The Blue Lotus at auction: the adventure of a disputed treasure

This cover project dating from 1936 was sold this Thursday, January 14 for 3.175 million euros at Artcurial. Return on the eventful itinerary of a masterpiece.

February 1936, a small red brick house, at 18, rue Knapen, in Brussels. On his drawing board, young Hergé has placed India ink, a few tubes of gouache and a white sheet. Under his brush appears first the little hero with the powder puff, with his faithful Snowy. Both emerge, frightened, from a large bluish jar. Then the designer brushes a scary red dragon on a black background in the background. And add some esoteric-looking Chinese ideograms. It only took him a few hours to make this drawing, barely larger than a 33-rpm. Nothing less than the first version of the famous cover of the “Blue Lotus”, this album that tintinophiles often consider as the pinnacle of the adventures of the little reporter, sold to date over 255 million copies worldwide.

Read also:Fanny Rodwell: “Tintin belongs to its creator”

How could the creator of Tintin have imagined that this sublime sketch would be, eighty years later, the highlight of a prestigious auction? On January 14, at Artcurial in Paris, his drawing must go under the hammer of auctioneer Arnaud Oliveux. Estimate by expert Eric Leroy: between 2.3 and 2.8 million euros. Yes, you read correctly. This staggering number could make it the most expensive comic book in history. This is because the silhouette of Tintin has become an icon of the twentieth century, on a par with Andy Warhol’s Marilyn or Chaplin’s Charlot.

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Yet a mystery thick as a Chinese fog surrounds the surprise reappearance of this gem. Officially, according to Artcurial, who, like all auction houses, loves beautiful stories, the drawing was once offered by Hergé to little Jean-Paul Casterman, son – then 7 years old – of the publisher of the Adventures of Tintin . After having folded it in six – there are still traces of the folds today – the boy would have put it in a drawer, from where his own children would have exhumed it ten years after his death to offer it to Artcurial . Commentary by Philippe Goddin, reference among exegetes, who compiled decades during the work of Hergé for his monumental “Chronology of a work” (seven volumes published from 2000 to 2011, ed. Moulinsart): “It is a beautiful fable, but it is a fable. ”

Read also:We walked to Hergé!

The word is not innocent. Because, as in an intrigue worthy of the little reporter, a character in ambush would be able to recover the treasure without spending a cent: Nick Rodwell, the husband of Fanny Vlamynck, who was Hergé’s wife. This unpredictable Englishman fiercely reigns over Tintin’s legacy – and the empire that came from it – via the Moulinsart company. “Nick”, as everyone in the industry calls him, believes that the drawing should come back to the Hergé museum, located in Louvain-la-Neuve, about thirty kilometers from Brussels. And said it to Paris Match with his usual outspokenness: “I am convinced that this drawing was stolen from Hergé by the Casterman family.” To the point of demanding the suspension of the sale? The hypothesis has been circulating for weeks between experts and collectors.

At Artcurial, it is observed that the drawing was reproduced in numerous works without ever making Rodwell react. To understand what it is, we have to go back to 1936. After having sent his hero to the Soviets, to the Congo and then to America, Hergé has just completed Tintin’s adventures in the Far East. It remains to find a title. ““ The Blue Lotus ”! It’s short, it looks Chinese, and it sounds mysterious, ”he wrote to Charles Lesne, his correspondent at Casterman. But the publisher wants to publish the album for Easter, when the little Belgians receive their “New Year’s gifts”. But the cover is missing. There is therefore urgency. On February 12, Hergé has in hand his famous drawing with the jar and the dragon. It must still be sent to Tournai, Casterman headquarters. How did he get there? This is where the Sherlock Holmes of tintinology come in. Philippe Goddin recounts: “I had seen Hergé’s letter that accompanied the drawing. It had two small holes at the top left. However, if you look closely at the drawing, you can see exactly the same traces of staples. Hergé therefore stapled the letter on the drawing, folded the letter in four and the drawing in six to fit them into an envelope, then sent everything to Casterman. “

Hergé and Tchang in 1981 © Keystone/Getty Images

Like investigators from the forensic science, high-definition scans in support, Moulinsart experts confirm the consistency of the clips. This element, revealed by the Belgian daily “Le Soir”, undermines the “fable” of the little Casterman casually folding the masterpiece … “Today we are surprised that Hergé could have treated a drawing in this way, because some Tintin blankets recently sold for over 1 million euros. But at the time, for him, this sketch was not a work of art, it was a simple working document. A Dutch cartoonist even said that he had found, one day, two original Hergé plates in the trash of a newspaper! »Explains François Deneyer, author of the fascinating« Small original stories »(2016), a journey among the comic strips. On February 15, 1936, Charles Lesne, having received the drawing, replied to Hergé enthusiastically: “Your project (which I am sending back to you) is amazing.”

