Intrigue In the World of Photography IV: Man Ray at Christie’s

And A Lot of Riffing On Stamps

Full disclosure: I, shamefully, had no knowledge of this sale until someone whom I’ve never met but very much respect kindly put me in the loop.
 
As articles go this is not exactly hot on the heels of the pieces in the profesh press but I was hoping that it would go into a little bit more detail and provide a touch more context than what had been reported thus far. Of course, there’s always a chance I missed that one killer piece that covered all the key points and all the gritty details in a really succinct manner (something at which I excel, jk) but, as ever, here’s my very hypothetical two pence.
 
You might also have noticed that the layout has changed somewhat. I believe very strongly in continuity and consistency as far as presentation is concerned but my desire to explore WordPress sort of got in the way and now I can’t really find a way back.

Man Ray @ Christies

Tuesday March 2nd, 2021 Christie’s Paris held a big sale, both in terms of cachet and quantity of lots. This was a Single Owner sale (SO, for anyone noting down auction house vocab) and comprised 188 lots by Man Ray or Surrealist artists, varying between photographic prints and ready-mades (it’s a Surrealist, primarily a Marcel Duchamp, thing). The fact that I hadn’t heard of the sale until the night before means absolutely nothing; the past few months I have identified as a very elegant hermit, buried under a not-insubstantial digital mound of arts-related admin that is still ongoing.
 
The SO sale carries a different weight than the VO (do you remember that one…?) primarily because it’s conceived of as a complete collection, rather than an assortment of works collected by a variety of people. If you think back to the previous issue on the Kirchbach collection you’ll remember that Kirchbach wasn’t just assembling random bits of artwork that he liked the look of. He had a firm idea in his mind of what he wanted the collection to contain and, thus, signify. So, a collection is personal, it’s an insight into another human’s mind and thought process. Ultimately, it’s unique to you and that’s where the magic lies. That, and knowing that it belonged to an historical figure or someone fairly important. It’s all relevant. [1]
 
This Man Ray sale had, as its consignor, Edmonde Treillard, the widow of Lucien Treillard, one of Man Ray’s former printers, or studio assistants. The auction house described the sale thusly:
Screenshot of the sale overview from Christie's Online [2]
It’s not public knowledge how the widow Treillard came to consign her treasure trove to Christie’s, whether they approached her, whether it was a secret battle between Sotheby’s and Christie’s to get her to consign, or whether it had all been brewing for several years. You can only speculate. But the dark cloud of controversy raised its ugly head (mixing metaphors) when the Man Ray Trust and Steven Manford questioned the legitimacy of Emonde’s legal title to the works at all.

Man Ray Trust Press Release

Reading through the press release that the Man Ray Trust put out, you start to understand their concerns. I’ll highlight the main issues covered in the press release below. Quotation marks indicate direct quotes from the document:
  1. Edmonde Treillard does not have “clear title to most of the works offered in this auction” so, of the 188 lots offered, the Trust is questioning the ownership of 148;
  2. The auction is taking place 30 years and 33 days after the death of Juliet Man Ray, which “raises suspicion due to the 30-year statute of limitations for raising issues of title under French law”;
  3. Contemporaries of Man Ray and Juliet Man Ray “advised the Man Ray Trust that there is significant reason to believe Lucien Treillard stole a substantial number of Man Ray’s works and possessions immediately following his death”;
  4. The Man Ray Trust “holds both the artist’s moral rights and the copyright, but received no prior notice from Christie’s about the preparations for an auction of such a large trove of heretofore unseen works attributed to Man Ray by such an improbably consignor”;
  5. Christie’s uses “copyright images and details of Man Ray images for exclusively marketing purposes” without authorisation from the Man Ray Trust and in a manner that goes “well beyond fair use display rights”;
  6. The auction catalogue doesn’t explain in sufficient detail how a part-time assistant came into possession of hundreds of Man Ray (and other) works and personal effects. [3]
So, to sum up, the Trust asserts that roughly 79% of the lots offered for auction were “purloined” (to use their term, and what a wonderful word that is). They requested that Christie’s postpone the auction but obviously they didn’t. I don’t know, maybe the email got lost.
 
