Travel Books Auction at Drouot, Paris
Mr. Forgeot, the expert, during the exhibition at Drouot, Paris.
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.
Travel Books Auction at Drouot, Paris
Pierre Berge's auction at Drouot.
THE UPS AND DOWNS OF A HAMMER
China stands amongst the most fashionable destinations in travel books nowadays and the 16 engravings representing the conquests of the Emperor of China (1 in-folio album and 24 plates printed in Paris in 1788, and bound in modern half-morocco) went for 14,000 euros. “This was a good surprise, said Mr. Forgeot. I think it never made such a price before.” On the contrary, other books about China made reasonable prices such as Ceva’s Réflexions sur les affaires présentes de la Chine (1 vol., old morocco, circa 1709 – 800 euros), or Le Comte’s Nouveaux Mémoires sur l’état présent de la Chine (3 vol. in contemporary morocco, Paris 1697-98 – 7,800 euros). Du Halde’s Description géographique, historique, chronologique, politique, et physique de l’empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise (4 volumes in-folio, Paris 1735) did not meet the reserve price and was retrieved at 18,000 euros.
The West Indies remain a sure value as two bidders fought hard for a very fine copy of Du Tertre’s Histoire Générale des Antilles habitées par les François (3 vol. in-4°, full contemporary calf, Paris 1667-71 – 11,500 euros) while the classic work of Labat, Nouveau Voyage aux isles de l’Amérique (6 vol. in-12°, full contemporary calf and the coat of arms of La Rochefoucauld on each board, a very fine copy) went for 11,800 euros. “This price is fully justified, Mr. Forgeot said. It is a very valuable book and it is very rare to find it with armories.” Charlevoix’s Histoire de l’isle espagnole ou de S. Domingue (2 volumes in-4°, full contemporary calf, a very fine copy – 4,500 euros) went beyond the appraisal of Mr. Forgeot while Bossu’s Nouveaux voyages aux Indes occidentales (1 vol. in full contemporary calf) never reached the appraisal of 4,000 euros, culminating at 3,800 euros. In fact, it was not “adjugé”. “This is incredible,” Mr Forgeot. underlined. “This is an exceptional book. Bossu’s Voyages is not that rare, but it is a very interesting read to start with. Plus, our copy is stamped with Mme Du Deffand’s golden cats on the back!” This “dame” (1697-1780) is very famous as an “esprit des Lumières”. D’Alembert, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Fontenelle, Marivaux or Horace Walpole were amongst her acquaintances and would attend her “salon” in Paris. In 1767, she went blind and asked her niece, Julie de Lespinasse, to live with her and to read her some books. “She certainly read this copy to her aunt”, stated the expert in the catalogue. “Books with this golden cat stamp are so few,” Mr. Forgeot continued. “Mostly a travel book of this quality.” Another deception came with Andrade’s Lettere annue del Tibet... (Rome, 1628) which did not meet the reserve at 2,800 euros.
The last part of the auction focused on some beautiful travel books from the early 19th century such as Milbert’s Itinéraire pittoresque du fleuve Hudson... (2 vol. in-4° and a in-folio Atlas, Paris 1828-29 – 7,800 euros), Rugendas’ classic work on Brazil, Voyage pittoresque dans le Brésil (in-folio, Paris 1835 – 19,500 euros) or Dupaix’ wonderful Antiquités méxicaines (1 vol. for the text, 1 vol. in-folio for the atlas, Paris 1844 – 22,500 euros). One of the most anticipated lots was Castelnau’s Expédition dans les parties centrales de l’Amérique... (13 vo. in-8°, in-4° and in-folio, in contemporary half binding – Paris 1861). Castelnau’s travel in South America is a testimony of an “expanding world” as Mr. Forgeot would say. The explorer went from Quito to La Paz and sailed the Amazon River. When he came back, four years later, he was very sick and almost blind. The 493 plates are said to be extraordinary and 272 of those illustrating this copy were contemporary hand coloured. “This monumental work is today still of great scientific value...” says Borba de Moraes (1), quoted in the catalogue. This unique set went for 44,000 euros, the highest bid of the auction.
ENGLISH WRITTEN BOOKS
There were a few books written in English that might be of interest to our readers, including the relation of Mendez Pinto, a Portuguese traveller who went to remote countries such as Ethiopia, China or Japan during the first half of the 17th century. Though said to be partially fictional, his relation, originally published in Portugal, was quickly translated into English, and printed in London in 1653. Our copy had been rebacked, had worn corners and some foxing. It still went for 3,000 euros.
The original English edition of Krascheninnikof’s The History of Kamtschatka... (Glocester, 1764) is the very first scientific account of Kamtschatka and it went for 2,300 euros. One of the most attractive lots of the sale was the diary of Admiral Lord Collingwood, written while commanding the British fleet in the Mediterranean. This unique historical piece, written from Collingwood’s own hand between Decembre 1807 and January 1810, came from the private library of the American banker André de Coppet, and was nicely bound in a contemporary vellum. The 26 leaves ended up on a detailed account of the Roses Battle off Costa Brava, that saw the French triumphing – a lovely memory, I must say. Collingwood died shortly after, in 1810, on board of the Ville de Paris, a magnificent French vessel captured by the English in the West Indies at the end of 18th century – an unhappy memory, I must confess. This valuable document did not meet the reserve price neither, to the despair of Mr. Forgeot: “this is such a valuable document! I was expecting much more than 8,000 euros for a hero of Trafalgar.” This item, who knows, might be relisted in the next part of this interesting auction sale – we’ll find out and let you know.
Books are like people, you can not explain why you suddenly fall in love with one of them. I had no special interest in the first lot of this auction until I held it in my hands. Historiale Description de l’Afrique by Léon l’Africain (Anvers, 1556), first published in 1550, is a wonderful book, the perfect hyphen between travel and knowledge. This gorgeous copy, bound in old vellum, had an incredible smell and was fitting the palm of my hand like a miracle. I was fascinated by the lettres printed on the paper, by the magnificent woodcuts in the text – some desert warriors, an intriguing camel... These drawings, still uncertain and yet at the forefront of their time, tell us so much about our human brothers who before us lived. They are like the echoes of a remote world, so familiar and yet so elusive. Unfortunately, a most fortunate book lover took this one home. Behind the velvet curtains of Drouot, more than anywhere else, miracles have a price – and this particular one was worth 3,900 euros before the commission, if the reserve was ever met!
(1) Bora de Moraes (Rubens). Bibliographia Brasiliana. 2e édition. Rio de Janeiro, 1983. 2 volumes.
Useful links :
- Pierre Bergé & Associés : www.pba-auctions.com
- Librairie Benoît Forgeot : www.forgeot.com