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The Arts Voyager, 4-5: Pas si miserable que ca....
DOW got you down? Art market soars... on the wings of Victor Hugo
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak
The financial markets may have fallen yesterday, with the DOW, NASDAQ, and SP 500 all down, but the art market just keeps on going up. And you don't have to be an old Dutch Master or Impressionist or named Francis Bacon, David Hockney, or Andy Warhol to set off frenzied bidding wars, nor do you have to be a millionaire to buy. The action at Christie's Paris yesterday swirled around a certain Victor Hugo and his gifted descendants, with the Hugo Collection, 411 lots of 500 items -- letters, manuscripts, first editions, drawings by the author of "Les Miserables," artworks by his great grandson Jean and his pal Jean Cocteau, Ballets Russes sketches by Jean's wife Valentine, mid-19th century photography by his Victor's son Charles, furniture, and more -- all being sold off by the great man's great-great grandchildren, tripling pre-sale expectations and grossing 3.2 million Euros, with winning bids ranging from three figures to six.
A packed auction room with buyers from 12 countries, including 100 telephone bidders and 54 online buyers, vied to have a piece of vital French literary, cultural, political, and artistic history, with pre-sale estimates as little as 100 Euros for individual lots. Nine lots were secured by state institutions exercising their option to pre-empt winning bidders as long as they pay the hammer price (curiously, none of them literary), including the wedding crown of Victor's daughter Leopoldine -- who tragically drowned in the Seine at the age of 19 along with her husband in 1843, the same year they were married -- which was bought up by the House of Victor Hugo in Paris for 4,750 Euros. But the big winner was the patriarch himself -- not just for his letters, to his fiance, to his fiance's father, to a man responsible for buying his father's tomb at Pere Lachaise, or for his first editions -- but for his art, with 40 sought-after drawings by Victor Hugo fetching 1.2 million Euros, more than the total pre-sale estimate for the entire 411 lots. (Click here to see some examples.) "Souvenir de Belgique," inspired by Hugo's stay in Belgium, his first port of refuge after he exiled himself from France in 1852, and encadred by a frame made by the author himself, went for a whopping 409,000 Euros, five times the highest pre-sale estimate of 80,000 Euros.
Victor Hugo's books and manuscripts came off well too. An original edition of "Les Miserable" from 1862 autographed by the author to his wife Adele, "to you, dear and very dear friend," estimated before the sale at 1,200-1,800 Euros, went for a phenomenal 61,000. (Published in Brussels the same year as the edition published in Paris, this edition of 10 volumes is unusual because it includes certain phrases that, deemed too dangerous for France, were modified in the edition published in France. Even though experts point out that the French edition should be considered the original because it was the only one in which the author corrected the proofs, the Belgian edition was nevertheless published, several days before the French one, according to one expert.) A passionate letter Hugo wrote to his then fiance Adele, probably in 1822, went for 39,400 Euros, after being estimated at 3,000-5,000. In the letter, he tells her, "I've cut short my work so that I can write you some words. I do not consider as lost time time spent writing to you." Noting that Adele is occupied taking care of her sick mother, he observes, "She must be very happy to be suffering because she is being nursed by you. If she feels otherwise, this shows you the difference between maternal love and love, between the love that your parents have for you and that of your Victor...." Hugo's letter consenting to the marriage of his own son, Charles, as well as an account of receipts and expenses for a theatrical production of Hugo's "Chatiments" held during the siege of Paris, were part a collection of documents and notes, the majority autographed, for which the winning bid was 115,000 Euros, after a pre-sale estimate of 1,000-1,500.
The glory was not all the father's: A photograph of Victor's daughter Adele -- the tragic tale of whose unrequited love was told by Francois Truffaut in the 1975 film "The Story of Adele H" -- from the Atelier Hugo-Vacquerie, set up by Charles and his friend the poet Auguste Vacquerie in a side-room off Hugo's second refuge in Jersey in 1852, went for 49,000 Euros, four times the highest pre-sale estimate of 12,000 Euros and a record for photos from the atelier. But that was nothing compared with the bidding war for a set of 10 photographs from 1878 by Edmond Bacot of a production of "Les Miserables"; estimated at 3,000- 5,000 Euros, the collection was sold for 73,000 Euros, a record for an ensemble of photographs by the artist. The doyen of French photo studios himself didn't do so badly, with a self-portrait of Felix Nadar going for the same price, the second-highest ever for his photos at auction.
Indeed, Nadar was not the only non-Hugo luminary whose oeuvre was available at the auction, where work by Jean Cocteau (colleague of Victor's great-grandson Jean, an accomplished artist in his own right), Felix Vallotton, Henry Riviere, and others was also available.
Jean Hugo -- whose offspring ultimately decided to sell off the items that made up the Hugo Collection (read our preview for details) -- did not do badly either, with the 1929 tableau "Les Metamorphoses" leading his 25 works, selling for 69,400 Euros after a pre-sale estimate of 30,000-50,000 Euros. And Jean's wife Valentine Hugo, a noted portraitist of the Ballets Russes, was not to be outdone; her "Four Studies of dancers for Nijinsky," estimated at
600-800 Euros, went for 4,000.
As for Jean Cocteau, he too wildly surpassed expectations; estimated at 100-150 Euros, his portrait of frequent musical collaborator Georges Auric went for 688 Euros.
But lest you think mayhem was prized at the sale of the Hugo Collection, one of the few unsold items was a lot of two woodcuts on wove paper by Felix Vallotton, "L'Anarchiste" and "La Charge" from 1892 and 1893, which had been estimated at a humble 800-1200 Euros, proving that anarchy is not all it was once cracked up to be.