COLLECT: The French Le Masque Agatha Christie editions
In 1925, Albert Pigasse started the French publishing company - Librairie des Champs-Élysées (LCE). Two years later, in 1927, the Le Masque imprint at LCE was created with a focus on detective novels. It is arguably the first imprint in France focusing exclusively on police procedurals, detective fiction and crime fiction. In 1966, LCE launched another imprint, Club des Masques, to re-publish the significant titles that appeared in the Le Masque collection, all with illustrated jackets. The Le Masque imprint ended in 2012. Over its years, the catalogue had grown to 2,540 titles. After 2012, most of the titles previously published by LCE under the Le Masque imprint were transferred to a new entity that published under the name ‘Pocket Masque’. However, all Agatha Christie titles were moved to a new independent collection, published by J.C. Lattes.
Collectors of Le Masque books generally segregate the publications into several key periods. For this article we are focusing on the most collectible period of 1927-1944 when all the Le Masque books were issued with dust jackets. This period starts with book number 1, Le Meurtre de Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, and ends with book #325.
The first book under the Le Masque imprint was only modestly successful perhaps due to the originality of the genre and the jacket art which did not effectively portray the story or its contents. Clearly Albert Pigasse did not attribute the weak sales to Agatha Christie’s book as he secured an exclusive contract for publishing French translations of Christie’s novels and published all of Christie’s earlier titles from 1920 onwards. As the years went by, Agatha Christie became the featured author of the Le Masque collection and was the driving factor in the success of the imprint.
From its inception through 1940, Le Masque published 20 Agatha Christie titles, several of which are known to have been reissued with alternative jacket designs (though there may be more we are unaware of). The last Agatha Christie book published by Le Masque with a dust jacket was #299 - Dix Petits Negres – which was published in May 1940. This last title also had a Belgian version with a different jacket which was printed in 1946. However, it is unclear whether Le Masque published many other titles in Belgium with alternate jacket designs.
The first five Le Masque books, all published in 1927, were hardback books with green boards and illustrated dustjackets (only #1 of these 5 was a Christie title). From book #6 onwards, the boards or covers were more of a yellow – orange colour. Up until 1936, the books were technically ‘hard backs’ as they had stiff boards. From 1937 onwards, LCE shifted to a ‘paperback’ design. Images of all the dust jackets are shown below. While most are from our own collection, there are a few we are missing (i.e. No. 1, first version, and No. 118, first version). At the bottom of the article are a selection of images showing back panels and flaps of typical jackets for those interested.
Printings of Note:
For Christie collectors, the 1940 issuance of Dix Petits Negres is of particular note as it was printed before the US and UK paperback. In fact, it was a further four years until the first English language paperback was printed (US: 1944).
Two of the hardbacks were published contemporaneously with the UK printings, and although the specific dates of publication are unknown, conventional assumptions are that they must have been published after the UK editions. However, the fact that they were printed in the same year affirms the importance and growing success of the imprint. These were The Seven Dials Mystery (1929) and Murder on the Orient Express (1934). The majority of the rest of the 20 Christie titles were still generally printed within a few years of the original UK first edition printing, provide francophones timely access to Christie's works.
The First 20 Agatha Christie Titles:
No. 1: Le Meurtre de Roger Ackroyd (UK: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, ©1926).
First French printing: 1927. Artist: Charles Leandre. Cover design: Romantic Couple. Priced: 6F50.
Second French printing: ©1927, printed circa 1930. Artist: A. Masson. Cover design: Body in the chair. Priced 6F50.
No. 44. Les Sept Quadrans (UK: The Seven Dials Mystery, ©1929). First French printing: 1929. Artist: A. Masson. Priced 6F50.
No. 69. L’Homme au Complet Marron (UK: The Man in the Brown Suit, ©1924). First French printing: 1930. Artist: J. Stette(n?). Priced 6F50.
No. 100. Monsieur Brown (UK: The Secret Adversary, ©1922). First French printing: 1932. Artist: Jean Bernard. Priced: 6F.
No. 106. La Mysterieuse Affaire de Styles (UK: The Mysterious Affair at Styles, ©1920). First French printing: 1932. Artist: Jean Bernard. Priced: 6F.
No. 114. L’Affaire Prothero (UK: Murder at the Vicarage, ©1930). First French printing: 1932. Artist: Jean Bernard. Priced: 6F.
No. 118. Le Crime du Golf (UK: Murder on the Links, ©1923).
First French printing: 1932. Artist: uncredited. Cover design: Golf course.
Alternate printing: circa 1937. Artist: Jean Bernard. Cover design: The Police Station.
No. 122. Le Train Blue (UK: The Mystery of the Blue Train, ©1928). First French printing: 1932. Artist: Jean Bernard. Priced: 6F.
No. 126. Le Secret de Chimneys (UK: The Secret of Chimneys, ©1925). First French printing: 1933. Artist: Jean Bernard. Priced: 6F.
No. 134. Les Quatre (UK: The Big Four, ©1927). First French printing: 1933. Artist: Jean Bernard. Price: 6F.
No. 157. La Maison du Peril (UK: Peril at End House, ©1932). First French printing: 1934. Artist: Jean Bernard. Priced: 6F.