And that’s where I started on the Monday evening. Then the Tuesday came, the auction wasn’t postponed, and I spent 6 hours furiously noting down the hammer prices of all 188 lots, save for the 20-or so between 40 and 60 of which I lost track, and with the exception of a handful here and there. My intention for this issue of TFG was to highlight the main points of contention from the MRT press release, then move on to Steven Manford’s Statement of Opinion, which I want to look at in conjunction with the Christie’s online catalogue in order to understand the argument. Of course, there will be the inevitable contextualisation along the way, and it is very fucking long.
 
Before I get into it, I should point out that a small flurry of articles appeared online the day following the sale, and they cover the key points made in the press release issued by the Man Ray Trust. One was by Artnet, one appeared on the Art Newspaper online, another by the Observer, and a further by The Telegraph online. All are linked to BUT it’s only Artnet News and Observer that allow you unfettered access to their stories, the others limit you to 3 articles per month (Art Newspaper) or require a subscription (Telegraph). I purposely didn’t reference any of them because we’ve all basically drawn from the same source material. It’s our interpretations that might differ (but given the gravity of the issue probably don’t).

Stamp Duty

Having made you aware in a previous issue of TFG that Manford is your ultimate, go-to authority par excellence on Man Ray stamps (too much?) you might think that the auction house in question would be only too keen to have him assess the Man Ray prints. As the auction house you are, of course, under no obligation to only reach out to the ultimate, go-to authority par excellence on the very thing that could prove or disprove the authenticity of many of the works under consignment; you might reach out to other research scholars, and that would be your prerogative. In this case, that’s exactly what Christie’s did.
 
The scholar in question is Emmanuelle de l’Ecotais, the Man Ray expert advising Christie’s on Man Ray. For some contextualisation, de l’Ecotais has been curator of photography at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris since 2001. She’s a specialist on Man Ray work, and has a PhD in the History of Art. She’s organised a lot of Man Ray exhibitions, and a lot of Surrealist/Dada photography exhibitions. [4]
 
The only essay in the catalogue that talks about the stamp in Man Ray terms is by de l’Ecotais. She opens by saying that the stamp is simply a tool that allows you to identify the author of the photograph. De l’Ecotais says that Man Ray, like other photographers of the era, used the stamp pragmatically and with his own marketing ploys in mind; thus, his name and address appear on stamps, but then a telephone number once he’d acquired one. She then points out that a stamp may also be applied to the verso of a print by the estate of an artist in order to authenticate it, to establish that it’s by the artist, was printed from the original negative, or comes from the artist’s atelier. These days , she says, a stamp is often made to mark off prints sold from an edition; thus, they prove the provenance of the work.

Brief Interlude

Something I’m sure I’ve mentioned before on TFG, and one thing they do quite like in auction houses, is provenance, or what I’m going to call the “Chain of Evidence”. [5]
What I mean by Chain of Evidence is the ability to concretely (ish) prove that such-and-such an item was owned by such-and-such an individual at such-and-such a time. Obviously, it’s more relevant to do this kind of deep-dive for the high value items because you want to market the work to an eager audience, but it nonetheless seems important to cover your bases. Although it could be argued that if you’re doing an SO sale there’s just one consignor so in a way there’s less leg work but still…
"From the French provenir, 'to come from', provenance means the origin or source of an object. In art the chief purpose of tracing provenance is to establish the precise history of where a work of art has been since its creation. It can prove ownership, help assign works to particular artists, and prove that an artwork is neither a forgery nor stolen. The degree of certainty of an important work of art's provenance can make a considerable difference to its selling price, so the more documented a work is the better." [6]
Phillip Mould
Presenter of BBC1's 'Fake or Fortune', presenter on Antique's Roadshow, and International Art Dealer/Super Duper Art Specialist