A mystery as thick as Chinese fog surrounds the reappearance of this gem

In the weeks that followed, Tintin with the dragon was nevertheless the subject of bitter technical debates in Casterman’s workshops. Perfectionist, Hergé wants to be printed in tri-color, the process guaranteeing scrupulous respect for colors. However, at the end of March, the estimate fell: 1,150 Belgian francs for the trichromy, it was far too expensive. The author is requested to design a cheaper cover. He does so, death in the soul. “The Blue Lotus” will not appear until October 1936. First printing: 6,000 copies. “This album constitutes a turning point in Hergé’s work,” explains one of his biographers, Benoît Mouchart. “Until then, Tintin’s adventures were made up of cavalcades. This time, we find a real human depth in the relationships between the characters. Hergé also documented himself on China, in particular from a Chinese student living in Brussels, Tchang Tchong-jen, who inspired him to the character of Tchang. And then there is this cover, famous among all… ”But what happened to the initial project? Did Charles Lesne really return it to Hergé as he wrote to him, or did he stay with Casterman?

For Hergé, it was only a sketch

A little-known episode undoubtedly gives the key to the enigma. In 1979, when the fiftieth anniversary of Tintin was being celebrated, one of the masterminds of the ceremonies, the Belgian television host and collector Stéphane Steeman, was invited to visit the headquarters of the publishing house, guided by Jean- Paul Casterman and his brother Louis-Robert. Philippe Goddin recounts: “Steeman was asked to take a look at the correspondence between Hergé and Charles Lesne, which no biographer had seen at the time. Steeman grabs a few letters and suddenly feels a folded sheet of paper, which he opens: this is the famous “Blue Lotus” cover project! Apparently, his hosts did not suspect it existed. He told them it was an exceptional piece. Later, he even boasted of having been its “savior”. ” If the scene is correct, the Tintin with the dragon would therefore belong to the cohort of drawings “not recovered from the publisher” which has been feeding the market for comic book originals for ages. In 1981, it served as a matrix for a lithograph produced on the occasion of the highly publicized return of Tchang – the real one – to Belgium, after a long internal exile in Mao’s China. Hergé signed several copies. “However, he neither asked where this drawing came from nor demanded its restitution,” notes an insider maliciously. Hergé died in 1983.

Hergé sketches the round figure of Tintin.

Hergé sketches the round figure of Tintin. © Christian Gibey

Five years later, during an exhibition dedicated to Tintin, the drawing was shown to the public for the first time. Officially, it was loaned by Jean-Paul Casterman, who even insured it in his name. “It was at that moment that Hergé’s widow missed the boat: if she had asked for it to be returned, she would undoubtedly have obtained it”, observes the expert of an auction house. But, in Paris, an event will change the situation.

Only a handful of collectors could follow: Benjamin de Rothschild, the Bic heirs, or Raphaël Geismar, a French businessman established in Hong Kong…

While at the end of the 1970s one could still buy a double plate of the “Ottokar Scepter” for a few thousand francs from a bookseller in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a series of auctions at the hotel Drouot, baptized “Tintinomania”, exploded the prices: in 1993, the blue cover pages of the albums of Tintin fly to 400,000 francs (they will be resold in 2014 for 2.6 million euros). Such a record gives ideas to some. Shortly afterwards, Pierre Sterckx, a Belgian art critic who was a friend of Hergé and who plays the brokerage at his leisure, discreetly contacts a few Belgian merchants and one of their French colleagues. He offers an exceptional piece: the famous dragon sketch. “The problem,” recalls one of the merchants, “is that there was one condition: the buyer had to agree to keep it for himself and never to put it back on the market. And the price was quite high. ”

Also the wonder does not find a taker; it goes back to the Casterman family drawer. So that’s a quarter of a century later this museum piece resurfaces. If the sale does take place, will it be auctioned at the stratospheric price estimated by experts, or even beyond? Only a handful of collectors could follow: Benjamin de Rothschild, the Bic heirs, or Raphaël Geismar, a French businessman established in Hong Kong… Unless an outsider emerges. We are talking about the director of “Star Wars”, George Lucas, who is to open a museum dedicated to illustration. Or how about a Chinese billionaire? When the auctioneer’s hammer rises, from the bottom of their blue jar, and under the intimidating gaze of the dragon, Tintin and Snowy should hold their breath.

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