Studio sales… rediscovery and intimacy

[08 Dec 2020]

Delacroix sale: The sale was a triumph that exceeded the hopes of the artist’s most faithful friends. The results represent one of those posthumous rehabilitations that only our country is capable of. The readers of La Presse should not be surprised by this after the eloquent articles which Mr Paul de Saint-Victor wrote about Eugène Delacroix’s work the day after his death. But they will be struck – as indeed we are – that the eyes of the most informed critics have suddenly opened.” It was in these enthusiastic terms that art critic Philippe Burty (who wrote the catalogue for the sale) tells the story of the sale of Eugène DELACROIX (1798-1863) studio contents in 1864, a few months after the artist’s death.

A little history…

It is an old tradition, in France and in Europe, since the Renaissance. In the Chronicle of Arts and Curiosity of 1897, there’s mention of a studio sale concerning the painter Adriaan HANNEMAN (c.1601-1671) shortly after his death in 1671 “which generated 919 florins, while , five years earlier he had 20,000. But his poverty did not prevent him from being the inimitable imitator of van Dyck ”(March 1897, p.114). In France, the development of the various types of catalogue (raisonné, sales, studio etc.) allow us to trace such sales in the past: relatively rare before 1750, they multiplied at the end of the 18th century; illustrious dealers like Jean-Baptiste-Pierre or Edme-François Gersaint wrote several hundred catalogues for sales of famous collections or artist’s studios. Some dealers became specialised in studio sales. Ambroise Vollard was bulimic: having acquired the studio contents of 19-year-old Pablo Picasso, just arrived in Paris, he bought the studios of Fauve artists André DERAIN and Maurice DE VLAMINCK (c.1905) and then that of Henri MANGUIN (c.1906). He later acquired the studio of Jean PUY, and he pursued the same tactic with Georges ROUAULT in 1917.

A studio sale normally occurs shortly after an artist’s death, as part of his/her estate or to generate cash from his/her possessions. In 1875, Camille Jean-Baptiste COROT‘s studio contents were auctioned just a few weeks after his death. Mainly known and appreciated for his lively landscapes, his portraits and figure paintings – which had voluntarily been kept secret throughout his career – were ‘suddenly’ brought to light, and they elicited strong bidding. Discoveries of this magnitude are certainly rare, but the specialness of studio sales attracts a certain population of seasoned art enthusiasts.

Letter from Jules Breton to G. Goetschy in his brother's studio sale, 1892. BnF

Letter from Jules Breton to G. Goetschy, in Emile Breton’s studio sale, 1892. BnF

Studio sales can happen during an artist’s lifetime, either by choice or by necessity. In 1891, after the death of his only son, Emile Adélard BRETON (1831-1902) – a somewhat recognized landscape painter – decided to stop painting and sell the contents of his studio to Drouot in order to devote himself to the village of Courrières, of which he was the Mayor. A moving letter from his brother Jules BRETON (1827-1906) explaining the situation to Gustave Goetschy (art critic and writer, who signed the dedication of the catalogue) underscores the motives and logic behind such studio sales. According to Sotheby’s catalogue for its sale on 20 April 2005 that generated Émile Breton’s current auction record, the painting in question, The Conflagration – a sombre landscape of fire in the night – was originally sold as lot 26 in that studio sale of 1891 (under the title Incendie).

In retrospect…

Studio contents have been sold quite regularly in France, particularly since 2010. In recent months, the studios of Francis Pellerin, Auguste Roubille, Louis Foujols, Charles Wislin, Alfred Gaspart and Léon Printemps have been auctioned. Some auction houses like Millon and Crait-Müller in France, and Freeman’s in the USA (which presented works from the estate of John Winters in June 2020) offer specialised services to help beneficiaries organise these rather unusual sales that normally retrace the entire career of a single artist. In this sense, these sales have a retrospective quality, documenting the different periods of the artist’s development, from his/her youthful experiments to his/her mature works produced in later life. They illustrate paths followed and paths rejected, explorations of different media, work on various materials, etc. Some artists specialise while others produce different types and styles of creation. You can come across every imaginable format from the simple sheet to the large fresco, from the tiny wax model to the full-length (height) statue. In short… studio sales are a unique opportunity to obtain an unprecedented overview of an artist’s career and life, especially when the the artist in question hasn’t been documented by exhibitions or catalogued sales. Studio sales can also have a museum or gallery quality. Painters and sculptors rarely create alone; they usually fraternise with a circle of peers. Between them, they buy, exchange or offer each other works, which often end up in their studios or their homes. To quote Ph. Burty again in Delacroix’s catalogue, after the death of Théodore GÉRICAULT (1791-1824), Delacroix acquired no less than six Géricault canvases which were subsequently sold at his own studio sale, including a Dutch Lancier that fetched 3210 Francs.

Impact on the artist’s rating?

Acquiring a work from studio sale can turn out to be a particularly interesting investment. Depending on the artist’s profile, a studio sale may not be relevant. It may be more interesting either to postpone the sale of certain lots (because the artists is currently considered “out of fashion”), or to organize several sales several years apart in order to avoid saturating the artist’s market. Clearly the artist’s notoriety is the key criterion, particularly at the local level. While most studio sales occur in Paris, the Lyon art community remembers the white glove sale of the studio of Jacques TRUPHEMUS (1922-2017) dispersed by maîtres Bérard and Péron in September 2018. The painter was a Lyon figure and the excellent results would undoubtedly have been lower in Paris.

Studio sales are great opportunities to take the plunge!

Moreover, these sales can be an opportunity to return the spotlight onto an unknown or forgotten artist who has little or no auction results to his name. In this case, the dispersion of the contents of a studio can actually be the starting point of a public valuation, as was the case in June 2019 under the hammer of auctioneer Jakobowicz for the sculptor Jacques MAUHIN (1927-2017), highly influenced by Henry Moore and Brancusi. The catalogue published on this occasion helped to bolster historical knowledge of the artist’s career.

What interest for buyers?

The auctioneers are generally unanimous: studio sales are very good opportunities to take the plunge and start collecting! The high volume of pieces by the same hand provides access to works often carrying attractive estimates.

An artist’s studio sale can offer works that the market has never seen before. Art enthusiasts can find some real gems. In addition, the works are of guaranteed provenance, which is, in itself, worth gold! Works on paper, canvas or in 3-D are meticulously researched, usually in collaboration with heirs who have archives retracing the history of an order or an inspiration. Even sketches or unfinished and unsigned canvases benefit from a stamp specially edited for the sale… a guarantee of authenticity.

Bouguereau, fillette au ruban bleu vente 13-10-19

Bouguereau, Fillette au ruban bleu, 13-10-19 sale

William Adolphe BOUGUEREAU (1825-1905) is mainly collected in the United States, but in October 2019, a rare set of 15 works that remained in the artist’s studio (before joining the collection of the owners, relatives of the artist’s grandson) was offered at Conan in France. Among them were some excellent studies for portraits. Unsigned (but stamped) and never seen before, they delighted bidders, who paid between 3,700 and over 60,000 euros for the works.

Lastly, such works have a story, a little extra ‘soul’. It is not uncommon to see personal objects, correspondence or studio furniture included in a sale of this type. This allows the enthusiast to obtain a close, if not intimate, link with the artist, which can be a splendid way to start a collection.