No. 169. Le Crime de L’Orient-Express (UK: Murder on the Orient Express, ©1934). First French printing: 1934. Artist: Jean Bernard. Price: 6F.
No. 190. Cinq Heures Vingt-Cing (UK: The Sittaford Mystery, ©1931). First French printing: 1935. Artist: Jean Bernard. Price: 6F.
No. 197. Le Couteau Sur La Nuque (UK: Lord Edgware Dies, ©1933). First French printing: 1936. Artist: Jean Bernard. Price: 6F.
No. 218: La Mort dans les Nuages (UK: Death in the Clouds, ©1935). First French printing: 1936. Artist: Jean Bernard (misspelt ‘Jan’). Price: 6F 50.
From here onwards, all the books had paperback, or soft, boards but still had dust jackets.
No. 241. Pourquoi Pas Evans? (UK: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, ©1934). First French printing: September 1937. Artist: Jean Bernard. Price: sticker 7F on spine. The first of the paperback Christies published by Le Masque.
No. 263. A. B. C. Contre Poirot (UK: The ABC Murders, ©1936). First French printing: October 1938. Artist: Jean Bernard. Price: 7Fr (spine).
No. 275. Cartes sur le Table (UK: Cards on the Table, ©1936). First French printing: February 1939. Artist: Uncredited but in the style of Bernard. Price: 7Fr (spine).
No. 283. Meurtre en Mesopotamie (UK: Murder in Mesopotamia, ©1936). First French printing: July 1939. Artist: Jean Bernard. Price: 7Fr (spine).
No. 299. Dix Petits Negres (UK: Ten Little Niggers, ©1939). First French printing: May 1940. Artist: Jean Bernard. Price: unpriced. Book: Soft cover. Of note: This is the first paperback printing of this title.
First Belgian printing (alternate artwork). Circa 1946. Uncredited artist.
While many other Christie titles were published in later years, the next was No. 328: Je Ne Suis Pas Coupable (UK: Sad Cypress). It was printed in 1945 and this was the first Christie without an original dustjacket. No books were published by Le Masque in 1943 or 1944. Given the war, this is hardly surprising. The fact that copies of these Christie's from 1927-1940 survived in jackets given the war, paper drives and the almost 100 years that have passed, is something not to be taken for granted. For the later titles published after the war, all without jackets, we may profile them in a future article but they are significantly less appealing given the lack of artwork.
Values and Collectibility:
When one considers the contemporaneous printing dates, the wonderfully evocative cover art and the fragility & rarity of the dust jackets, the values should likely be five times greater than what they periodically show up for sale priced at. In most cases, the current pricing probably represents some of the most undervalued Christie books on the market. Some dealers see the future in these books and price them accordingly, but a patient diligent collector will be able to find most of these books in the €150 range in very good condition with complete dust jackets. Jackets lacking part of the spine are very common and will generally sell for €100. Unjacketed copies are more ubiquitous and of far less value. Paper browning is common, as is minor spine separation due to glue deterioration over the years. These are common flaws and currently don’t overly impact pricing.
A few books appear to be exceptionally hard to find. The first book, #1, in its original jacket appears to be a ‘unicorn’ and should one ever appear for sale in a jacket it will likely command a very strong price, perhaps as high as €2,000 - €4,000. Not only does it appeal to Christie collectors but there are many collectors who strive to assemble a complete Le Masque set. We do not have a copy of this book and thus the image we can provide is of low quality. If any of our readers have a better quality image please share it with us.
The other book that appears hard to find is #118 – Le Crime du Golf – in either jacket version. Golf-themed books have always been collectible beyond the world of Christie. While we have not seen either in person, we assume that either could command up to €500 for a very good copy with complete jacket. We believe we have the sequencing of the printings correct, and if someone has a better image of the first version of this book, please share it. Perhaps like London buses, several will show on the market at the same time one day and our perception of scarcity will change.
The other two that should command a higher price would be #169 - Le Crime de L’Orient-Express – as it was published in the same year as the UK first, has great cover art and is a highly collectible title. Fair value is currently likely €300 - €500. The other is #299 - Dix Petits Negres – since it is potentially the first paperback of this title - certainly preceding English language versions. It is likely currently fairly valued at €250 - €350.
While The Albatross – the other European publisher of Christie but only in English – generally printed many of these titles earlier than Le Masque, all their dust jackets were plain and had no artistic element (click here for our article on this publisher). The artwork on the Le Masque books is wonderfully evocative, period correct and is highly appealing. We recommend that collectors snap up copies of these books whenever they can find them and hold onto them. There are many places to locate them – dealer direct, online European book sites, eBay.Fr, and ABEbooks, just to name a few. Collectors may have to use online translation sites to work with dealers and may need to be creative in their pursuit of titles. But the effort is rewarding as the Le Masque jacketed books have been ignored and unloved for too long outside of France and Belgium, and we believe they offer great long-term investment potential.
The appeal of these books led to reissuance of many of them. For example in 1997, when the 70th anniversary of No. 1 occurred, it was reissued in a facsimile jacket - similar to the HarperCollins facsimile editions. All these reissued versions are very affordable and accessible for those with neither the patience or funds to pursue original printings.
As always, if anyone has corrections, edits, or insights related to this topic, please share them with us at firstname.lastname@example.org