Roger Prigent sat in the front room of his Upper East Side store, Malmaison, gently stroking the arms of his gilded chair. After the touch came the recognition.
“That’s Russian,” he said, his white mustache dancing under his nose. “I like Russian chairs; they’re more whimsical than French ones. This one’s from 1825.”
Pivoting to his left, he reached out with both wrinkled hands, which landed as if by chance on the plush, silky fuchsia cushion of a tiny stool. Fake Louis XVI, he pronounced it.
On this recent late afternoon, Mr. Prigent, the former fashion photographer who became perhaps the most iconic antiques dealer in Manhattan, was taking tactile stock of his store before its contents are sold at Christie’s on Nov. 26. When it came to la trouvaille -the real find-Mr. Prigent’s eyes had been two of the best in the city. Architect Peter Marino praised their sharpness; Diane Von Furstenberg called them “amazing.” But now, shielded by oversize orange-tinted glasses, they were inexorably losing their focus: for 20 years, Mr. Prigent has slowly been going blind, and, at 79, he was preparing to shut down his store. The Christie’s sale was to be the first step.
“Before, when I walked into a gallery or a room, I would see right away what the best thing was; that was my talent,” Mr. Prigent said. “But now, voilà -I can’t see, I can’t discover. So it’s just no fun anymore.”
All around the room, pieces sat in no particular order-a 1940′s American chest squatting next to a French Empire chair-but it was a tribute to Mr. Prigent’s discerning taste that despite the jumble, the crude lighting and the cold reddish tiles on the floor, each piece shone with a particular intensity. Flanked by a small Art Deco desk, a small, caramel-beige chair from the 1930′s begged to be tested; its curved, inlaid sides and back and its cream-colored cushion gave the effect of a jewel box.
“It always happens that way,” said Vanity Fair contributing editor Amy Fine Collins, a Prigent devotee. “Beethoven lost his hearing, and now the photographer loses his sight. He used his eyes so well that maybe he wore them out.”
“I don’t know what I’ll do next, but I don’t like habits and things like that,” he said. “I’m not nostalgic. I think that’s the way I grew up, in several countries and during the war. We were always a little shuffled around; you know, you adapt to that.”
Student of Avedon
Mr. Prigent, who is now an American citizen, first came to the United States from France shortly after the Second World War to visit his sister, who’d spent the war as a pharmaceutical researcher in Washington. They had grown up in Vietnam and France, the children of a military father, and Mr. Prigent had spent the last years of the war in Martinique. On his return to France, he became a photo-reporter for newsmagazines like Paris Match , and during his extended holiday in New York, he met Lilian Bassman, the former art director of Harper’s Bazaar who’d become a Bazaar photographer. She needed an assistant, and so Mr. Prigent stayed put.
At the time, her studio was filled with friends like Richard Avedon, whose simple photographic style appealed to Mr. Prigent.
“When I met him,” Mr. Prigent said of Mr. Avedon, “it was like meeting the Pope.”
When he was asked to shoot the lines of a fledgling designer as a one-time side job, he emulated Avedon, and it caught the attention of Vogue . Art director Alexander Liberman, a noted Francophile, reviewed Mr. Prigent’s portfolio. Though it was full of documentary photographs taken in places like Coney Island, Liberman gave him a chance. “Can you do fashion photographs in that way?” Mr. Prigent remembers Liberman asking. His first shoot ended up on the cover: a profile of an unknown model wearing a gray hat by Charles James.
People who knew Mr. Prigent’s work say that he was a reliable, talented commercial photographer with a keen eye for the innovative work being done around him. Coupled with his French accent and charming demeanor, it gave him a ticket into the fashion jet set. He was soon sent to Paris to shoot couture for French Vogue and ended up casting his photographs at the home of a famous decorator, Gérard Mille, who lived with his brother Hervé, a media heavyweight, in an apartment decorated with 1930′s-style pieces.
“It was a beautiful apartment. I didn’t even know that people could live that way,” Mr. Prigent remembered. “There was this woman in black who sat there with them while I took my pictures and kept on saying, ‘But these look like maid’s dresses! These are like maid’s dresses! Who’s this Dior?’”
That evening, Mr. Prigent learned it was Coco Chanel.
Chic or Pas Chic
The Mille apartment was like a send-off for Mr. Prigent, and as his career as a photographer took off, he started buying furniture at a frenetic pace. In the 1960′s, he bought a townhouse on East 65th Street, between First and Second avenues, which quickly started heaving with the weight of his collection, from floorboard to rafter.
“I had a total furniture overflow,” Mr. Prigent said with a chuckle. “I always had a passion for buying furniture and made a lot of money. So I bought, I bought, I bought; there was stuff everywhere.”
Mr. Prigent visited countless auctions to find “fun, decorative objects” that he classified as “chic” or ” pas chic.” Gradually, he started including a lot of pieces from the 1930′s, 40′s and 50′s, many of them by American designers whose names the reader may recognize largely as a result of his interventions-people like Elsie de Wolfe, Dorothy Draper and Samuel Marx, who exuded the fresh kind of neo-classicism that Mr. Prigent would come to champion.
“He’s responsible for reviving interest in the great figures of the 1930′s romantic historicism,” Hamish Bowles, Vogue ‘s European editor at large, said of Mr. Prigent’s rediscoveries. “He was one of the first people to open my eyes to the scope of what Jansen did. That’s a ubiquitous name in decorative circles now, but it certainly wasn’t 10 years ago.”
