Update: Sacre bleu! The tall gogotte from Fontainebleu, France sold for £27,500, or about $33,600–more than eight times its high estimate.
What you see: A gogotte formation from Fontainebleu, France. Christie’s London estimates it at £2,000 to £3,000, or $2,520 to $3,780.
The expert: James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history.
What is a gogotte? At its most basic, it’s an incredibly beautiful white, sculpture-like, naturally occurring rock formation. On the scientific level, it’s silica sand and calcium carbonate that fused 30 million years ago.
How did these naturally occurring sculptures get the name “gogotte”? What does “gogotte” mean? I don’t know the etymology, and I don’t want to speculate. But we’ve known of these formations since the 18th century. There’s a grotto-like fountain at Versailles built entirely out of these.
What do we know about how gogottes form, and what conditions were present 30 million years ago that allowed them to form? They formed in the geologic unit of time called the Oligocene. The African and European [techtonic] plates were colliding, and the ocean spread up to Paris. Volcanic activity forced mineral-rich water containing calcium carbonate through sand at exactly the right temperature and consistency to get locked into position. The process was unknown for a long time–they figured it out in the last 30 years.
That’s a long time to wait, considering that gogottes have been known and collected since the 18th century. For scientists, gogottes are not necessarily an exciting formation. Only when you take them out of the context of geology do they become exciting. It’s interesting that the artistic side drove the understanding of the science [of gogotte formation], and not the other way around.
Are all gogottes white? No. The white color is from the sand–quartz, essentially. You see natural yellow coloration in many gogottes, but the more pure the color white, the more commercial it is. It’s the white color that makes them look so perfectly cloudlike and desirable.
When were the first gogottes discovered? I’m pretty certain it was in the 18th century, when [the French] were building the gardens at Versailles.
Are gogottes still being quarried in France today, or are they quarried out? I don’t know of anywhere in France that’s actively quarrying at the moment, but they found several of them in the early 2000s. “Quarrying” is a slightly more aggressive term. Many are probably lifted off the ground.
Are gogottes found only in France? You do see similar sandstone concretions elsewhere, but you don’t get the color and the sense of movement that the French ones have.
The gogotte pictured in lot 4 of the sale measures a bit more than 17 inches high and is described as “a tall gogotte formation”. Why? Are few gogottes taller than 17 inches? You can certainly have them larger than that. The descriptives I use tend to describe the impression they make on me. There are 14 gogottes in the sale. Writing “A Gogotte Formation” over and over gets a bit repetitive. Descriptives give them a bit more dynamism. It’s as simple as that.
Is this gogotte solid? What does it weigh? It is solid. If I dropped it on my toes, it’d break a few bones, but I could certainly carry it upstairs and not be upset. I’d guess it’s 20 to 25 kilos [44 to 55 pounds].
What is this gogotte like in person? Are there details that the camera can’t capture? The camera doesn’t get how three-dimensional they are. You want to stand it on a plinth and walk around it. It’s spectacular from every angle.
Have you held this gogotte? I’ve been at Christie’s for 15 years, and I’ve seen many things. For me, there are two categories that no matter how many I catalog, they’re exciting: pocket globes, and gogottes. There’s something magical about them. They’re quite a contemplative object to touch, [not unlike] the Chinese aesthetic of scholar stones.
Do the Chinese like to collect gogottes? The Chinese market is adamant about completely pure white gogottes. They don’t tolerate the yellowing that Westerners might be more forgiving of. Everybody is drawn to these natural sculptures. I’ve had collectors come [over] from Old Masters, antiquities, rare books, and contemporary art. I’ve seen gogottes stood next to contemporary art and they hold their own. It’s really amazing.
Were the 14 gogottes in the sale consigned by the same person? No.
Is it unusual to have this many gogottes in the same sale? I would say it is rare. When I put together a sale, I try to curate a good selection of different sizes and different price points. It’s fun to decide what makes the cut and the order to run them in. But I’m picky when it comes to shapes and colors in the auction. If I get offered ten, I might take only one or two.
So it’s OK to put more than a dozen gogottes in one sale, because the demand is there. With 14, there’s plenty of interest in each. It’s a bit like the art market in that there are different tastes–you want one that’s pure white, or a bit larger, or has a bit more movement to it. I expect five or six [bidders] to chase after each one.
What’s the provenance of this tall gogotte? It’s been in a French collection for at least ten years. Most of the ones on the market now are from finds in the 80s, 90s, and the early 2000s.
Can a gogotte lose its white color over time from being touched by human hands? They can. The other thing to consider–and this is ludicrous–but 30 million years is still relatively young [for a natural history specimen]. It’s not fully cooked. The surface is a bit crumbly. You could take a car key and scratch it.
What’s the world auction record for a gogotte? It was at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2016, and it was around $100,000 in U.S. dollars.
I realize there are 13 other gogottes in the sale. Do you have a favorite? Lot 61 stands out for me because it has a barn owl face in it. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. I love barn owls, so that pleases me. And I’m covetous of lot 7, which has a large, rounded shape that’s quite minimalist in appearance. I’ve not seen one that minimalist and that large before.
Why will the tall gogotte stick in your memory? There’s something about it that seems optimistic, like a rocketship shooting up to the moon. You can see the different directions of water flowing. They’re such fun objects to contemplate.
How to bid: The tall gogotte formation is lot 4 in Sculpted by Nature: Fossils, Minerals and Meteorites, an online Christie’s sale that began on May 4, 2020 and ends on May 21, 2020.
Images are courtesy of Christie’s.
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