ART MARKET Drawing on past experience

Social history is what fascinates collectors of drawings most. Geraldine Norman meets the dealers for whom the context of creation matters as much as aesthetics
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EVERY field of art attracts a different style of collector. The international jet-set like to be seen among Impressionist paintings, Hong Kong collectors gather around antique porcelain and the Russian nouveau riche can't resist Faberg. But only artists, a few museum curators and oddballs who treat the study of art history as a passionate hobby bother to buy drawings. The April drawings fair in Paris, the Salon du Dessin, brings them together once a year.

The Salon is held in the downstairs ballroom of the Hotel George V, just off the Champs-Elyses. But the collectors eddying around the stands three weeks ago were distinguished by their knowledge, not their chic. People who love drawings tend to love history, especially social history. They strive to understand the context in which a drawing was created: why Czanne chose to paint a watercolour of this particular geranium, what Rubens was doing in Rome when he sat down with pencil and paper to copy Raphael frescoes, or which political upheaval sent Victor Hugo into exile in Guernsey and gave him time to take up drawing.

The Salon has taught me that drawings people have an extraordinary talent for making the backwaters of history come alive. At the same time, each drawing they discuss, with line or wash deftly applied by one artist at a particular time on a particular day, can convey with visceral directness what it was like to be there.

The 13 Paris dealers and four foreigners who had taken stands at the Salon were offering drawings ancient and modern. The earliest that caught my eye was an ink drawing, Le Repos de la Sainte Famille, in a landscape sprouting exquisitely rendered weeds and a palm tree, by the Flemish artist Jan Wierix (1549-1615). The latest was a big pencil and watercolour study of flowers by Pierre Bonnard, of around 1930.

Some of the drawings on offer were quick sketches from life, some preparatory drawings for paintings and some highly finished works designed for sale in their own right. There were drawings by famous masters, minor artists and gifted amateurs. The dealers ranged from the smoothly suited to the crumpled academic, from the young fanatic to the ageing enthusiast.

One of them, Jean-Franois Aittouares, had a wall of small ink drawings by Victor Hugo. Outside France, Hugo is regarded as a man of letters. At the Salon he was revealed as a forerunner of surrealism, using black ink to explore the psychic undercurrents of the mind. An ink blot of rocky and irregular outline dating from 1866-69, Tte de caractre, was for sale at FFr80,000 (£11,000). Aittouares turned it upside down to show how you can find secret faces in the blot whichever way up you look at it.

There are two distinct types of Hugo drawing, he explained: the psychic explorations, and studies of town or landscape treated with darkling romance, reminiscent of Hugo's poetry - Aittouares waved his hand at a study of medieval houses, Maisons fantastiques, at FFr550,000 (£73,000). Hugo made some 3,000 drawings; he left most to the Bibliothque Nationale where they are kept in box files and seen by nobody unless they go and ask.

Bertrand Talabardon, who two years ago opened a gallery in the Rue St Anne, minutely researches all his 19th-century drawings. The watercolour View of Cairo, with a camel in the foreground, was by the Prince de Joinville, son of King Louis-Philippe, and highlighted the skill of 19th-century amateurs. It was Joinville who in 1840 brought Napoleon's body back from St Helena for a hero's burial in Paris. The Cairo drawing is dedicated to the artist Henri Durand-Brager, who accompanied the Prince on his historic mission, painted his portrait to celebrate the event and illustrated the souvenir publication. Priced at FFr35,000 (£5,000) it was sold the moment the Salon opened.

A tavern interior by Lon Bonvin was still more interesting, Talabardon claimed as he edged me towards the table on which this quiet but finely realised watercolour - at FFr220,000 (£29,000) - was propped like a framed photograph. The little-known artist was the brother of one of the most fted French realist painters of the 19th century, Franois Bonvin. He inherited and ran their father's tavern in Vaugirard, outside Paris - the one depicted in the drawing. A self-taught artist, he escaped into the country when he could to paint landscape watercolours of visionary intensity. In 1866 the financial losses of the tavern drove him to suicide.

After this introduction, I was delighted to find a Lon Bonvin landscape on the stand of Jacques Fischer and Chantal Kiener. A winter tree spread the delicate tracery of its branches against a low blue horizon and a pink sky, suggesting dawn or dusk; some withered brambles were sketched in the foreground.

Fischer and Kiener have a left-bank gallery renowned for its wholesale approach to selling 19th-century drawings: visitors are left to comb through 60 or so boxes of mixed sheets. They sold more of their drawings than any of the other exhibitors at the Salon.

Dealers offering drawings from the 18th century and earlier, not just those showing fashionable 20th-century artists, were looking for higher prices. Nicolas Joly had a Giovanni Battista Tiepolo sketch for a ceiling painting at FFr390,000 (£52,000); Cailleux, a Hubert Robert landscape at FFr400,000 (£53,000). The London dealers Colnaghi's wanted FFr1.9m (£253,000) for their portrait by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, the 18th-century pastellist; and Huguette Brs was looking for FFr1.4m (£190,000) for a flower still-life by Bonnard.

Not only are high prices harder to achieve than low ones, but the drawings market has been in recession for most of the 1990s and is not yet showing signs of recovery. This was underlined by Bruno de Bayser, probably Paris's leading dealer in Old Master drawings. He had an exquisite study of pink roses and other flowers by Pierre Joseph Redout (1759-1840) - whose colour- plate book Les Roses is one of the most famous botanical works of its period. "This drawing is priced at FFr170,000 (£23,000)," de Bayser said, "and would have cost three times that 10 years ago."

Expensive sales tend to be more pondered than cheap ones - and may well have been concluded after the closure of the fair. There are many French drawings collectors with lowish budgets - far more than you would find in Britain - and the high prices tend to be paid by Americans. There were almost as many American voices as French at the densely packed opening party. Nicholas Turner, the new drawings curator at the Getty Museum in California was there. So was Bill Griswold from the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.

This was deemed the most successful Salon since the annual event was launched five years ago, in terms of the high quality of the drawings for sale. The organisers had turned it international for the first time this year by inviting three leading firms from London - Colnaghi's, Artemis and Hazlitt Gooden and Fox, all renowned for their connoisseurship - and one dealer from New York, William Brady.

Artemis was offering, at FFr2,270,000 (£300,000), one of the wonderfully delicate Ingres pencil portraits of fashionable ladies which are now a great rarity. These are considered among the greatest graphic achievements of the 19th century. In the spirit of the show, alongside this vastly expensive drawing, Artemis was showing a cultural oddity: a sketch of a river bank by the critic John Ruskin, on offer at a mere FFr10,000 (£1,300). Ruskin, famous in Britain for his eloquent championing of Turner, is also known in France because his books were translated by Marcel Proust. !