LES ECHOS

First Ever Solo Auction For Legendary Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson

Some 100 signed prints of the French photographer will go up for sale at Christie's to help raise money for the Paris foundation that supports Cartier-Bresson's work.

The 1932 image behind Saint-Lazare station (Cartier-Bresson)
The 1932 image behind Saint-Lazare station (Cartier-Bresson)
Michel Guerrin
PARIS - The work of legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson is heading for an unlikely destination: Christie's auction house. HCP, as he is called, who died in 2004 at the age of 95, ranted against the art market, declaring that pictures "must be looked at, not measured." He refused to limit and number his prints, getting rid of older proofs of which collectors are typically fond, and tearing up those that didn't please him.

This well-known attitude makes the November 11 sale of 100 of HCB's photos at Christie's Paris so intriguing.

The Cartier-Bresson Foundation has decided to put up for sale a portion of the proofs in their archives, which number some 30,000 in total. Opened in 2003 in a studio located in the Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris, the foundation's mission is to preserve and circulate the works of the master, organizing different expositions around the world.

The profit from the auction will be used to finance its project: the purchase of a larger, more central location in Paris.

Christie's was successful in November of 2010 in putting on a sale dedicated to photographer Richard Avedon, garnering 5.4 million euros for 65 images. With HCB, the estimate is 1.7 million euros for 100 photos, though the total could grow, as many of the images are difficult to find in the market.

Some of the jewels include: the unmade bed of Cartier-Bresson (1962); a portrait of painter Lucian Freud in 1997; a store window of a tailor at Rouen, in 1929 (the oldest picture); a sublime print of the palette of Matisse, in Vence, in 1944, developed by HCP himself, a rarity as he did not like working in the dark room.

The sale will help test the market for Cartier-Bresson, who with Robert Doisneau, is the best-selling photographic artist in France. There were few sales from 1950 to 1970, but plenty from the 1980s and onward, when the market took off. Many of his proofs have been in circulation at past auctions, including some unsigned ones that were stolen from newspaper or magazine archives. When this has happened, the Foundation asks that they be withdrawn from sale.

HCB mostly sold his work on commission to galleries, primarily those in the United States. How many images have been sold? Many thousand, for sure. "We'll never know exactly," admits Martine Franck, president of the HCB Foundation.

Iconic image

The proofs from the 1980s and 1990s, that Cartier-Bresson was doing by request, in a 30x40cm format, with a black border, signed in the white margin with shaky handwriting, are nowadays hard to find. His heirs have, in effect, stopped making prints, adopting the common-sense approach that the work of an artist ends at his death, when he can no long either control or sign that which comes out of the laboratory.

There will be older prints as well at the auction, with prices ranging from 7,000 to 150,000 euros. There is a certain subtlety to the photography market. For the same photo, the older the print, the more expensive. There is a good example of this with the cyclist biking on the street in Hyères in 1932. The print at the Christie's sale dates to 1999 and is estimated between 10,000 and 15,000 euros. The same image, in a proof from the 1930s, holds the price record for Cartier-Bresson: $265,000 at a 2008 Christie's sale in New York.

The photos from the 1930s in their vintage prints are extremely rare, and the most expensive. There are none in French museums, but many in the U.S. The Cartier-Bresson Foundation owns about 100 of them. None of them are for sale in the Christie's sale.

But instead, there is this iconic piece be found: a hurried man who seems to be running on water smooth as a mirror, behind the Saint-Lazare train station in Paris, a perfect snapshot that captures HCB's virtuosity. The photo was taken in 1932, but HCB didn't discover the negative until 1946. He edits it then, by cropping it—extremely rare for him—for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The rare prints of 1946-1947 are the most beautiful that exist, typically valued at about 150,000 euros. And this one image from that period could alone end up shaking the market.

photo - Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson

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