Stamp Dealer

Back to the A Plot, and de l’Ecotais obviously makes a good point. In order to understand one of the main, and possibly damning, arguments of Manford’s statement you need to be aware of the significance of the Man Ray stamps. Generally speaking today, when artists produce work (I’m thinking photographic prints, but I suppose anything mounted could apply) they endow it with a label of authentication. This comes in the form of an inked stamp, like Man Ray, or the more popular and contemporary sticker label which can be adhered to the verso (back) of a work. It contains necessary details which may include, but may not be limited to:
  • the title of the work
  • the date it was produced
  • the medium
  • the edition size and number of the work in question
  • the artist’s signature (maybe printed)
  • a small image of the work itself
We understand that Man Ray prints may be identified as authentic through the existence of the stamp on the verso (or back, in normal speak) of the print. Prior to 2007, this kind of knowledge or research didn’t exist; Steven Manford, Man Ray research scholar (I’ve mentioned him before) developed the concept of object-based research of Man Ray prints and identified authentic, fake, and posthumous Man Ray stamps. As Manford’s extensive research has demonstrated, at least 42 (this is the most up-to-date edition I own) stamps exist, the majority of which are the genuine articles, leaving a selection behind that don’t quite stand up under scrutiny. One such stamp that Manford identified finds itself at the centre of the controversy here.
 
Its name? RUE CAMPAGNE PREMIÈRE.

Rue Campagne Première

This one stamp belongs to a little family of similar stamps each with a slight variation. However, the USP (not the right terminology at all) of this stamp in particular is that it was identified as being posthumous; created after Man Ray’s death, but used to authenticate his work. In recent years, this stamp has become better known amongst specialists, serious collectors, and experts in the fine art photography field. Manford labelled this posthumous « Rue Campagne Première » stamp “M28”. [7]
 
The reason M28 is interesting is that it appears similar to another, albeit genuine, Rue Campagne Première stamp, which is catalogued as M6. The difference doesn’t lie in the content but rather in the structure of the stamp itself. The address is the same, the layout is the same, but the font is slightly different; where the « bis » of M6 is levelled off near the « 31 » and in a serif font (you know, the one with the blobs on the end bits), the « bis » of M28 is raised higher up, smaller, and appears to be a sans serif font. But, if you didn’t know what you were looking at or for you might not twig that these stamps are not equal. Bear this in mind for later. [8]
 
The content, then, and I haven’t got the typeface bang on:
MAN RAY
31 bis, RUE
CAMPAGNE
PREMIÈRE
PARIS XIVe

Introducing...

At this point, I’d like to introduce the character of Lucien Treillard. Treillard is described by Christie’s in a very flattering light, as though he was Man Ray’s artistic collaborator and right-hand, but the reality is a bit different. According to Steven Manford, Treillard was no more than a part-time assistant supporting an aging artist and his wife. [9] In Manford’s assessment, Treillard took advantage of the position of trust afforded him by the Man Rays and exploited their generosity to gain unfettered access to the artist’s studio. Treillard’s name might sound familiar, that’s because I mentioned him in the issue about the Helene Anderson Collection
 
After Man Ray’s death, Treillard took several key stamps from the studio. In Manford’s words, “A few people claim this was to prevent Juliet Man Ray from mis-stamping the photographs.” [10] because the widow of Man Ray was going through something of a difficult time. Throughout the years, the Man Ray Trust requested the return of their property and, in November 2005, received six posthumous stamps, which Manford identified and labelled. The kicker? None of the stamps returned was M28. The Rue Campagne Première stamp is, then, shrouded in something like a veil of Turin of controversy. It’s not known who authorised the creation of the stamp, but it is known that M28 and Lucien Treillard’s hand go, well, hand-in-hand. I really could not have conceived of a better phrase.
 
So, the question you might now ask is this: Is there proof to back up the contention that M28 is a posthumous stamp and inauthentic? And the answer is a fairly resounding: Yes.
 
