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Man Ray’s Record-Setting Violin

February 26, 2022
A black-and-white photo of the nude back of a woman with a violin's f-holes

Man Ray’s Le violon d’Ingres

I took an art history elective in high school, and that’s where I saw Man Ray’s work for the first time. It was his 1921 readymade sculpture The Gift, consisting of thumbtacks glued to the bottom of a flatiron. I chuckled when I saw it. He took an ordinary, everyday object and made it completely useless. It’s not unlike Méret Oppenheim’s Déjeuner en fourrure, a fur-covered teacup, saucer, and spoon. Ray has always been one of the most recognizable names in Dada or Surrealism, and now one of his works is predicted to become the most valuable photograph in the world.

This May, Christie’s will auction The Rosalind Gersten Jacobs & Melvin Jacobs Collection, held in high regard as one of the world’s most well-known private collections of Surrealist and Abstract works. The Man Ray photograph Le violon d’Ingres has grabbed the most attention after Christie’s specialists estimated it to fetch as much as $7 million. Le violon d’Ingres will set an auction record for a photograph if the photo reaches the specialists’ estimate. Currently, the most valuable photograph ever sold at auction is Rhein II by the German photographer Andreas Gursky, which brought in $3.8 million (or $4.3 million w/p) at a 2011 Christie’s sale.

The photo shows the nude back of Ray’s lover Kiki de Montparnasse made to look like the body of a violin with f-holes inserted using then-revolutionary darkroom techniques. Ray kept the original print until 1962 until he sold it to the Jacobs family. Based on the title, Ray took inspiration from the nineteenth-century French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, particularly his use of the nude female form. Ingres most famously used the female nude in his Grande Odalisque, but Ray took his inspiration from La Grande Baigneuse, also known as The Valpinçon Bather. But the photo has another meaning known only to those who speak French. The title is also a take on the French phrase violon d’Ingres, or Ingres’s violin, a euphemism for a hobby or pastime, named after the painter’s love of the instrument.

Even if the Man Ray photo underperforms, there’s no doubt that the sale will do well. While Christie’s has not released the complete sale catalog, press releases indicate that works by René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, and Vija Celmins are also part of the Jacobs collection.