PARIS—The estate of French photographer Brassaï (1899-1984) yielded record prices and sales of €5.1 million ($6.5 million), double the presale estimate, at the Paris auction house of Millon & Associés on Oct. 2-3.
With an offering of more than 550 photos, this was the largest ensemble of Brassaï’s work ever made at auction, complemented by lesser-known aspects of his oeuvre—in the form of a dozen sculptures and nearly 200 drawings. After Brassaï died, all the works were carefully preserved in his Left Bank studio by his widow, Gilberte, and were consigned after her death last year.
Buoyed by strong international interest, notably from Germany, Greece, the U.K. and U.S., the 754 lots were 84 percent sold by volume, 95 percent by value. More than 100 lots fetched over €10,000. Paris museums, including the Pompidou Center, bought 11 lots, including a Nude study, circa 1933, in an exhibition print made circa 1960, for €30,400 ($38,600).
Brassaï was born as Gyula Halasz in Transylvania (then part of the Habsburg Empire) in 1899. He settled in Paris in 1924 after stints in Budapest and Berlin, and took up photography after meeting Eugene Atget in 1929. In 1932, inspired by his home town of Brasso, he adopted the pseudonym Brassaï and published Paris de nuit—the book that would launch his reputation and earn him the sobriquet “The Eye Of Paris” from Henry Miller.
A new world auction record for Brassaï—a double-estimate €206,600 ($262,400)—was set by Graffiti I, circa 1968, an original design for the tapestry La harpie, comprising a collage of 23 photographs. This was way above the previous Brassaï auction record of $48,000 in New York in October 2005. In all, ten Graffiti works exceeded €10,000 ($12,700) in Paris; Graffiti serie IX (Images Primitives), one of several large-scale exhibition prints made by Brassaï in the 1950s, took €48,600 ($61,700).
A ca. 1955 exhibition print of Couple fâché, created ca. 1932, made €51,000 ($64,800), while the tiny Graffiti, Le roi soleil sold for €21,900, or $27,800 (estimate: 88,000/10,000), setting a French record for a contact print.
Another aspect of Brassaï’s work in high demand proved to be his gravures. Eight cleared €20,000 ($25,400) each, led by Fille de joie se déshabillant, transmutation 6, ca. 1934-35, at €55,900 ($70,900), over five times the high estimate.
The leading price for a photograph was the double-estimate €103,300 ($131,200) given for a signed and dated vintage print of Pavés, ca. 1931, the famous view of gleaming cobblestones used for Paris de Nuit. A couple d’amoureux assis—bal musette des quatre saisons, ca. 1932, print mounted on board, followed on €55,900 ($70,990).
Brothel scenes were keenly contested; a dozen sold for more than €10,000 each, led by La môme Bijou, ca. 1930-32, a vintage print, at €49,800 ($63,200), six times the high estimate. Brassaï’s eye for erotica aroused keen interest, notably expressed in Nu, an image of a nude hiding behind a curtain, ca. 1932, which brought €34,000 ($43,200). A vintage print of dancing girls backstage at the Folies Bergere, ca. 1932, rated €26,000 ($33,020).
For Brassaï, nighttime Paris also meant gangland, tellingly evoked by Les mauvais garçons de la bande du Grand Albert, created ca. 1931. A print mounted on board around 1955 took €38,900 ($49,400). There were also systematically high prices for his foggy nocturnal views of Paris, led by €24,000 ($30,500) for a gargoyled view of Notre-Dame, ca. 1933.
Other popular subjects ranged from botany—the cactus-strewn Jardin exotique in Monaco, ca. 1945, which fell for €15,800 ($20,000), along with scenes from the Alps, Brittany, Lorraine steelworks, Spain, Morocco and Turkey—to a view of Grand Central Station, New York, ca. 1957, which brought €7,000 ($8,900), seven times the estimate.
Among the reports on artists and their studios that Brassaï produced for Life and Harper’s Bazaar, photographs of Pablo Picasso easily proved the most popular. All 16 sold, notably a Moulage de la main de Picasso, ca. 1943, at €20,000, or $25,400 (estimate: €6,000/8,000). Eight photos with Henri Matisse all sold, led by a view of him, Dessinant un nu au paravent, at €10,300 ($13,000).
Other artists’ photographs to sell solidly in the €3,000/6,500 range included those of Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque, Bernard Buffet, Salvador Dalí, Raoul Dufy, Alberto Giacometti, Oskar Kokoschka, Le Corbusier, Dora Maar, Aristide Maillol and Joan Miró.
All but one of the 12 sensual, previously unseen sculptures found takers, three making more than €25,000 each, with a record €70,500 ($89,500) heralding Galatée, 1971, in white Carrara marble (estimate: €10,000/15,000).
Brassaï’s drawings, however, proved harder to move. Although his Self-Portrait, 1948, in Indian ink, white gouache and blue crayon, sold to a Greek collector for €33,400 ($42,400), 11 times the low estimate and a record for a Brassaï drawing, two-thirds of the 150 drawings—dominated by grotesquely drawn female nudes—failed to sell, and the next-best price was just €4,500 ($5,700).
Nonetheless, fabric patterns sold well, led by a Feuilles (leaf) montage, ca. 1951, at €32,000 ($40,600); and Samourai, a small, one-off tapestry designed by Brassaï in 1972, took €6,075 ($7,700).