The Book War at the French Auction House Drouot

- by Thibault Ehrengardt

Hennepin fraysse 02

The Hennepin, estimated at €300, went for €2,500.

Travel books ain’t worth a dime

There was a travel books section to the sale. Though specialized in this particular field, Mr. Know-it bought almost none of them - at least officially. “Travel books don’t sell anymore”, he said to his friend sitting beside him (the one who looked at every single book during the sale). While Carpeau de Sussay’s Voyage de Madagascar (1722) went for 950 euros before the commission (of 22% for this sale), he shrugged: “A very nice copy has been on the shelf of my bookshop for more than a year. For 1,200 euros – nobody wants it. Travel books are all over the internet now, it was the worst kind of books to specialize in.” His friend nodded: “Who could have guessed?” Indeed, travel books stand among the most prestigious ones. Is Mr. Know-it a little bitter? Or is he just cunningly trying to discourage every one around him from venturing into his territory? As the classical Ravenau de Lussan’s Journal du Voyage fait à la Mer du Sud avec les Flibustiers (1689) reached a 500 euros bid, Mr. Know-it turned around, realized that the bidder was no one he knew, and overbid him - 510 euros. When he was eventually handed the book, he obviously looked at it for the first time, frowning at the torn top cap. He never intended to buy it, he just made sure this book would not go for too low a price… at least to someone else.

When one of the nicest books of the sale came up, Hennepin’s Nouvelle Découverte d’un Pays situé dans l’Amérique… (1698, including the first engraving of Niagara Falls), the expert read the ridiculous appraisal of 300 euros and said: “Let’s start at 150…” Mr. Know-it giggled : “Waste not our time, 1,000 euros!” Then he looked the other way as the sale went on – the book was sold for 2,500 euros. Mr. Know-it did exactly the same thing regarding the rare Pigafetta’s relation of Magellan’s travel (1801) that went for 1,350 euros (appraisal 300). As hours, and items, were passing by, Mr. Know-it’s friend marveled: “You don’t bid on this one?” The bookseller laughed: “Yes I do, I have someone over the phone, bidding for me. Look at this idiot over there, he spies at me. Every time I bid on a book, he overbids me without even knowing why.” Mr. Know-it knows how to cross his enemies – he even plays tricks on them. At one point, he said: “1,000 euros!” for a book. His “enemy” said at once: “1,100 euros!” and won the item while Mr. Know-it burst out laughing with his friend. No pity on this battlefield. And when the same “enemy ” won a copy of Zarate’s Histoire du Pérou at a good price, Mr. Know-it turned towards him: “I did not pressure you on this one, you noticed?” a way to tell him not to pressure him on a next one. That’s how things go, at Drouot. Nothing is for free. Is it about books? Sure, but always bear in mind that it is also about money.

Thibault Ehrengardt