First, Manford points out that this stamp, M28, has only been seen on photographs in circulation since the death of Man Ray in 1976. There are also numerous first-hand accounts of this stamp, M28, being applied to photographs in the 1980s and 1990s. Furthermore, in prominent collections of Man Ray photographs and Rayographs there are no cases of this stamp existing on prints. [11] Having found a significant amount of posthumous prints stamped thusly, the question emerged as to the authenticity of the stamp. But Manford also points out that the presence of said stamp on a Man Ray print does not automatically disqualify it from being deemed a genuine Man Ray print.

Man Ray, Stamp Collector?

Having started the diatribe quite calmly, we now get into the nitty gritty. After she covers Man Ray and his stamps in the early part of the twentieth century, Christie’s expert-on-Man-Ray-who-is-not-Steven-Manford moves on to talking about the latter part of his life, in the 1970s, when Man Ray was in his 80s. His star had risen and remained high in the sky, he was still sought after as a photographer, and was still producing and stamping prints for collectors. This is where one could potentially see the arc of the essay taking a weird turn.
 
Having already laid the groundwork of the concept of stamping one’s artwork, de l’Ecotais says that the presence (or absence) of multiple Man Ray stamps on the verso of the prints shouldn’t cause too much concern to the potential buyer. After all, Man Ray was quite inconsistent with all those stamping shenanigans when he was 80 and presumably quite doddery in his studio. You have to look at the work itself, the quality of the print, the framing, the paper, the history, and its provenance. This last one is a bit ironic considering all the furore that this sale brought up. From her essay, and in the original French because I want you to know that I speak more than one language because I’m that insecure:
«Est-ce qu'á ce moment-la il fait attention aux cachet qu'il utilisait? Peut-tre, mais il est plus que probable qu'il ait volontairement voulu brouiller les pistes. Entre un cachet Campagne-Premiere et un autre - il y en a au moins six - quelle importance? A-t-il apposé des cachets à la demande des collectioneurs? Oui. A-t-il pu apposer des cachets "Rue Campagne Première" parce que l'image et le tirage en question dataient de l'époque de cet atelier? Certainement. A-t-il demande a son assistant de la faire pour lui? Sans doute. A-t-il pu apposer un cachet "Val-de-Grace" sur une oeuvre de 1926 alors qu'il n'occupe cet atelier qu'à partir de 1929 (et jusqu'à son depart de Paris en 1940)? Oui.»
Emmanuelle de l'Ecotais [12
Man Ray Expert for Christie's Sale
And I’d also like to politely mention that toggling between keyboards to insert accents on a MF computer is the Devil’s work.
 
If you read this with a critical eye then you might query some of the statements the author makes. First, there appears to be very little evidence for these assertions, although one might argue that this is simply run-of-the-mill auction  catalogue ornamentation of language. And yes, auction catalogues do do that; something I learned from my time in one (auction house) is that half the job of writing the catalogue essay is making the work appear irresistible to the buyers out there because it’s just thinly veiled marketing through elaborate prose. But I think it’s that little question in the middle that’s interesting. I’ll do it in English this time because I’m gracious. The “he” in question very obviously refers to Man Ray, the “assistant” refers to, well, you know who:
"Did he ask his assistant to stamp the prints for him? Without a doubt."
Emmanuelle de l'Ecotais [13]
Man Ray Expert for Christie's Sale
From this phrasing it would appear that Man Ray personally asked Treillard to stamp his prints for him, which assumes a high level of trust between the two individuals. As established, there is no written proof in the catalogue which backs up de l’Ecotais’s argument that Man Ray did, in fact, subcontract Treillard to stamp the prints. Hypothetically speaking (as thought there’s any other way), if you had proof that Man Ray asked Treillard to stamp his works, or produce more of a specific print, you might produce the documentation to support this claim. Just like being in court, you need evidence. So, if we were in court, it would be at this point that the prosecution  might stand up and shout “Objection!” at that statement because it sounds like conjecture and has no proof behind it. [14]
 
