Art market

As France opens its auction market predictions are optimistic that “France could regain its supremacy in Europe”

Gérard Champin is the president of new regulatory body for auction sales


Gérard Champin, former president of the Chambre nationale des Commissaires-priseurs, was appointed president of the Conseil des Ventes, its successor in the newly open auction market. According to Mr Champin, the reform should stimulate the Gallic market and enable it to outstrip the UK within a short period.

The Art Newspaper: How were members of the Conseil des Ventes chosen?

Gérard Champin: The Minister of Justice, who nominated the members after consultation with his department, was seeking people from various backgrounds who were interested in the art market and who were able to contribute their experience and skills to the regulatory body.

TAN: Why are there no antique dealers among the members, and just one as a deputy member, Pierre Chevalier, who, as president of the Société d'encouragement aux métiers d'art, represents the crafts?

GC: I don’t know. Pierre Chevalier is an antique dealer, and two other members are art dealers, which is similar to being an antique dealer.

TAN: The Conseil des ventes has two representatives from Christie’s, two from Sotheby’s, a number from the French commissaires-priseurs but none from Phillips, which is the number three auction house in the world. Why?

GC: The members were appointed for their own qualities and not because they belonged to a specific firm. Not everybody could be represented, so choices had to be made.

TAN: How long will it take, from requesting authorisation to hold sales to obtain it?

GC: This will depend on how many requests the Conseil receives. If there are just a few, it will be rapid if there a many it will take longer; the maximum wait will be four months. Decisions are taken on a majority vote, and if there is an equal number, the president has the deciding vote.

TAN: Will Sotheby's and Christie's, for example, be able to sell before the end of 2001, in their own premises and with their own auctioneers?

GC: Everyone will be treated equally, and there will be no reason to go faster for a particular company. If it is possible to give them the go-ahead rapidly, however, it will be done.

TAN: How many applications do you expect?

GC: There will not necessarily be 458, the total number of French commissaires-priseurs. Some of these may be in partnerships and make grouped applications. New companies not previously present on the French market could appear. For the moment we have only received three applications, as the Conseil does not start its work until 2 October. We are using this period to prepare the offices (19 avenue de l'Opéra) and recruit our staff of seven. Our annual budget is FFr7 million (£670,000; $969,000).

TAN: What will change in the French art market over the coming months and years? Will many of the former commissaires-priseurs go out of business?

GC: Most will continue. There will be groupings, and there will be new entrants; the market should develop through increased competition.

TAN: The monopoly has only fallen for “voluntary” sales. Why were judiciary sales excluded from the law?

GC: Under the Treaty of Rome, anything connected with State powers is excluded from free enterprise. It is the State’s prerogative and the French State has retained the monopoly in this case.

TAN: Compensation for the loss of the monopoly is being examined by a Commission d'indemnisation. When will this start work?

GC: Members were nominated in September and the commission will start work this month.

TAN: Will the authorisation of State-licensed specialists (experts) be given at the same time as auction houses?

GC: We will examine these applications at the same time.

TAN: Will the specialists in the auction houses need to be authorised as well?

GC: It will not be obligatory, but it will be rather a like a “certificate of approval”. It would be a guarantee for both buyers and sellers, who would see it as a proof of the specialist’s competence and knowledge, which is covered by insurance. As a result, in the long run all the auction house specialists will be authorised.

TAN: How will the law change the way auction houses operate in France?

GC: There will be considerable change for the international firms. They will not be able to buy a collection for sale, but they can sell pieces belonging personally to the director of an auction house. Firms will be able to make private treaty sales, under certain conditions, and to make loans against a sale. Auction houses will also be able to offer guarantees, but they will not be able to fix a reserve price above the low estimate. Something else that is new for former commissaires-priseurs will be the freedom to vary buyers’ and sellers’ premiums. And from now on, firms will only be responsible for 10 years, instead of 30, for the items they sell, and they will be able to borrow to develop their businesses.

TAN: As the regulatory body, what disciplinary powers will the Conseil have?

GC: This is a free system, and the Conseil is not there to apply red tape. However, if companies do not follow the rules, particularly concerning guarantees and insurance, there will be severe penalties and could entail temporary or permanent withdrawal of the authorisation to hold sales.

TAN: Isn’t it risky to allow directors of auction houses who are on the Conseil to examine applications, when it may not be in their commercial interest to allow new competitors into the market?

GC: It is in everyone’s interest that the market should flourish. To achieve this, there should be as many good players as possible.

TAN: Do you think the reform will energise the French market and allow Paris to catch up with or even surpass its British and US equivalent?

GC: This is a very reasonable conclusion. The British market is relatively artificial, and France, if it becomes even a little more competitive, could easily beat London and achieve supremacy in Europe. France has some advantages over its competitors: for example, Value Added Tax is lower in France than in the United Kingdom.

TAN: Could the Conseil take on an advisory role, and suggest other reforms to the State?

GC: This is part of our remit, and if necessary we will make proposals.

Originally appreared in The Art Newspaper as “France could regain its supremacy in Europe”