $180,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Mucha, Alphonse. 11 original pencil drawings for?<i>Andelicek z Baroku,</i> "Litte Baroque Angel," Prague, 1929. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Einstein, Albert. Annotated Galley Proofs for <i>The Meaning of Relativity.</i> 1921. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Silverstein, Shel. Original maquette for <i>The Giving Tree,</i> 34 original drawings. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Roth, Philip. Typed Manuscript with substantial autograph corrections for an unpublished sequel to <i>The Breast.</i> $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Taupin, Bernie. Autograph Manuscript, the original draft of lyrics for Elton John's "Candle in the Wind," 2 pp, 1973. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> HARVEY, WILLIAM. <i>De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus Anatomica Exercitatio.</i> Padua: 1643. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> CESALPINO, ANDREA. <i>Peripateticarum Quaestionum Libri Quinque.</i> Venice: 1571. $30,000 to $40,000.
  • <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Leon TOLSTOÏ. <i>Anna Karenina.</i> Moscou, 1878. First and full edition of the Russian novel, in the author’s language.<br>Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Mark TWAIN. <i>Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's comrade).</i> New York, 1885. First American edition.<br>Est. 5 000 / 6 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Walt WHITMAN. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> Brooklyn, New York, 1856. Second edition gathering 32 poems. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Karen BLIXEN. <i>Out of Africa.</i> Londres, 1937. First edition in the UK, before Danish translation and American release.<br>Est. 1 500 / 2 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Ernest HEMINGWAY. <i>A Farewell to Arms.</i> New York, 1929. First edition with $2.50 on the dust and A on the copyright page.<br>Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Ulysses.</i> Paris, Shakespeare and Company, 1922. First edition published by Sylvia Beach. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Dubliners.</i> Londres, 1914. First edition. Nice copy in publisher’s cardboard. Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Franz KAFKA. 8 novels in German first edition, published in München, Leipzig and Berlin 1916-1931. Est. from 300 / 400 to 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> David Herbert LAWRENCE. <i>Lady Chatterley's Lover.</i> Florence, 1928. Privately printed first edition. Est. 4 000 / 5 000 €
    John STEINBECK. <i>The Grapes of Wrath.</i> New York, 1939. First edition. Nice copy with $2.75 on the cover. Est. 1 000 / 1 200 €
  • <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Harriet Tubman Cabinet Card by H.S. Squyer, Auburn, NY, 1892. $10,000 to $15,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Scarce <i>Events of the Tulsa Disaster,</i> First Edition, 1922. $4,000 to $6,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Unpublished CDV of Frederick Douglass by Benjamin F. Smith, 1864. $3,000 to $5,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> California Imprint of <i>President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation</i> Broadside, 1864. $10,000 to $15,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> John C.H. Grabill Cabinet Card of Buffalo Soldier Wearing Buffalo Coat, ca 1886. $8,000 to $10,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Rare <i>What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking,</i> 2nd Cookbook Published by African American. $6,000 to $8,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Frederick Douglass Walking Stick, 1888. $3,000 to $5,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Only Known Slave Narrative Published Independently in California, <i>Life and Adventures of James Williams.</i> $2,000 to $4,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Rare First Edition of History of Black Literature, Abbé Grégoire <i>De La Littérature des Nègres</i>. $2,500 to $3,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> African American Soldier and Medal of Honor Winner Christian A. Fleetwood CDV, PLUS. $8,000 to $10,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries Pennant, 1910 Reno, Nevada. $2,000 to $4,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Joe Gans Photograph at 1906 Goldfield, Nevada Fight by Percy Dana. $600 to $800
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Jane Austen, <i>Sense and Sensibility: A Novel, By a Lady,</i> 3 volumes, London, 1811. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Virginia Woolf, <i>Kew Gardens,</i> limited edition, signed by Woolf & Bell, London, 1927. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> <i>[Arabian Nights],</i> Calcutta II version, 4 volumes, Calcutta & London, 1839-1842. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Princess Diana, 6 ALS to <i>Harper’s Bazaar</i> editor, anticipating Christie’s sale of her dresses for charity, 1995-97. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Jane Austen, <i>Emma,</i> first edition, London, 1816. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Hirohito & Nagako, Emperor & Empress of Japan, 2 photographs signed, showing Nagako in kimono & obi bearing the imperial seal. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Princess Diana, 6 autograph letters signed to <i>Harper’s Bazaar</i> editor Elizabeth Tilberis, anticipating Christie’s announcement of a sale of her dresses for charity, 1995-97. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Sarojini Naidu, complete galley proof of <i>The Broken Wing</i> signed with several holograph pages & an autograph letter signed to writer Edmund Gosse, 1916. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Fernando Pessoa, <i>Mensagem,</i> first edition, presentation copy, signed & inscribed, Lisbon, 1934. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Graham Greene, <i>The Basement Room,</i> first edition, Greene’s personal copy, signed with annotations throughout, London, 1935. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Abraham Lincoln, partly-printed document signed, call for troops issued during America’s first national draft just days before the NYC draft riots, 1863. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b><br><i>Les Chansons de Bilitis</i> by Pierre Louÿs, illustrated by George Barbier & F.L. Schmied, Paris, 1922. $8,000 to $12,000.

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