She ends this section of the essay with a series of examples demonstrating Man Ray’s inconsistent stamping and, presumably, his declining mental capacities. There’s a self-portrait from 1936 which carries a Hollywood stamp. There’s two prints from the same session which carry different stamps: Jacqueline Goddard, 1930 holds a « Campagne-Première » stamp and a « Val-de-Grâce » stamp, despite the stamps being almost 10 years apart. In 1948, he made a short trip to Paris and took with him a suitcase full of works stamped incongruently: Joan Miro, 1930 has two stamps, one « Man Ray/31 vis Rue/Campagne/Première/Paris XIVe » and the second from his Hollywood days « Photograph/by Man Ray ». Did he use stamps from different periods on the same works, de l’Ecotais asks? But by this stage she doesn’t really need to answer. [15]

Rubber Stamp

Sort of, but also not really, following the chronology of Manford’s statement, I wanted to look at the terminology used in the cataloguing. The stamp itself is described as cachet du photographe in French, which on the face of it all sounds fine because those are the equivalent words when you translate English to French, or French to English. The problem comes about when Christie’s starts describing the photographs in the cataloguing as bearing the cachet du photographe. This is a little problematic because, as we’ve seen, not all stamps, or cachets, are equal. Two stamps may contain the same information but whereas one is authentic, created during the artist’s lifetime, and used by said artist, the other may be fake and created posthumously. Of course we’re talking about M6 and M28.
 
Manford points out, and I’d like to think I’d have noticed this too, that the lack of actual stamp identification in the cataloguing from this Christie’s sale contradicts previous sales in which the aforementioned fake Rue Campagne Première stamp appeared in the cataloguing, and was described using Manford’s “M + number” system. If we follow this line of inquiry, it’s easy to see how Christie’s has muddied the waters a bit because they emphasise what the stamp says, rather than visually documenting how it appears

Brain Excorsizing

In order to understand better the significance of the Man Ray stamps and their content I did a little brain exercise. I took two Christie’s catalogues, one from 2000 and the other from 2016, and compared the cataloguing of high-value Man Ray prints in both. It’s obviously not very scientific, but it does serve to demonstrate the different standards in cataloguing high-value Man Ray photographic prints. What you’ll see, when you look at the cataloguing, is a monumental difference.
Christie's Los Angeles, 20th Century Photographs, June 1997 [16]
The work offered by Christie's at their 1997 auction of photographs...
... and the technique used to describe what appeared on the verso [17]
In the catalogue from 1997, the cataloguing of Man Ray photographs is purely descriptive when it comes to any annotations, markings, or stamps on the verso. Evidently there’s no point in castigating anyone for the purely descriptive cataloguing style because that’s due to a lack of substantial research which only came later, courtesy of the indelible Mr. Manford.
Christies New York, Photographs, April 2006 [18]
And a double whammy of proof for you here... [19]
...with a tertiary helping over here [20]
Whereas in the catalogue from 2016, the high-value Man Ray lots are meticulously identified by the Manford stamp system. Thus, we have the contrast.
 
So, whereas one style of Christie’s cataloguing (pre-research) describes the content of the stamp on the verso, the other establishes the specific type of stamp to be found and includes a description of what can be found on the verso. Manford has established through his research that the stamps can be traced to specific locations and therefore dates in Man Ray’s life. So, if you can identify a stamp as being an M6, for example, then it is a necessary and critical piece of information that should be included in your cataloguing. Yet, in Christie’s online catalogue from the sale there is neither hide nor hair of this internationally-recognised standard, which doesn’t fit in their recent canon. 
A screenshot of one work from Christie's catalogue. I've linked to the sale page so you can look for yourself [21]

Stamp of Approval?

If, after having absorbed all this information, I was still unconvinced the hypothetical question on my lips might be: Why Would Christie’s Sell This Collection Despite Prevailing Common Knowledge That Its Origins Were Not 100% Kosher? And the answer, as ever, would be: Money.
 
