PARIS—On June 29, Sotheby’s Paris auctioned off 139 works from the bank vault of the legendary Parisian art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard. Although the Paris auction, of mainly drawings and prints, attracted quite a bit of attention, sales were patchy, mixing some highs with some surprising lows, and the auction, estimated at €2 million/3 million, fetched a total of €3.6 million ($4.3 million) comfortably in line with presale estimates. The most sought-after artwork in the consignment had sold in London the previous week, on June 22—André Derain’s 1905 painting Arbres à Collioure, which fetched £16.3 million ($24 million) and set a record for Fauvist painting (ANL, 6/29/10).
The works auctioned in Paris came from a long-lost treasure trove of paintings, prints, books and drawings by late-19th- and early-20th-century artists in the collection of the celebrated dealer, who played a significant role in the markets for Impressionist and modern art and represented such painters as Auguste Renoir, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso.
Works for the sale were discovered in 1979 in a safe at Société Générale in Paris; they had been deposited there in 1939, soon after the dealer died in a mysterious car accident at the age of 73, by Erich Slomovic, a young Croatian who had befriended the dealer (how he came to possess the works is still unclear). Slomovic brought other works from Vollard’s collection back to Yugoslavia in suitcases, but died in a Nazi mobile killing unit in 1942. The stash was forgotten, and the vault remained untouched.
Four decades later, the vault was still forgotten, and no one came to claim its contents. In March 1979, some bank clerks obtained legal permission to open the safe, hoping to sell off some of its contents in order to recover the unpaid storage fees. They fell upon a bonanza: the artworks by Cézanne, Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, Renoir, Edgar Degas, Derain, Bonnard and Man Ray from Vollard’s collection. The bank consigned the works to Paris auction house Drouot, which planned a sale in 1981. But the consignment was contested by Vollard’s heirs, and eventually canceled by court order. A lengthy legal battle ensued. After years of delay, the French courts turned over a small percentage of the works to Slomovic’s estate, granting the majority to that of the dealer.
The top lot in Paris was Le repas frugal, a 1904 Blue Period etching by Picasso, which brought in €720,750 ($880,439), doubling its estimate of €180,000/300,000.
The second-highest seller was a monotype with highlights in black ink by Degas depicting a brothel, La fête de la patronne, 1878–80. It sold for €516,750 ($631,241) surpassing its estimate of €200,000/300,000. A color lithograph by Renoir, Le chapeau épinglé, 1898, tripled its estimate of €60,000/80,000 to fetch a surprising €252,750 ($308,749). A charcoal drawing by Renoir, his self-portrait with a cap, 1915, sold comfortably within the estimate of €100,000/150,000, for €108,750 ($132,845). However, another Renoir color lithograph of children playing ball, ca. 1900, was among many works sold for less than expected, fetching €35,550 ($43,993) against an estimate of €50,000/70,000.
Other top sellers in the Paris sale included Gauguin’s Trois têtes tahitiennes, a recto-verso artwork, monotype on one side and sanguine drawing on the other, which doubled its high estimate of €100,000/150,000, selling for €312,750 ($382,043); two photographs by Man Ray, a self-portrait, 1930, which doubled its estimate of €60,000/80,000 and sold for €168,750 ($206,138); and an untitled still life, 1933, that sold against the same estimate for €78,750 ($96,198). One of the most prominent works up for auction was left unsold: the historic oil portrait of Emile Zola by Cézanne, ca. 1862–1864, and estimated at €500,000/800,000.