The most expensive photograph in history is once again of Man Ray and sold for 12 million

Le Violon d’Ingres (1924), by Man Ray, in a period test
Rosalind Gersten and Melvin Jacobs/Christie’s Collection

It depicts a woman whose bare back evokes the shape of a violin. We can’t see her arms or legs, and only her profile reveals the identity of the model, Kiki de Montparnasse, singer, painter and lover of Man Ray, the artist to whom we owe Le Violon d’Ingres (1924), one of the most celebrated photographs of the 20th century.

A copy vintage of this work, which we immediately associate with its author and the surrealist movement, of which he is one of the main references, was sold this Saturday at an auction in New York for 12.4 million dollars (12 million euros, which already includes the fees that the transaction involves), greatly exceeding the most optimistic estimate, which was set at seven million.

Le Violon d’Ingres (silver gelatin print measuring 48.5 x 37.5 cm) was one of the lots that had generated the most expectations around the prestigious Christie’s auction and was part of the surrealist art collection of Rosalind Gersten and Melvin Jacobs.

According to the American art magazine Art News It took ten minutes, under the watchful supervision of the auctioneer, Adrien Meyer, for two of the auctioneer’s photography specialists, Darius Himes and Elodie Morel, on the phone with two bidders, to settle the dispute. Morel and the collector he represented ended up winning, setting the price at 10.5 million dollars (10.1 million euros) and drawing applause from the room.

This portrait of Kiki de Montparnasse, one of Man Ray’s muses, is what in the specialized world is called an “original photographic copy”, since it was made at the same time as the artist created the corresponding negative, which makes it very rare and therefore particularly valuable to any collector or museum.

The Jacobs, executives linked to the fashion world and with friends in the surrealist circle, which also included Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, bought Le Violon d’Ingres directly to Man Ray (1890-1976), in 1962, and they never abdicated it. Rosalind outlived her husband (Melvin died in 1993), eventually dying in 2019, aged 94. It fell to the heirs to sell the couple’s collection.

The auction offer of this iconic work by the American artist, which on the eve of his visit to Darius Himes square, he called “something unprecedented in the art market”, set a new record for photography and by a wide margin. The former belonged to Andreas Gursky, the German photographer who in 2011 saw one of the proofs of his The Rhine II (1999) to be sold for 4.3 million dollars (4 million euros). Gursky then broke the record previously held by Man Ray, author of Noire et Blanche (1926), sold four years earlier for three million (2.8 million euros).

“At once romantic, mysterious and mischievous, this image has captured everyone’s minds for nearly 100 years,” said Christie’s specialist Himes, quoted in a statement in which, weeks earlier, the prestigious auctioneer had publicized and promoted the sale of the portrait. unique by Kiki de Montparnasse.

With copies in the collections of the Pompidou Center in Paris, one of the most important museums of modern and contemporary art in the world, and in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Le Violon d’Ingres it is a work built in stages: the artist photographed the model, then printed the resulting negative and, on the proof that gave rise, drew the typical openings of the violin, in pencil and ink, a type of ink. Only later did he pick up the camera again to record the result, which gave rise to a new negative and the proofs that would lead to the title of the one that was now sold at auction.

Le Violon d’Ingres it is, according to some art historians, a tribute by Man Ray to one of his favorite painters, the Frenchman Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, who liked to play the violin in his spare time. The model’s pose, they note, is also reminiscent of that of the women who appear in two famous paintings by Ingres: Le Bain Turkish (the one in the center wearing a turban, playing a stringed instrument) and la baigneuse.