One was a 55-lot auction at Christie’s (25/20/12% buyer’s premium) devoted to youthful works by Edgar Degas 1834-1917), while the other at Artcurial (25/20/12% buyer’s premium) was a collection of works on paper by Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835), less of a household name and most famous today for chronicling the career of Napoleon on canvas.
Christie’s drawings had all passed down direct through the Impressionist’s descendants via his brother René and was the second family offering to be held in the rooms following a more general dispersal in 2006.
Artcurial’s collection had a slightly more complex but no less interesting provenance. The drawings had been assembled by Jean-Baptiste Delestre, who was Gros’ pupil and also his biographer.
They had then passed down through Delestre’s descendants who included Maurice, his nephew and an auctioneer, and Gaston, Maurice’s grandson, who was a picture expert.
All three Delestres collected fine art and in addition to the 90-odd Gros drawings from Jean-Baptiste there were an extra 42 Old Master drawings assembled by Maurice and Gaston.
Both sales drew a keen audience, testimony to last month’s Drawings Week being the optimum time to offer such material.
Indeed, many of the audience were recognisably the same, doing the rounds across the Champs Elysées between Artcurial’s and Christie’s rooms for their back-to-back auction programme.
Extra bidding came online and from the phones, including plenty of overseas interest, and with private collectors dominating, selling rates were bullish.
Artcurial, whose Delestre sale went first on March 22, saw a 77% take-up for the Gros drawings and an even higher 88% for the family Old Masters to net €1.56m. The next day 47 (85%) of Christie’s Degas drawings changed hands to net €1.28m.
Both events were distinguished by a handful of individual prices that evidently ticked the boxes with the audience, appealing for reasons outlined below and making multiples of their estimates. That said, the majority of lots sold more or less within predictions.
So much for the similarities, what about the differences? While Artcurial’s drawings ranged across the breadth of Gros’ career, Christie’s spectrum was much more narrow – these were drawings from the first few years of the artist’s life covering categories such as copies of Old Masters and antiquities from the Louvre, family portraits, working drawings and life drawings.
Anika Guntrum, Christie’s head of sale, described the auction as “a bit of an adventure”.
She added: “Putting 55 works by the same artist from the same period on the market at the same time is always a challenge. Degas’ early [student] works don’t really have a market, we don’t have a huge buying pool… but were counting on bringing in new buyers who like the mature works as well. I thought a lot about the results after the sale; they were very uneven."
Price levels came down to personal taste and the work the buyers wanted most of all was Degas’ study of the Borghese Gladiator, his drawing of the famous sculpture in the Louvre, but with elements of technique and composition that lifted it far above the scale of a mere copy after the antique.
Christie’s plainly rated the piece, as it was chosen for the catalogue cover, but the auction house had not predicted quite such strong interest as the bidding escalated way past the €25,000-30,000 estimate with phone and US online bidding in the mix before it settled down to a two-way phone battle to €330,000 (£286,956).
The statue was depicted from an unusual foreshortened rear viewpoint. “He perfectly captured the form,” said Guntrum, although she felt the use of brushed walnut stain was just as much part of the attraction. “The technique is incredibly difficult to manipulate… there is no pencil underdrawing.
“I’ve never seen him use it. Of all the works it was the most outstanding in terms of artistic excellence all round, and the market seemed to agree.”
On the other hand, the room didn’t rate so highly the frontispiece lot: two details from the face of Leonardo’s Saint John the Baptist, something which surprised Guntrum who thought “it was a fantastic drawing”.
The opening Old Master copies section saw several other works failing to get away or selling under estimate, while a section of small miscellaneous pieces at the end often dramatically surpassed more modest guides.
“The pieces where we tried to support the importance and beauty of the drawings with the estimate were a bit more difficult,” said Guntrum, contrasting it with the performance of those at the end where low estimates acted as an attraction.
She cited a reworked charcoal over counterproof study of legs that surprised at a double-estimate €14,000 (£12,175) and the £36,000 (£31,305) study of a horse on the reverse of Degas’ visiting card.
The two drawings by Edgar Degas and Antoine- Jean Gros that led their respective single-owner dedicated sales in Paris last month were both singled out for the modernity of their approach.
If Christie’s felt 55 early Degas drawings was a challenge for the market to absorb, Artcurial had no such qualms about its body of Gros’ graphic work in a sale that the auction house worked on for a year.
“It wasn’t a problem to present more than 60 drawings by the same artist – this was really a new thing,” departmental head Matthieu Fournier said, explaining that Gros’ graphic work seldom comes to market, with just one or two minor drawings surfacing every couple of years. Moreover, the collection represented “the life of the artist over nearly 50 years and you had all kinds of drawings and all media, pencil, ink, everything” – in short, a complete overview.
Proof of Gros’ market rarity came via the top results. Of the 10 highest recorded auction prices for his drawings, seven were achieved at this sale. The three highest all surpassed the previous record of €68,000 (inc premium) set back in 2006 at Piasa.
Two of the top lots were secured by the Louvre. One of these was the sale’s runaway top lot: an 8 x 11½in (20 x 29cm) sheet of paper featuring various equine and human figures centring on a sketch of Alexander and Bucephalus, rendered economically but masterfully in ink and sepia. Its attraction lay in this being “a very modern, very romantic drawing, amazing for art history”, felt Fournier, who observed that it was created in 1790, prefiguring by 25 years similar material produced by Delacroix and Gericault.
The room’s reaction reinforced this verdict. Estimated at €30,000- 50,000, bidding escalated to €360,000 (£313,045). Bidders included a representative of a US institution who had been hoping to secure it and a private collector who made the final bid. But they too ended up disappointed when the lot was preempted by the Louvre who stepped in to claim the piece for it drawings department. Funds for this purchase were provided by the Association of the Friends of the Louvre, who are donating it to the museum.
A second Louvre pre-emption at a low-estimate €40,000 (£34,780) was a pen, ink and chalk study showing the surrender of the Austrian Army at the Battle of Ulm.
Meanwhile, a private collector carried off a black chalk drawing for his official portrait of Napoleon as First Consul at €100,000 (£86,955), the day’s second highest price.
Plenty of lots sold much more in line with estimates set in the low thousands or less. Asked what factors determined the difference between works that made five or six figures and those selling for three or four, Fournier ascribed it to the date and subject.
“The most important part of Gros’ career is dedicated to the Napoleonic period. Afterwards he was considered unfashionable,” he said. So Napoleonic-related drawings were the most desirable, with more modest prices paid for lots with more academic appeal.
Considerable US interest emerged here in person and absentee form, boosted, reckoned Fournier, by the strength of the dollar against the euro. And while this might be the optimum time to sell drawings in Paris, Artcurial had also promoted the event by taking a selection of these works to New York in January to show in Master Drawings week.
Fournier felt this additional transatlantic exposure brought different bidders to Paris in March.