Fancy a pissoir? Relics of Paris streets – from urinals to the Eiffel Tower steps – go on sale
An auction of historical oddities has prompted a flood of nostalgia among Parisians and foreigners alike. John Lichfield reports
Sunday 13 December 2009
You can always have Paris. Or, at least, a small part of it. You could install in the garden your very own cast iron pissoir, or 19th-century gentleman's street toilet (slightly rusted). You could create a new access to the loft with 40 of the original iron spiral steps from the Eiffel Tower.
More modestly, you could have a garden bench engraved with the arms of the city of Paris, or a piece of broken glass.
A piece of broken glass? Yes, but not any glass. It will come with a certificate guaranteeing that it was smashed during the construction of the glass pyramid which was added to the Louvre in 1987.
At the Drouot auction house in Paris tomorrow there will be the largest ever sale of bits and pieces that once belonged to the unmistakeable streetscape of the French capital. The 301 lots on offer range from 19th-century street posters to a newspaper kiosk, a wooden telephone box, a lamp-post from the Champs Élysées, a set of engraved brasserie windows and a 26ft length from the original cast iron steps of the Eiffel Tower.
There are also fragments of a vanished underground world: an early 20th-century poinçonneuse, or Metro ticket-punching machine, and a pair of wooden Metro seats (with their own hat-rack).
The Paris landscape may seem immutable compared to London or other cities, but much has been lost in the past two or three decades. Where are the vespasiennes – ornate, cast iron street urinals – of yesteryear? They have been replaced by ugly cylinders with sliding doors, which have the advantage of being unisex but seem always to be out of order.
For French men (or foreigners) nostalgic for the days when you could pee in the streets of Paris in semi-public, there is a mid-19th-century vespasienne in tomorrow's sale with a guide price of €1,000-€1,500 (£900-£1,350)
There has been a clamour for catalogues for the auction, called Paris Mon Amour, from all over France, and from nostalgics and oddity collectors in Britain, the United States, Brazil, Argentina and Russia. Christophe Lucien, the auctioneer who organised the sale, said: "I've been thinking of something like it for ages. Then the town of Nogent-sur-Marne [just east of Paris] decided that it wanted to get rid of its section of the Eiffel Tower steps [bought when they were replaced and sold off in 1983].
"It was the 120th anniversary of both the Eiffel Tower and the Moulin Rouge this year," said Mr Lucien. "It seemed the perfect moment, so I set the jungle drums going to ask people to bring out anything they had that was linked to Paris and which they wanted to sell."
In the space of two months, Mr Lucien gathered an extraordinary collection of objects and documents. The Metro seats had become part of someone's kitchen. They are expected to sell for between €500 and €400.
Perhaps the oddest lot of all is a piece of dried bread. During the siege of the famished French capital at the end of the Franco-Prussian war, someone stuck the piece of bread – then a great rarity – on a piece of cardboard. It carries the inscription: "Historic souvenir of 1870-1871."
For the Eiffel Tower steps, you should expect to bid at least €50,000 – but you will also have to pay to have them dismantled in Nogent-sur-Marne and carted away.
For the shard of glass from the Louvre Pyramid, you might pay in excess of €500. A lamp-post that once stood on the Champs Élysées is expected to fetch up to €1,500. Other guide prices include the Metro ticket punch at €80-€100; the old street benches engraved with the city of Paris arms at €300-€400; and 19th-century metal dustbins at €200 a throw.
For a wooden street taxi counter from 1920 – ideal for a novelty bar in the corner of your front room – you might pay only €100.
Other things that once seemed to be forever Paris have simply vanished. The once unmistakeable smell of the Paris Metro – a delicate blend of burnt rubber, cheap perfume and stale Gauloises – is long gone.
What a pity that it was never bottled and kept for sale in tomorrow's auction.
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