The French police has opened an investigation into the possible forgery of early photographs sold at the provincial auction house Artcurial Deauville on 29 March last year.
Several dealers voiced doubts about the authenticity of the photographs immediately after the sale, but details of the affair did not begin to emerge until December when the vendors brought a lawsuit for non-payment against the auction house.
Last month, the “expert” for the sale (in France, auction houses often employ independent specialists), Grégory Leroy, filed a complaint to the police. “This seems to have been a carefully prepared swindle, we were all taken in,” he says. Commandant Philippe Huet says that there is an investigation against “persons unknown” for alleged faking but could not comment further.
At issue is a catalogue of 83 lots that supposedly came from the family of Charles Edouard de Crespy Le Prince (1784-1850), a minor painter and engraver (the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Museum in Montmorency has one of his works). The catalogue comprised 185 images on salt paper and 73 negatives, all of which are studies of trees and rocks. The works were “rediscovered” according to a catalogue introduction that did not give other details of provenance. The text dated them to 1848, placing them close to the official beginning of photography (1839). Many leading dealers and collectors were present in the saleroom, and others were on the telephone. All the lots sold for prices between €745 and €34,080, mainly within estimate although some of the most expensive made ten times expectations. The sale totalled €554,200. The consignors were given a €100,000 advance.
One of the main buyers was collector and book dealer Jean-Claude Vrain. He says that he bought many lots on the telephone, unseen. “After the sale I heard there were doubts, and when I received the lots, I immediately thought they were fakes,” he says. “I have refused to pay, and have made a deposition to the police. It is totally disgraceful that the auction house did not cancel the sale once it was clear there was a problem.” The leading US dealer Hans Kraus says he had bought some items at the sale over the telephone, but after seeing them asked for the purchase to be rescinded and the sums reimbursed. He had not received any repayment as we went to press.
In December, the consignors, Jean Reverdy and Jean-Marie Malzieu, brought an action in a local commercial tribunal in an attempt to recover €336,000 from the auction house. The judge did not award the sum, and in the ruling, he noted that he did not understand why the firm did not immediately cancel the sale once doubts were expressed. An attempt by The Art Newspaper to reach the vendors’ lawyers was unsuccessful, but one told the French website Rue89 that he acted in good faith and had bought the photos in a bric-and-brac shop in the 1990s, paying FFr 10,000.
At the time of the sale, James Fattori was the director of the auction house. He left the firm in January and did not want to comment. The other auctioneer, Bernard de Reviers, says: “This is a complicated case; I cannot comment further while the police investigation is continuing.” No date is set for the conclusion of the investigation. Grégory Leroy says: “I have spent €140,000 reimbursing three of the main buyers, and I have had nothing back so far.”
The specialist photography dealer Alex Novak of Vintage Works did not attend the sale, nor buy, but has since examined some of the photographs. He points to a number of concerns. One is the paper used, which appears to be polluted. “A photographer of that period would not have made use of such paper,” says Novak. He has one of the biggest collections in private hands of paper negatives, and says he has never seen paper, either of negatives or prints, as thick or some of the tones used. He says that the perfectly-cut prints appear to have been cut by machine, rather than by hand. It is also unusual for such a large body of work to have “just one subject, nondescript rocks and trees. There are always a few with other themes: people, something personal,” he says.
Novak says it is to the credit of collectors and dealers that none of the items from the sale have seeped into the market place. “We’re trying to fix this problem without a scandal,” he says. And Kraus says: “It is a salutatory lesson, not to trust catalogues, and to be more careful.”
It is noteworthy that the alleged forgery has taken so long to become public. A number of dealers we contacted were unwilling to comment or be named, and others said that they did not know about it. In such a small world, is this embarrassment at being fooled or to protect their market?