As a way of escaping from the impasse in which the French art market finds itself at present, caused by the continual postponement in parliament of legislation to break the monopoly of the commissaires-priseurs (State-licensed auctioneers), and to open the doors to foreign auction houses, Sotheby's has decided to go into partnership with the Poulain-Le Fur practice for the sale, from 2 to 6 June, of the contents of Groussay, the country house belonging to Juan de Beistegui.
It would have been possible for Sotheby’s to make a legal assault on the French system by organising a sale (a small one for the safety’s sake) to test the reaction of the French commissaires-priseurs. If a court case had ensued, the company could have had recourse to the French or European Court of Justice over the illegality of the French behaviour in respect to the Treaty of Rome.
Sotheby's seems to have rejected such a move, probably because the imminent liberalisation of the market could not justify such heavy-footed action. With the Groussay sale, the declared motive of the agreement between Sotheby's and Poulain-Le Fur is to stop the haemorrhage of works of art out of France for sale abroad.
There may be a further reason for Sotheby's careful avoidance of legal action. Despite the huge delays, French legislation on public auctions will eventually be implemented. From then on, auctions, at least in Paris, will be run by an oligarchy. Sotheby's and Christie's and possibly two or three other foreign companies will share the market with a few big Parisian firms. This prospect could be ruined, however, if the present monopoly of the commissaires-priseurs were declared illegal by the courts and the door opened to a series of small auction firms before the new law comes into force.
From the point of view of Sotheby's "image", it may be that by the alliance Sotheby's are trying to match the "Frenchification" of Christie's following their acquisition by François Pinault.
For Poulain-Le Fur, the operation must be advantageous in terms of publicity and profitability. Financially it will put it among the three or four top French practices in 1999.
This will also be an experiment in the area of conditions of sale and guarantees. For the first time, French regulations will be applied to an Anglo-French sale. Assuming that the firms intend to maintain their connection, their current exchange of greetings could result in Poulain-Le Fur taking over the organisation of all vintage car sales in the future. Paris is certainly worth an agreement.