The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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JUL-AUG 2020 Issue
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The Promise

Impatient, she walks out of the bus in between stops and continues to the auction house by foot. At the main entrance, she follows the person in front of her through the revolving door and pursues her path upstairs. From the staircase, she hears the harangues of the auctioneers: “18,000, 19,000, do I hear one more?”; “Lot 94, Aube, oil on canvas by Henri Jeanennet, starting bid at 5,000.”

The viewing room abounds in sparkling objects. At the center, displayed with pride, is an imposing three meters long surtout de table in gilded silver with a mirrored glass surface surrounded by rocaille motifs. She wanders amongst the pieces of silverware, the flatware chests, the crystal display cabinets and glassware. When she notices the object that she came to see, she immediately looks away. Her glance is then drawn to a dinner set with a description that she reads in full: “Faïence dinner set with a grand feu decoration of flowers and plants in camaïeu blue. 82 large dinner plates, 42 soup dishes, 83 dessert plates with openwork edges, 14 round dishes, 6 oval dishes, 2 covered terrines (one with a rim chip), a large oval soup tureen with underplate and lid, 4 casque sauce boats (chipped), 26 coffee cups, 22 teacups, 4 teapots, 3 milk jugs, one sugar bowl. The set is signed “É. Gallé Nancy” in blue on the underside of each piece. Model designed in 1868.” She stands motionless in front of the dinner set—superb but rather anecdotal compared to lot 35, which she so dreads to approach. She strives to suppress the feverish excitement caused by the anticipation of this moment; she delays the instant and striking bedazzlement, for she knows that it can only occur once with such force. Suddenly, unable to endure it any longer, she crosses the room and stands in front of her lot: a cup and saucer.

“What a pity that the name of the manufacturer is illegible,” says a man behind her. “Then again, I once found a jug in a sale with a highly original botanical motif. The stamp was just as indistinct and it wasn’t cheap, but I still purchased it. I later discovered that this motif had a name, and a truly remarkable one at that: Deuil à la Reine. This dinner set by Creil et Montereau is now well recorded. The fact remains that it is rare to find such pieces. It is an exhilarating joy each time I find one.”

“All very interesting but this one cup will do for me,” she answers, while regretting to having revealed her eagerness.

“Look, here comes the expert.”

“You are right to be interested in this, it’s a beautiful piece,” states the expert, haughty and pompous. He retrieves the lot from the display and presents it to her, the cup in one hand and the saucer in the other. She marvels at the object, discovering at the center of the saucer a peony identical to the one at the bottom of the cup. “Isn’t it lovely?” asks the expert, feeling satisfied. She pulls herself together: “Any chips? Could it be unique? How high should I bid to have a chance?”

“It is without a doubt a rare object. The estimate is low because the stamp is illegible. Nonetheless, it could sell for much more. There are amateurs of such highly refined curiosities.”

The object that the expert describes as a “curiosity” obsesses her. Its aura, both subtle and loaded, dense and enigmatic, seems to bear a token—a secret promise of which she is the recipient. Her absolute necessity to acquire it does not stem as much from the need to possess it, strictly speaking, but rather from the urge to prolong this fragile hallucination, to retain it, to glorify it. Whether the cup has any kind of market value, or a remarkable pedigree, makes little difference. She believes this object will never be worth its price. It will always be worth more than its price. Nevertheless, she must decide on an amount, albeit arbitrary, above which she would have to let it go. She then goes to the Library of Decorative Arts with the hope of discovering, if not the same model, one that is comparable. The lot is catalogued: “French, 19th century” but it could as well be from the end of the 18th century or the beginning of the 20th century, of German or Italian origin. To the librarian, who is growing impatient, she says that she is doing research on Creil et Montereau and allows herself to be guided to the relevant books. She learns that Creil et Montereau resulted from the union in 1840 of two almost centenary manufacturers. It was Montereau, manufacturer of the queen, who gave the name to the motif that was mentioned to her by the collector. Without truly believing it, she tries to establish a parallel between the mark at the bottom of the cup, and the stamps, marks, and monograms of the decorators listed in the books. However, irritated by this futile exercise and powerless to think or want anything, she abandons herself to the passive contemplation of the illustrated catalogues of the renowned manufacturer. The series of motifs draw as much from archeology, mythology, and fine arts, as they do from the news documenting the industrial progress, the taste for the Orient, the most beautiful pavilions of the Universal Exhibition of 1855 and the epic story of the giraffe offered by the Pasha of Egypt to King Charles X, from the Sudan all the way to the Menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes.

Impressed by the packed salesroom, she sits in front of the auctioneer. Gradually, with each sold lot, she is overcome with anguish. When lot 31 is announced, she shrinks into her chair—“1000, don’t exceed 1000”. Lot 32—tension. Lot 33—cramps. Lot 34—paralysis. When lot 35 is placed on the red velvet stand she feels dizzy. Bidding begins without her being able to raise her hand: “400, 500, 600, 700 with you, Marc, on the telephone” says the auctioneer, from the top of his rostrum. “800 in front of me” he announces when she places her first bid. “900, 1,000 is once again in front of me, 1,200 is with you, Marc.” After this fierce higher bid, there is a pause until the auctioneer seizes the bid of 1,300, which she regrets immediately because she does not want this cup. Thankfully, 1,400 comes quickly. “Marc, it is no longer with you; the gentleman at the back of the room? 1,500, once again in front of me. 1,500, sold! Thank you, Madame.” She is the Madame. A superb soup tureen now has the place of honor on the display stand. “Lot 36: An important dinner service by Émile Gallé…” Stunned, she makes her way to the cashier. Her legs barely carry her. In exchange of payment, she is given a large plastic bag that weighs nothing.

The object now seems as outrageous as the expense by which it was obtained. She is furious for having lacked self-control, for having allowed herself to be intimidated by the auctioneer, deceived by the expert and mystified by the collector. She doesn't know how to hold this bag, whose content repels her. She is afraid of hitting it or of squeezing it too tight. In pieces, the cup would be no less real. The promise must be fulfilled! She comes home in haste, draws the curtains, sits at her desk, unwraps the packaging, and places the cup under the halo of the lamp. It is the first time that she touches it. The first time that she observes it in detail. The hand-painted decoration is in relief. The motifs are applied to the surface of the cup in such a manner that the flowers, some still in bud form, seem to come to life from the porcelain. The handle consists of a vegetal interlacing unfolding in a rich garland up until the scalloped edge embellished with gold. The same adjoining arcs decorate the saucer, whose well is smooth. At its center lies a peony, immortalized in the fleeting instant just before reaching maturity, a twin to the one at the bottom of the cup. Around it emerges a sparse meadow with scattered flowers. She examines the cup and saucer for a long time, assessing them, questioning them. Nothing happens. She thinks she didn’t look at them well enough, or perhaps, she looked at them too much. She closes her eyes and waits before opening them again on the new cup. She does this several times, making the object disappear and reappear. Nothing. She brings the cup in front of the lightbulb of the lamp; the peony ignites without any dazzling. She brings it to her ear, but no revelation is granted to her. To think that the object has only existed as desire. There is a place for it in the cupboard, reserved for objects that suffered the same fate before it. Some are minuscule and insignificant, others are rare and precious; so many wondrous talismans that have lapsed.

Translated from the French by Alyssa Ovadis


Anne-Laure Zevi

is French. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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