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By columnist Paul Paradis, Art Historian, Specialist Consultant in French Furniture and Decorative Arts
This week I went to Drouot Montaigne (the high-end arm of Drouot on the Avenue Montaigne) to follow an auction that has generated considerable media attention. Since the hard cover luxurious catalogue (priced at €45) appeared some weeks back there has been a lot of noise and speculation around the event. The auction, entitled Les relieurs des rois de France (Bookbinders of the Kings of France), offered over 350 lots comprised mostly of engraved bronze plates used to emboss and gild leather book covers with a coat of arms and decoration. The content of the workshop of a famous bookbinder, René Simier (1772-1843), was up for grabs. Apparently the inheritors of the collection failed a ten-year effort to convince the government to create a museum for the collection and so decided to sell.
The plates consist mostly of Royal coats of arms, some dating back to Louis XV (1710-1774) and Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764) (pictured above), as well as monograms of aristocratic and princely families. But here lies the main confusion: Simier was a bookbinder working primarily in the 19th century for, most notably, the Duchesse de Berry (1798-1870) whose library at her Château de Rosny contained 8000 volumes. Other notable clients were the Emperor Napoleon himself, Kings Louis XVIII (1755-1824) and Charles X (1757-1836), to name a few.
Entrance to Drouot Montaigne
The day before the auction I slipped into the presale exhibition just half an hour before closing time to see the curiosities. Drouot Montaigne is in the same structure as the legendary Théatre des Champs-Elysées (1913), the Art Nouveau (not Art Deco) masterpiece by August Perret which features white marble reliefs by sculptor Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929) on the façade, Lalique glass light fixtures and a cupola painted by the Nabis and Symbolist Maurice Denis (1870-1943). The auction space is connected to the left of the theatre and one uses the same entrance as that for the famed restaurant La Maison Blanche also in the building. The room is large and features a mezzanine with elegant swirling wrought-iron and gilt-bronze railings. The glass cases containing the treasures lined the walls of the room; the main area featured a large table displaying portions of tanned leather, presses and other tools of the bookbinding trade.
Along a row of tables set up for the auction the next day, representatives of the SVV Lafon- Castandet were busy calling clients in a last minute attempt to attract interest. As one auctioneer paced the room while loudly speaking to a South American Embassy to convince them to bid on a plate with a seal of their country, another shouted the company’s email address to an obviously hard-of-hearing woman. I wondered whether the interlocutors on the other end of the line realized that I and one other person (the only public in the room) were hearing the conversations. The members of the team seemed not to be worried at all about confidentiality.
The intricately engraved copper plates seemed too clean and almost new. The categories spanned from decorative neo-renaissance strap-work and acanthus scrolls, to royal coats of arms and aristocratic monograms.
A Decorative Embossing Plate With Strapwork
One key piece to the collection (placed in a glass case on a raised platform) bore the royal arms of Louis XV; three fleurs de lys within an oval surrounded by necklaces of the King’s Orders and topped by an Imperial crown. The catalogue explains that this plate, from the 18th century, is believed to have been used to emboss the cover of a version of the book commemorating the Sacre de Louis XV (crowning of Louis XV). The piece was estimated at € 15 000 - €20 000.
The Arms of Louis XV (Photo: Lafon-Castandet)
Of a different pedigree but ever so interesting was a plate with the American bald eagle and the familiar epithet e pluribus unum. Its decoration with just 18 stars helped the expert date it between 1812 (the year of accession of Louisiana) and 1816 (the year of accession of Indiana). During a morning talk show, a representative of the auction house claimed that it was ordered by the US government to decorate a book commemorating the accession of Louisiana. It was estimated from €20 000 - €30 000, flatteringly ambitious for this bit of American symbolism.
Plate With American Eagle
The day of the auction the room was full to capacity. I entered from the back and found a leaning spot just as the auctioneer slammed down the hammer for a plate with the Imperial Arms of Napoleon, a handsome eagle surrounded by the necklace of the Legion of Honor resting on an ermine cape. The Imperial symbol went for €25 000 and the delighted onlookers applauded. I had missed the Louis XV plate but found out after that it had remained unsold. Perhaps doubt surrounding the dating of the plates had been well founded? The American Eagle made a €19 000 hammer price, the second highest for a plate in the sale.
Plate with Imperial Arms of Napoleon
Earlier in the auction the audience seemed morose but a peculiar system at Drouot involving an aboyeur (barker) who strolls up and down the aisles like a host on The Price is Right yelling out bids he (supposedly) sees in the room, seemed to have actually worked. It is sometimes a confusing spectacle to witness, the auctioneer belting out bids, doubled by the even louder voice of the aboyeur. He cajoles, sometimes acting like a court jester for a laugh, but mostly tries to create a sense of momentum in the bidding where none exists.
Morning Talk Show About the Auction Broadcast at Drouot Montaigne
I recognized some of the faces from the rare book sale I had attended a few months back at Alde (See Paris Art Market Buzz December 2). An elderly gentleman with bright red jeans and untamed salt-and-pepper hair rushed in looking for a chair as if his life depended on it, and a younger man with Jackie O sunglasses, tight jeans and a shirt open to the navel like a 1970s rock star knelt next to a colleague, gossiping in not-so-muted tones. Someone behind me “oohed” and “awed” with each adjudication and I couldn’t figure out whether he thought the lots were being sold too high or too low. I overheard a conversation about the doubt surrounding the authenticity of some of the plates, the fact that the large majority were 19th century etc.. The catalogue seemed quite clear in its description of the lots and the underlying mood behind this auction has me slightly perplexed. It is the first of its kind in Paris so my frame of reference is a bit blurred. Perhaps the “scoop” will emerge over the next few days. It was a fascinating experience in any event.