The Autumn continues in Paris

It is always difficult to predict the fluctuations of the art market, as tendencies can vary over a few months. In the case of the Islamic arts market, the excercise is even more difficult due to its diversified nature: all medium, a chronology of 14 centuries, more than half the world with no less than a douzen dedicated auctions a year. However, prices resulting from this heterogeneity also depend on the global economy and political context, even more than other markets like contemporary art or modern masters that see less variations in short periods of time.

This Autumn, two major auctions were held in Paris: Ader Nordmann on the 27th November, Millon et Associés on the 3rd December. Both were really interesting to monitor, as they were the direct continuity of the London Islamic Week. I have commented in my previous article the results achieved by Bonham’s, Sotheby’s and Christie’s and whether some of them could be the start of new trends. Though London and Paris markets are very different in term of lots presented, valuations and overall prices, some tendencies tend to be confirmed. Others, not so much!

All prices quoted below include VAT.

Safavid Qur’an, 17th c., sold 5,120€

Both auctions had a very different selection, reflected in the results. Ader Nordmann presented 326 lots, including 49 lots of archeological artifacts and an amazing gathering of 53 drawings of André Maire. Overall, 65.3% of lots were sold for a total amount of 79,111€. Millon auctioned 402 lots and sold 47.5% for a total of 1,099,397€. This result places Millon directly behind London (for reminder Sotheby’s made almost £8 millions, Christie’s £5 millions and Bonham’s £2.5 millions). Millon has still a bit of a way to go to dethrone London houses but the result is still very impressive for a French auction house and congratulations are in order for this achievement.  

So how to explain this result, but also the important difference between Millon and Ader? Let’s take a look closer.
As per tradition, Millon opened with 119 lots of Orientalist and Modern paintings and 15 lots of books, photographs and lithographs. This section did pretty well with some very impressive results, including a painting of Etienne Dinet (1861 – 1929) showing men praying (37,5 x 29cm), valued 6,000-8,000€ and sold 37,700€, as well as a colorful view of Rabat (64,5 x 99 cm) by Edy-Legrand (1892-1970), valued 6,000-8,000€ and sold 23,400€. Unsurprisingly, my personal favorite remained unsold, as Orientalist painting buyers are usually more attracted by signature and date and this view of the Atlas plateau (probably) is not signed. 

Despite some restorations, the painting still holds a very interesting monumentality and sense of sublime that are not so common in Orientalist painting

Ader presented 17 lots of Orientalist paintings, 26 lots of books and hajj certificates, but more importantly 53 drawings of André Maire (1898-1984), a French artist who fought in the two World Wars before leaving for Africa and then Asia where he spent 10 years. He left an immense production of drawings, as demonstrated by Ader selection of views of Egypt, India, Cambogia, Vietnam etc. All the lots were valued 400-600€ and I was expecting higher results. Most of them were sold between 700 and 2,000€, the highest price being achieved by a representation of Buddha and Ganesh.

Drawing of André Maire are particularly interesting for the proportions of figure and the contrast between humans and environment. 

The big surprise was the prices achieved in both auctions by Medieval North Africa and al-Andalus objects. For reminder, the last London Islamic week had left most of these lots unsold and I was expected similar results in Paris. Ader presented only one lot, a 12th-13th c. travel Qur’an (only 8.9×6.8cm). Valued at only 1,000-1,500€ due to a poor state of preservation, it reached an unexpected 37,120€, thus breaking the auction record. Millon presented five lots from 10th to 16th c. and five Modern revivals. The large Almohad water jar with an elegant tooled decoration took everybody by surprise by going at 54,600€ (against an estimation at 6,000-8,000€). The two Umayyad carbed marble capitals valued at 10,000-15,000€ reached 21,450€ and all the other lots went within their range. 

To explain the success of North African and Andalusian items in Paris compared to London is not easy, but the most obvious explanation would be that buyers in Paris are not looking for the same kind of objects than London’s. The long lasting relationship between France and North Africa, and by historical extension south of Spain, has played a central role in the diffusion of art, in the constitution of private collections, but also in the elaboration of tast. The latter is demonstrated by the interest for Orientalist paintings, mainly focused on North Africa and Egypt, as well as the selection of books offered for auction, for instance Ader. The existence of documentation is, of course, a reassurance for buyers, as seen by the fact that Ader small Qur’an and Millon water jar both documented the provenance.

Detail of Ader small Qur’an showing an interesting “proto-maghribi” script, golden surah title and reading mark

What really made a difference for Millon lies in the manuscript section. 57 lots were presented and though some were left unsold, buyers displayed a rare enthousiasm for others. I was wondering prior to the Islamic week if isolated Qur’anic leaves on parchimen would still sell but after seeing the results, I had no doubt that the leaf with golden Kufic script and red diacritical dots would do well, and it did. The result went way above the range of 8,000-12,000€ with a total of 71,500€, a price comparable to those achieved by the Blue Qur’an bifolio sold by Christie’s in October, given the difference of valuation.

If this Qur’an golden leaf was a given success, it was not the case for others whose results came as a complete surprise. A North African treatise of Maliki justice copied before 1692 (date of the waqf) was sold 39,000€, another one on sufism in Lybia copied around 1707 went at 13,000€. In other category, a Chinese Qur’an in 30 volumes from the 18th-19th c. and another 18th c. Chinese Qur’anic juz exceeded its range of 800-1,500€ by going at 5,850€. Usually these two kinds of manuscripts never break records, so I am wandering if we are seeing here a new trend developing in French auctions, or is it just a happy coincidence. Another Modern large Qur’an copied in the Arabic Peninsula in 1865 was sold at 52,000€ but this price is explained by the renown of its patron, the Sheikh Qasem b. Muhammad b. Thani (r. 1878-1913), second sheikh of the al-Thani family, considered like the funder of Qatar.

A 18th c. Chinese Qur’an page, characterized by its golden illumination and script

Qajar manuscripts and paintings are mostly stable without breaking any records. Two honorable mentions were sold at Ader, a Divan of Sa’adi from the beginning of the 19th c. including 10 paintings of high quality, for 9,216€, and an interesting litograph copy of the Shah Nama dated 1846, sold 12,800€.

Finally, the category of Indian paintings was uneventful but both selections were not particularly remarkable. Parisian buyers don’t seem to be looking for secondary Indian paintings, while all Mughal high profile pieces are sent directly to London or to private merchants (see for instance Simon Ray current catalogue).

In conclusion, the large difference of results between the two auction houses came mainly from their selection and what appears to be a shift on the Parisian market towards more high end art events. It will be interesting to see what the spring auctions will offer, and before that what the Carnet de Voyage auction will do in January. Will buyers be still interested in low value items? Time will tell.

My favorite piece from the Millon auction, sold 3,380€. Click here to read the full catalogue entry written by yours trully