There were French designers, too, like Jean Royère, Jacques Adnet and Serge Roche-long-forgotten members of the 1930′s and 40′s school of decorative arts whose stock has since skyrocketed. Empire furniture, Mr. Prigent started to feel, seemed like so many museum pieces in the low-ceilinged, asymmetrical apartments of New York. He integrated the new and the old and, by mixing time periods, styles and high and low pieces, created a radically new object on the New York landscape-a luxe bric-a-brac.
“There were things that weren’t necessarily expensive, but stylish,” said star decorator Robert Couturier during a phone interview. “Roger has a taste for things with style, with chic, and a real love of the object itself; that counted more than anything.”
In the late 60′s, Helena Rubinstein’s right-hand man, Patrick O’Higgins, introduced him to the big auction houses of the day: Lubin Galleries, Astor, and Sotheby Parke Bernet.
“It was like going to the casino for me,” he said. “The first time I asked, ‘So people can buy, just like that?’ And I was told yes, and I just shot up my hand.”
“Roger can recognize quality instantly,” Ms . Fine Collins said. “He can see an object’s value better than anyone I’ve ever known. There’s no faking it with him.”
Soon, Mr. Prigent moved out of 65th Street and set up his home and photography studio at 253 East 74th Street. The studio was on the ground floor and basement, and his apartment took up the remaining floors. There, in the third-floor dining room outfitted with a 1920′s Brandt dining-room table, American Empire chairs and busts of the Napoleonic family, he held lunches where photographer Marc Hispard might run into Mr. Couturier or Jeanne Moreau on a New York holiday. The eclectic mix earned him the epithet of a “great collector of people” (Ms. Fine Collins)-and a “terrible snob” (an unnamed friend). “Guests had to be entertaining,” Mr. Prigent said simply in his own defense.
Some 24 years ago Mr. Prigent opened the first Malmaison at 29 East 10th Street. The store was named for the castle masterminded by Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine de Beauharnais, where Mr. Prigent and his sister had often played as children. Naturally, it was filled with Napoleonic collectibles. Mr. Prigent liked their symmetry and neo-classical shapes-as a photographer, he’d been known for his simple style and unfussy backgrounds.
About 10 years ago, when Mr. Prigent realized that he was losing his eyesight, he decided to quit photography altogether and work at Malmaison full-time. That’s when the store moved into the East 74th Street townhouse, where it spans the basement, first and second floors. Because it originally served as a photography studio, however, it is an atypical antiques shop. The windows at the back of the ground floor, which gave onto “a dreadful courtyard,” were walled when Mr. Prigent moved in, and the courtyard itself built out to accommodate a spacious studio. Today, the former studio-which had two mezzanines where clients could stand and observe-is the lower level of the store. There are white neon lights, tall, whitewashed brick walls and off-white tiled floors: The room feels cold, even though it’s filled to the brim with Mr. Prigent’s eclectic assortments. Though Malmaison has been called “an Ali Baba’s cave for decorators” by none other than the French decorator Jacques Grange, clients have to earn their trouvaille ; nothing comes easy.
“I’m a terrible salesman,” Mr. Prigent said. “And people here don’t know how to buy. They like nice things and know what’s good, but they just haven’t been educated in that way. We mostly sell to decorators.”
Maybe for that reason, even seasoned antiques buyers like Mr. Couturier or Mr. Bowles cherish their Malmaison finds.
“On the whole, Malmaison is a little bit out of my price range,” Mr. Bowles said. “But I do have a glorious, swept-plaster framed mirror that absolutely looks like a prop that might be shivering in the background of a Horst photograph. It’s quintessential Roger-I’m very pleased to have that.”
“There’s something I’ve always kept: a pair of stools made by Elsie de Wolfe that I bought in ’89,” Mr. Couturier remembered. “I still have them at home. That, and an early 19th-century bronze depicting the United States. And a very pretty Guerlain perfume box, which he gave me after I’d mentioned it was my grandmother’s perfume.”
Everything’s For Sale
Today, Mr. Prigent still occasionally buys at auction, thanks to the help of his sister Yvonne. At 78, she’s still a busy presence in the store and reads him auction catalogs and newsletters. Mr. Prigent will continue holding dinners at his new place, where he’ll move after the sale. It’s just down the street, so his bearings will remain familiar.
But almost everything else will change. Mr. Prigent plans to sell his Paris apartment on the Rue du Bac, which he called the most expensive hotel room in the world, since he rarely goes back. It’s entirely outfitted in American Empire pieces, an endearing token of his cross-cultural attachments-all of which will be sold.
It’s not the first time Mr. Prigent has moved on, after all. He has, for instance, kept none of his photographic work. The rare ones featured in the auction catalog-Andy Warhol’s TV Guide cover that used his Barbara Feldon photographs; Dovima in an hourglass suit on the cover of Vogue -were found on the Internet by a friend for the sale. Mr. Prigent hasn’t even saved pictures of personal interest: pictures of Chet Baker or Gerry Mulligan, with whom he said he spent some time in his days as a jazz fanatic.
He can think of only three or four things that he wouldn’t like to leave behind: a bookcase in his room, a Serge Roche mirror-table in his living room that’s currently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and that Brandt dining-room table.
“But even so, everything’s for sale,” he said. “I want to get rid of everything.”
For his Nov. 26 sale, Christie’s selected the pieces, and Mr. Prigent said he couldn’t care less. He didn’t even attempt to influence the prices. The only thing that had concerned him was the catalog.
“Because, you know, that used to be my job,” he explained. “So I was really difficult for the cover, the design, the layout.”
Just then, the phone rang. It was a friend calling to compliment him on said catalog. ” C’est tres Andy Warhol, non? ” said Mr. Prigent of the shiny platinum-covered book. He hung up satisfied.
Was he going to attend the auction, The Observer asked?
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t want people to be there and watch my reactions.”