Tales from
the Loir

A Weekly Column

June 5, 2002 - Emmanuel de Broglie

Book Expert


Anyone who has been to Paris knows about the large number of used bookstores lining the streets. I never enter these shops because I have no idea of the value of books. Most of the millions books in these shops are not for reading. They are antiques and works of art that are too delicate and valuable to crease the corner to mark your place. But how would anyone know how to value so many unique works of art. Many are indeed works of art and contain engravings, lithographs and original works of artists of incredible beauty.

Aprille and I were invited to attend a book auction at the Hotel Drouot in Paris by Emmanuel de Broglie, a book expert and neighbor in Lavardin. Aprille is passionee for books and is more interested in the idea of collecting them than I, but I find myself becoming fascinated with certain books myself.

When we arrive at Emmanuel's office at 57, rue de Verneuil, I am instantly reminded of Johnny Depp in the movie The Ninth Gate. Books are everywhere. They are stacked in shelves from the floor to the ceiling and loosely scattered in small stacks. There is one narrow, winding corridor through piles of paper, books, catalogues and files.

Emmanuel is constantly moving picking up papers, files and mail while trying to deal with the distraction of our arrival. He says that he always forgets something and he nervously tries to remember what is missing. He picks up a file then looks for a file that is missing. It is behind him. He grabs a couple of stacks as if he is thinking "Oh, what the hell. I am going to forget something so why worry about it." I begin to realize that we are not making things any easier and are becoming a major distraction. He gives us metro tickets to get to the auction house but decides to take us with him in the car when Aprille says that she would like to go to the morning viewing of the books.

Bidders can examine the books the day before the auction and from eleven to noon on the day of the auction. The auction starts at two o’clock in the afternoon and lasts until it is finished. There are close to four hundred books to be auctioned today so the process will take a long of time. But Emmanuel says that this is a small auction. I am not sure if he means small in terms of the number or value of the books.

While waiting for Emmanuel of gather his papers, I see a catalogue for today’s auction and some older catalogues. The catalogue for today’s auction is relativity small compared to the others. The catalogues are works of art in themselves and are Emmanuel's masterpieces. He has just started putting the catalogues on line. They can be seen at his website at www.cabinet-revel.com.

Emmanuel checks the mail for any final bids that might have arrived. He represents many buyers as an advisor and expert, and bids for them at the auction. There is nothing in the mail so we head for the small gray Peugot with dents and dings in the doors and missing side view mirrors. This should have been a warning to take the bus but Emmanuel says that he never takes the bus or metro. He drives everywhere and I quickly learn that this is where he releases frustration. We squeezed out of the impossibly tight parking space and back up on the sidewalk to turn around and go in the other direction. It’s like a ride on Space Mountain. I think of the movie where the hired race car driver rips the mirror off the dash when he gets in the car and says that anything behind you is irrelevant.

We relive scenes from that movie as Emmanuel turns into a one-way street the wrong way and parks in the pedestrian crosswalk. He says that he will be right back and leaves us the key as if we could possibly extricate ourselves from this position. He returns and u-turns us out of the one-way street and we are off again. He spots a team of policemen directing traffic ahead and drapes his seat belt over his shoulder like a scarf. He tells me to do the same but tells Aprille who is in the back seat not to bother. I snap the seatbelt in the locked position. As Emmanuel passes the policemen, he tells me it is okay to take it off now as he undrapes the belt from his shoulder. I elect to keep mine on.

As we reach Hotel Drouot, we weave around the streets, sometimes in reverse, looking for a parking space. Emmanuel says there is never a free space and I wonder again why he drives the few blocks to get here. We finally park in front of a driveway that he says no one ever uses and we enter the building from the basement. Emmanuel points out a man with a number pinned to his lapel and tells us he is a frequent bidder who is assigned a number to identify him when he bids. We climb the stairs to one of the eighteen rooms where auctions are held. There are at least ten auctions going on everyday. The items range from antiques to wine. But Emmanuel's specialty is books so we head to Salle Twelve where Drouot employees are setting out the books for inspection. All of the books are available for inspection on the day before the auction and from eleven to noon on the morning of the auction. The auction starts at two o'clock in the afternoon and lasts until it is finished.

Since Aprille and I are with Emmanuel, we are allowed into the auction room early. We take the opportunity to browse through the books for sale. There are 317 individual books that will be auctioned and dozens of crates of books to be sold in lots. Aprille asks Emmanuel to show her the most valuable book for sale. He takes a palm-sized book from a glass case and hands it to Aprille who carefully leafs through the delicate pages. It was written in 1503 and every page is a piece of art. It is called Livres d’Heures and is a calendar of festivals in Rome from 1497 through 1520. It has an estimated value of three thousand dollars but it will sell for much more.

Although three thousand dollars seems like a lot of money for a small book, Aprille points out to me that each page is a work of art and the individual engravings would be worth a fortune if they were being sold separately. Aprille says that antique books are the best-kept secret in the art world. The average man can no longer collect great art because it is too expensive while books are regularly sold at bargain prices. Photographs of an engraving from this book can be seen on Emmanuel’s website at www.cabinet-revel.com.

While Aprille is taking pictures of the Livre d'Heures, I browse around to look at the other books. My eye catches a large coffee table sized book entitled Roland Furieux. Several years ago I read the epic poem, Chant de Roland, and enjoyed it so much that I have read it several times since then even though the old French is very difficult to translate. The Chant de Roland is only about a hundred pages longs and an English translation can be found on the internet at the website http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/OMACL/Roland/.

