British photographic history

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Cautionary Tale: Authenticity of 1848 salt prints in auction

It has recently been reported that 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.

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.

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. 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. The leading US dealer Hans Kraus says  “It is a salutatory lesson, not to trust catalogues, and to be more careful.”

You can read the rest of this article here.

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Comment by Alex Novak on March 11, 2012 at 18:39

@MichaelPritchard:  You repeated the same incorrect (and close to slanderous, I must say) statement about photography dealers.  The article itself quoted three photo dealers on the record, including myself.  So much for dealers keeping quiet to try to "protect their market", etc.  For the real reasons dealers were reluctant to say something (when they were), you might want to read my coverage of this auction here: http://www.iphotocentral.com/news/article_view.php/199/189/1208 .

As one of the judges in the related case noted, it's the auction house that's the issue here, not the dealers.  While it is not at all surprising that the Art Newspaper wants to protect its advertisers and find a scapegoat story to deflect the news about their primary art market's serious issues of fraud in the painting world, I am surprised that you would chime in without enough thought to this issue which is a serious and complicated legal matter.

Comment by Michael Pritchard on February 16, 2012 at 11:39

The Art Newspaper comments at the end of its report; "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?"

BPH was made aware of some concerns regarding these prints last year but similarly was unable to find anyone willing to comment and, as it had not seen the prints, was not in a position to give an opinion or substantiate the claims...

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