If I had a million dollars - or more precisely $115,000 - $175,000 (or possibly more) - I would want to bid on this striking seascape by Gustave Le Gray. Coming up in the Vendôme Photo Auction in Paris on June 18, it has the rare distinction of coming directly from a collection of one of the photographer’s peers, the 19th century shipping magnate Charles Denis Labrousse.
Gustave Le Gray is an interesting figure in photography. Barely recognized until the late 1970s, a cache of Le Gray's at the Victoria and Albert Museum led to the late recognition of the quality of his work. And while Le Gray mastered many genres of photography, he is justly celebrated for his seascapes and the technical innovation of using multiple negatives to produce works where the sky was as well exposed as the sea. (Until Le Gray you rarely see skies of any note in 19th Century photographs.)
One of the pioneering practitioners of the medium, Le Gray made his first daguerreotypes by 1847. His early photographs included portraits, scenes of nature such as Fontainebleau Forest, and buildings such as châteaux of the Loire Valley. He taught photography to students including Charles Nègre, Henri Le Secq, Nadar, and Maxime Du Camp. In 1851 he helped found the Société Héliographique, the first photographic organization in the world. He also published one of the first treatises on photography.
In 1855 Le Gray opened a lavishly furnished studio in Paris, becoming a successful and noted portraitist while at the same time beginning his first seascapes. In spite of his artistic success, however, his business was a financial failure. The studio was poorly managed and ran into debt at which point Le Gray closed his studio, abandoned his wife and children, and fled France.
In 1860 he traveled around the Mediterranean with Alexandre Dumas, but they parted ways after a clash over a woman they both fancied. Le Gray moved on to Lebanon, then Syria, and Egypt. In Alexandria he photographed the future Edward VII of England. He established himself in Cairo in 1864 where he remained for about 20 years, earning a modest living as a professor of drawing while retaining a small photography shop. He sent pictures to the universal exhibition in 1867 but they failed to catch the public's attention. He died in 1884.
While the Le Gray market was slow to develop, in October 1999, Sotheby's sold a Le Gray albumen print "Beech Tree, Fontainebleau" to an anonymous buyer for £419,500, setting a world record for the most expensive single photograph sold at auction. Later that day at the same auction, an albumen print of "Grande Vague, Sète" also by Le Gray was sold for a new world record price of £507,500 or $840,370 to the same anonymous buyer. The buyer was later revealed to be Sheik Saud Al-Thani of Qatar. The record stood until May 2003 when Al-Thani purchased a daguerreotype by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey for £565,250 or $922,488.
Over the past eight years the record has continued to climb and just last week the world record for the most expensive photograph sold at auction went to Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled #96″ from 1981, when it sold for $3.89 million at Christie’s.
So that million isn't going to get you far in the contemporary art photo game, making the Le Gray an even more appealing buy!