Auctions | May 3, 2016

The Collection of Marcel Proust's Great-grandniece Comes to Auction at Sotheby's Paris

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 2.45.41 PM.pngParis, May 2016-It is extremely rare to see the archives of a great writer appear on the market: after Stéphane Mallarmé’s library*, the auction on 31 May at Sotheby’s Paris of the collection of the great-grandniece of Marcel Proust, Patricia Mante-Proust, is a real literary event. This moving collection takes book lovers into the intimate world of a brilliant writer through over 120 photographs, books, manuscripts and letters, all shedding light on his work, friends and love life.

Designed as a reference work, the catalogue prefaced by Jean-Yves Tadié, extensively documented and illustrated, presents all lots in chronological order: it is a true biography of the writer.


The collection contains numerous photographs, some already published and exhibited on many occasions: family portraits, including several of Marcel Proust himself, together with portraits of his friends, some dedicated by Lucien Daudet, Reynaldo Hahn, Jacques Bizet, Robert de Flers, Jacques-?mile Blanche, Robert de Montesquiou and others. Proust liked to own photographic portraits of his family, friends and people he spent time with.

Through these photographs, Proust's entire life unfolds before our eyes: as a child of around 11 with his young brother Robert (estimate: ??2,000-3,000); his beloved grandmother, who inspired one of the characters in A la recherche du temps perdu (estimate: ??1,000-1,500); his parents, of course, and himself as an adult.

As a young man, he frequently posed for Otto, one of the most prominent portraitists in high society. The collection includes one of the most famous portraits of Marcel Proust (estimate: ??4,000-6,000). A notorious portrait of three friends by Otto shows the writer with Lucien Daudet, gazing languorously at Marcel, and Robert de Flers. At his parents' insistence, he had to collect up all the prints to prevent the picture from circulating (estimate: ??5,000-8,000).


The collection also contains precious manuscripts, some unpublished, including one paying tribute to the talent of watercolourist Madeleine Lemaire, Autrefois tristes d’être si peu de temps belles (estimate: ??10,000-15,000).

The first book published by Proust, Les Plaisirs et les jours in 1896, grouping together all the novellas published since 1892, also features. His brother Robert's copy contains a touching declaration of brotherly love: "O brother dearer than the light of day!" (estimate: ??10,000-15,000).

John Ruskin, a specialist in French religious art, inspired two drawings by Proust - among his best. Unlike Victor Hugo, Proust was not at all a gifted draughtsman, but never lost his humour. One of his most sophisticated drawings, probably from between 1901 and 1904, is of the Amiens Cathedral (estimate: ??10,000-15,000). He gave it to Reynaldo Hahn, his closest friend, whom he met in 1894. The passion of their early years developed into an unshakeable friendship that lasted until the writer's death in 1922. 

The first edition of Du côté de chez Swann opens with a long signed autograph envoi, part of which has never been published, to Walter Berry, dated July 1916. "Sir, you probably think, as I do, that the wisest, most poetic and best people are not those who put all their poetry, goodness and knowledge into their work, but th ose who, with a skilful and prodigal hand, also put a little into their lives." (estimate: ??20,000-30,000). The envoi alludes to the volume with the Guermantes coat of arms Berry had given to Proust.

The remarkable galley proof of A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs [1914-1919], hitherto unknown, and mostly written by hand, sheds considerable light on our understanding of the novel. With many crossings-out and corrections, in extremely spontaneous writing, this galley shows us how the author wrote as the words gushed out, with all his subsequent changes of mind. After the publication of Du côté de chez Swannin 1913, Grasset had begun on that of ? l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs in 1914, but the war delayed it. Proust took advantage of this to correct his text: working on the printed proofs, he considerably changed and added to it. A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs won the Prix Goncourt, and Proust soon began to explore the idea of a luxury edition of the novel, perhaps for financial reasons (estimate: ??20,000-25,000).

The collection also contains the important letter sent to Proust by the Académie Goncourt on 10 December 1919, telling him that he had been awarded the Prix Goncourt for A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (estimate: ??6,000-8,000).

Further evidence of Proust's friendships can be found in the books dedicated to him by Cocteau, Colette, Gide, Giraudoux, Morand, Anna de Noailles and Princess Bibesco-not forgetting Comte Robert de Montesquiou, the arrogant poet and dandy who inspired the character of Baron de Charlus in A la recherche du temps perdu. His essays, Elus et appelés, published in 1921, contain the last lines he wrote to Proust before his own death that year (estimate: ??2,000-4,000).


The letters Proust exchanged with his father and brother Robert are some of the most moving, and there are very few. The most precious, dated 1893, is one of only three known letters to his father, who did not consider literature a profession. Marcel Proust submits to his father's wishes while asserting his calling: "For me, anything... but literature and philosophy is a waste of time." The writer's determination can be discerned, just as we can guess at the fierce arguments he must have had with his father (estimate: ??10,000-15,000).

An unpublished letter from his brother in 1892 reveals a thoughtful sibling. Robert gives encouragement to his "good little Marcel", who has just failed his law exams and gone off to spend the summer at Trouville. Robert also expresses concern for his asthma attacks (estimate: ??3,000-5,000).

The 1896 letters to Reynaldo Hahn are the most appealing of this extraordinary correspondence. In them, Proust lays his heart bare, as he does nowhere else. Three extremely moving letters feature in this collection. The first is a long six-page letter in which Proust tells Reynaldo Hahn that he is "truly the person I love the most in the world, together with my mother" (estimate: ??15,000-20,000). In the second, he expresses his bitter jealousy and sadness in the middle of the break-up with his beloved. However, they remained friends until the writer's death in 1922 (estimate: ??20,000-25,000). The third is the last letter Hahn wrote to Proust, a month before his death. At the request of his brother Robert, he tries to persuade the writer to get some serious medical treatment: "I know [...] that I can do nothing for my dearest friend, one of the people I have loved most in my life" (estimate: ??8,000-12,000).

A collection of 9 letters to Lucien Daudet, who succeeded Reynaldo Hahn in Proust's affections, shows the writer's closeness with Alphonse Daudet's son, whom he tenderly encourages in his pictorial creations and writing projects. In one of these letters, Proust wonders about the possibility of publishing other pastiches in Le Figaro and asks advice from his friend. He seeks to move away from imitation and publish a new and ‘truly original’ project that is all his own. This was to be A la recherche du temps perdu (estimate: ??6,000-8,000).

* De la Bibliothèque de Stéphane Mallarmé, Sotheby’s Paris, 15 October 2015-??4.6 million