By Jim Hughes
Some years ago, a photo dealer and good friend from San Francisco was staying as our houseguest in Brooklyn for a week. One evening he returned from Manhattan carrying a large brown paper bag under one arm and a bottle of my favorite red wine under the other. After dinner, when the dishes were cleared, he retrieved the bag from his room and placed it, with a flourish, in the center of our dining room table. "I have something I think you’re going to appreciate," he announced. Ah, dessert, I thought—maybe Junior's famous cheesecake, a Brooklyn legend.
My friend pulled two old shoeboxes from the bag and dumped their contents on the seven-foot table, creating a small mountain of what looked like playing cards. Except they appeared to be photographs. Like the deft dealer that he was, my friend, palms down, in what seemed like a single motion, spread the cards out in front of us. "Pick a card, any card," he said in his best dealer's voice. I reached down and picked one of the larger ones, about the size of a 3x5-inch file card, but thicker. Only when I pulled the card toward me did I realize that it was familiar. There, depicted on a small hall table in the foreground, was the glowing vase with its artificial tulip, and through a doorway, only partly seen, a staircase rising like the very spirit of art. Rectangles and curves were layered in a composition of formal perfection. "Chez Mondrian," I exclaimed in a burst of recognition. At that point, Alley, our irrepressible calico, perhaps sensing my excitement, hopped onto the table to bat at an exquisite, golden-hued miniature of a fork on a plate. I shooed her off (a moment repeated as the evening wore on). Not until I began to examine the other prints—sliding the pictures around as if they were kings and queens in a giant game of solitaire—did it dawn on me that the miniature images, many familiar, as in from books and exhibits I’d seen, seemed to exhibit a particularly distinctive style.
"Are these vintage prints from André Kertész?" I asked. Our guest nodded. Some of the pictures seemed to be variously cropped contact prints from André's folding 4.5x6-cm and 9x12-cm plate cameras, others small-scale enlargements from the 35mm Leica the photographer was said to have begun using as early as 1925, about the time he arrived in Paris from his native Hungary. All were little gems, lovingly rendered by Kertész himself before an allergic reaction to photographic chemicals drove him from the darkroom.
Where could this treasure possibly have come from, I wanted to know. From the back of a closet in André's Greenwich Village apartment, I was informed. The shoeboxes had evidently lain untouched for many years. The legendary photographer, to his way of thinking never fully appreciated in his adopted country—and still bitter about it, as he might tell anybody within earshot—was in need of money. My friend indicated that he was going to try to sell some of these small prints. How much? I remember numbers ranging from $1,200 to maybe $3,500. I passed on the implied offer. Indeed, I rationalized, I could be just as happy purchasing a beautifully rendered and enlarged 8x10 or 11x14 silver print, signed by Kertész and printed under his supervision, for a few hundred (and a few years later, I did just that, buying at auction an 8x10 "Chez Mondrian" for $700—it hangs in our living room today, directly facing my favorite arts and crafts Morris chair).
Years later, I happened to attend the 1996 round of auctions in New York. Astonishingly, the little print I have since called "Alley's Fork," after my rambunctious cat, sold at Christie's for $90,500, at the time a record for the photographer. A month later, "Mondrian's Pipe and Glasses, Paris" auctioned at Sotheby's London for $98,000—and it wasn't even signed. But that was only the beginning. The following spring, Christie’s held an auction within an auction, with its own special catalogue. All Kertész. Its original 21-print core had been discovered, like the shoeboxes in a closet, three years after the photographer's death in 1985 at age 91, in a folio tucked away between books on a library shelf. These prints had been made on creamy color postcard stock, presumably because it was more affordable back then, and had been presented at André's first exhibit in Paris. The poet Paul Dermée wrote for the occasion: "No rearranging, no posing, no gimmicks, nor fakery. Your technique is as honest, as incorruptible, as your vision. In our home for the blind, Kertész is 'Brother Seeing-Eye.'"
My sentiments exactly.
Christie's Lot 176, "Chez Mondrian," the cover illustration for the catalogue, brought $300,000. All told, the 37-print collection netted $1.36 million. Of course, bear in mind that an early Mondrian painting had previously sold for $1.8 million, by itself surpassing the entire Kertész collection auctioned that day. Indeed, an example of Mondrian's mature work would soon sell for $5.5 million. And those were 1997 dollars!
And here's a final postscript about André Kertész, the man I consider to be the most graceful photographer who ever lived. In 1985, I was shown a just-processed 35mm black-and-white contact sheet from a roll of film shot by a photographer from another country. This photographer, a great admirer who made a point to visit his hero whenever he was in New York, had gone to André's Washington Square apartment building and was let in by the doorman, who recognized him. He found the apartment door open. Not surprised, he knocked. Receiving no response, he entered, and discovered his friend stretched out on a couch. The visitor tried gently to wake him. Again, no response. During a nap, evidently, André had died peacefully in his sleep.
Rather than contacting authorities immediately, this man, being a foreigner, called a close friend of Kertész's, also a photographer of note, who happened to live nearby. The contact sheet I saw clearly showed the two younger photographers, while still alone with André's body and in what was no doubt intended to be a final photographic homage, taking turns posing for the camera, each evidently wanting to be recorded with an arm embracing the earthly remains of a giant, hoping perhaps that a little of his amazing spirit would rub off before it disappeared forever into the ether.
As subsequent events have shown, as long as the wonderfully lyrical photographs of André Kertész remain for us to admire, there is little chance of that.
Jim Hughes is an occasional contributor to TOP—for more of his work, click on his name under the Categories header in the right-hand sidebar. He now lives in Maine.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Jeff: "Touching end to this article; thanks for sharing it.
"I believe another vintage print of 'Chez Mondrian' sold in 2005 at Sotheby's for $464,000; I don't recall the size.
"I can't remember the year, but some time ago (perhaps in 1996 as Jim recounts), some of the carte postales by Kertesz went to auction. Kertesz prices hadn't yet hit the stratosphere, so I thought I might get lucky bidding on a far lesser known picture. Fat chance...it soared past my price point in no time.
"I should have learned my lesson. On a visit years earlier with a dealer friend in New York, I was shown and passed on a small contact print...about 1.5x2.5 inches...of a simple but lovely landscape by Kertesz. Not signed, but priced extremely high, or so I thought....$15,000. Plus, I wasn't sure how I'd frame such a precious little thing. Live and learn."