Just 18 months ago France abandoned the centuries-old system of archaic protectionism under which only government-appointed commissaires-priseurs could hold auctions. Being France, however, the old legal straitjacket was not replaced with a free-for-all, but with another bureaucratic system. The new regulatory body, the Conseil des Ventes, recently published its first report covering 2001-2002. Since then, the Conseil has been shaken by the abrupt resignation of two members.
Virtually all of France (217 towns) has adopted the reform, with the exception of three rural administrative départements, Corsica and Alsace. Protection of the client does seem to have been assured by a system of guarantees and professional responsibility insurance. However, the great majority of the new auction houses (Sociétés de Ventes Volontaires, SVV) have chosen a commercial structure which does not allow them to make investments, to recruit more staff, or to form alliances with other auctioneers.
This would seem to run counter to hopes that, under the reform, French auction houses would behave in a more commercial way along the lines of the Anglo-Saxon model (i.e. Sotheby’s and Christie’s), and thus boost the French art market. In addition, hopes that groupings would produce larger and more competitive firms seem to have been in vain. Finally, Drouot, the umbrella organisation of Parisian auctioneers, is shilly-shallying about the extent to which it will allow provincial auctioneers to work in its salerooms. This has done nothing to change the traditional stand-off between Paris and the provinces. In brief, the impression is “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
The reform intended to open up the market by ending the monopoly. However, this was inhibited by the need to protect the consumer. The result is that there is no real competition between the auctioneers. The report notes that of the 473 people who met the criteria to become an auctioneer under the new system, 423 are judiciary auctioneers and 48 ex-commissaires-priseurs, plus two foreigners who were approved in extremis. One concludes that the objective of opening up the French market to outsiders has failed totally.
A major problem is posed by the existence of experts, as independent specialists are called in France. This is very important in the French context, as most auction houses do not employ their own specialists. The Conseil also authorises them, but few have actually requested the authorisation. The official explanation, called “the double regime of specialists”, is that experts, who are generally also dealers themselves, do not want to work in a system which does not allow them to sell pieces belonging to them at auction, or buy lots in sales they have catalogued. But the only way to avoid this problem is for the Conseil to impose the same rules on experts as on commissaires-priseurs. But this leads to another problem: if the Conseil authorises experts in the same way that it authorises auctioneers, then the next step is to force SVVs only to use accredited experts. Tempers are so high over this issue that the two representatives of the experts, Dominique Chevalier and Françoise Cailles, have just resigned from the Conseil, and are demanding the resignation of Gérard Champin.
Yet another problem concerns internet sales, and the Conseil shows excessive consideration for the ancien régime by virtually forbidding sales over the internet for any artist whose work had previously been sold at auction. Ebay is threatening to complain to Brussels, a reminder that these thorny issues do not only concern France, or Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
One good thing to emerge from the Conseil’s first year is an attempt to ensure high ethical standards, in particular concerning provenance, transparency in the market and an information service for looted or stolen goods, possibly to be set up with the French OCBC (Office central des biens culturels) and TRACFIN (which fights money laundering). These suggestions are the only ones that go beyond preserving the interests of the ex-commissaires-priseurs, and would allow the legal reform to involve all those working in the art market.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Plus ça change... plus c’est la même chose'