Just before we finish, I thought I’d include a section from the Conditions of Sale, to be found in the back matter. It’s the wonkily outlined paragraph that you’ll want to focus on, and English language versions (and others) can be found in the link to Christie’s Online. The phrasing is very legal, obviously, so what you can take away from it is that it covers Christie’s, not you. 
Christie's Paris, "Man Ray et les surréalistes. Collection Lucien et Edmonde Treillard", 2nd March 2021 [22]

Conclusions?

I suppose my final word on the matter would take us back to the money. Given the relatively modest estimates on the lots, the fact that the auction was 100% sold and that the majority of lots exceeded their pre-sale estimations by 2, 10, or even 20 times, you might speculate that what sold the collection was not the aspiration to acquire work by an artistic savant, but perhaps a slightly more insidious thirst to be a part of a scandal that should have torn Christie’s asunder, but didn’t. Nothing happened to Sotheby’s and the Helene Anderson scandal, so why should anything happen to Christie’s?
 
I end on something of a downer, again. There is no moral compass in the auction house.

References

  1. At this point I would facetiously add that the auction house will never hesitate to attribute “Collection” to an SO sale because it’s sexy and sounds important.
  2. Christie’s Online, https://www.christies.com/en/auction/auction-19833-par [accessed April 1, 2021]
  3. Man Ray Trust Press Release, Monday March 1, 2021: http://www.manraytrust.com/ [accessed April 1, 2021]
  4. Emmanuelle de l’Ecotais biography: https://prixpictet.com/space/jury/emmanuelle-de-lecotais/ [accessed April 1, 2021]
  5. I won’t abbreviate that for obvious reasons.
  6. Phillip Mould, Sleuth, London: HarperCollins, 2011, p. 296.
  7. Steven Manford, Behind the Photo; 42 Man Ray Stamps, Paris: Carnet de Rhinoceros, 2008, np.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Steven Manford, Statement of Opinion by Steven Manford, Man Ray Research Scholar, p. 2.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Manford, Behind the Photo, np.
  12. Emmanuelle de l’Ecotais, “A Propos des Cachets de Man Ray,” in Man Ray et les Surréalistes: Collection Lucien et Edmonde Treillard, Paris 2 mars 2021, p. 6 (pp.6-7).
  13. Ibid.
  14. Say, hypothetically, that Christie’s had something to hide with this sale. Say, hypothetically, that Christie’s knew in advance that the consignment hadn’t been obtained entirely legally. Say, hypothetically, that in order to sell this consignment Christie’s had to obfuscate certain details of the photographs in its cataloguing because things weren’t quite kosher. Would all of that hypothetical thinking account for the lack of accurate documentation of the stamps on the verso? It’s all hypothetical, you tell me.
  15. De l’Ecotais, A Propos des Cachets de Man Ray, pp. 6-7.
  16. Christie’s Los Angeles, 20th Century Photographs, Including a Selection of Japanese Photographs, 1920s-1950s, Thursday, 26 June 1997.
  17. Ibid., Lot 110, pp. 60-61.
  18. Christie’s Photographs, New York, 6 April 2016.
  19. Ibid., Lots 108-109, p. 86.
  20. Ibid., Lot 54, p. 47.
  21. Lot 14, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp en Rose Sélavy, 1921, Christie’s, Man Ray et les Surréalistes: Collection Lucien et Edmonde Treillard, 2 Mars 2021, https://www.christies.com/lot/lot-man-ray-1890-1976-marcel-duchamp-en-rrose-6306456/?from=salesummary&intObjectID=6306456&lid=1&ldp_breadcrumb=back [accessed April 1, 2021].
  22. Christie’s Conditions of Sale, https://www.christies.com/buying-services/buying-guide/conditions-of-sale [accessed April 1, 2021].
  23. I’d just point out that I don’t quite understand the legal components of the French 30 year statute of limitations, and even though it’s very heavily emphasised in the Press Release I haven’t touched it because I don’t want to get anything wrong. This is a link that is meant to explain what it means though: https://uk.practicallaw.thomsonreuters.com/9-502-0121?transitionType=Default&contextData=(sc.Default)&firstPage=true [accessed April 1, 2021].


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