As I leaf through Roland Furieux, I realize that it is also an epic poem but that it is the complete story of Roland. It is close to a thousand pages long with eighty-one beautiful illustrations by Gustave Doré. I find myself coveting this masterpiece but I know it will be too expensive. I grab the catalogue to look up the estimated value. It must be a mistake. It's estimated value is $150. It was printed in 1888 but it is classified as modern and costs no more than the generic coffee table books found in bookstores all over the world.

As the eleven o’clock hour approaches, the room fills with potential bidders who scurry around looking at the books that interest them. They are ordinary looking people dressed causally who seem intensely interested in these artistic truffles. They are individual collectors, book dealers and bookshop owners. Although not on the same level as Emmanuel, it is obvious that each of these buyers is an expert too and I wonder if the average guy could actually come in here and buy a book. The auction is certainly open to everyone but it is a little intimidating too me.

At noon the doors are closed and everyone leaves except Emmanuel, the commissaire-priseur, Thierry de Maigret, and several employees. They all sit around a table and begin to organize for the afternoon auction. This is supposed to be a small auction but the tension is apparent. It is critical to get organized before the auctions starts. Bids have already arrived by mail, by fax and by telephone. Bids continue to arrive and it will be necessary to coordinate telephones, bids on paper and the hectic action of the auction itself. There will be no lunch for these Frenchmen. When Frenchmen don't eat lunch it is very serious business.

Aprille and I take a break for lunch and return at two o'clock. The room has already filled up with bidders. All of the chairs are taken and people are standing everywhere. I find a spot in the doorway and wait for the action to begin. Thierry de Maigret sits at an elevated table with his two assistants. Emmanuel sits at a lower table with his assistant and a bank of telephones. Employees of the Hotel Drouot are everywhere handling the books. It takes a large staff to handle an auction of books. There are more than 350 items to be auctioned. If each sale takes a minute, it will take about six hours to complete the auction. I wonder if it can be done that quickly. My question is answered when the auction starts.

A well-dressed young man walks in and the commissaire-priseur states that the referee, clerk or something like that has arrived and the auction can begin. The clerk stands in front of the bidders and evidently is responsible for confirming the oral bids and arranging for payment by the winning bidders. A Drouot employee holds up the first book and Emmanuel makes a brief comment about it. Emmanuel opens the bidding by stating the opening price and the action begins. It is like all of the school children ran out of ridelin at the same time. The commissaire-priseur and the referee are both repeating the bids in shorthand 100, 10, 20...200, 10, 20... while the bidders are yelling replies. The commissaire-priseur finally says 250, 250, 250, ajudge. Somebody has won but I can't tell who until the referee takes the book over the winner and collects the money. As the action continues, I see that yelling the bids is replaced by hand signals, nods and other signals. I also see that some buyers have an account or identifying number and will pay after the auction ends. All of this helps accelerate the bidding. The hectic pace continues but I am exhausted from the tension and from standing for three hours.

I am most surprised by the degree that Emmanuel controls the auction. He starts the bidding and decides to pull the books if the bids are not sufficient. He also has a list of clients that he bids for. He opens the bidding with a comment about the book and occasionally answers questions from the crowd. Some have given him bids in advance and some call on the telephone to bid during the auction.

Obviously, the meeting before the auction was an attempt to organize all of these competing obligations and duties. The problem is how to keep things organized at the fast pace of the auction. There are about 350 items to be auctioned in four hours. After six o'clock, there is a steep penalty for every minute that the auction continues. I realized that they are now doing about one item per minute, which is not fast enough to finish before six o'clock. Pressure, pressure, pressure. It is the type of madness that I have dedicated my life to avoiding but I find my hands sweating from the stress and I am not even involved. I decide to go the hotel and rest.

The next day I talk to Emmanuel and he tells me the auction was a very bad one. The bids were not near as high as he expected. The Livre d’Heures sold for about six thousand dollars. Emmanuel opened the bidding for Roland Furieux at eighty dollars but no one bid on the book so it was pulled from the auction. I later checked on Amazon.com and found that paperback versions of Roland Furieux sell for well over a hundred dollars. If I had stayed longer, I could have bought an absolutely beautiful classic edition of the book for a song.

Anyone who is a fan of the flea markets and brocantes should consider a visit to the Hotel Drouot. There are eighteen auction rooms selling everything from antique furniture to wine. Emmanuel told me that he once bought an antique sofa worth thousands for only ten dollars. Like Roland Furieux, many valuable items just don't have any bidders. Other items have hidden treasures like original copies of the Magna Carta or the U.S. Constitution.

Every item to be auctioned is photographed and put on the Drouot website at www.loeildesencheres.com/. The site for the Drouot magazine is www.gazette-drouot.com. The address for Hotet Drouot is 9, rue Drouot, 75009 Paris, Tel. 0148002020, Fax 01 48 00 20 33 and the Metro stop is Richelieu-Drouot.

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April 17, 2002 -Surprise Review

April 3, 2002 - Spring in Lavardin
March 20, 2002 - Guest Columnist /Furman Magazine/ John Roberts
March 13, 2002 - Tête de Veau
March 6, 2002 - Table Etiquette
February 27, 2002 - A Country Boy Can Survive
February 20, 2002 - Driving in France
February 13, 2002 - The Circus
February 6, 2002 - History of France
January 30, 2002 - THE BEST I EVER HAD
January 23, 2002 - Miranda This
January 16, 2002 - Charlotte Observer Interview
January 9, 2002 - Walnut Wine
January 2, 2002 - Sloe Gin
December 26, 2001 - Winter Solstice
Archive of Weekly Columns from 2001
Archive of Weekly Columns from 2000

 

       

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