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With Sotheby's and Christie's allowed to hold sales in Paris for the first time, can Paris regain its lost place in the art market?

A new French revolution?

Astonishing as it may seem today, in the 1950s the leading saleroom in the world was Paris’ Hôtel Drouot, which regularly clocked up sales equivalent to Sotheby’s and Christie’s combined. Paris was the art capital of the world with a much livelier art market than London or New York.

In 1952, the renowned Galerie Charpentier held an auction of Modern and Impressionist paintings from the Cognacq collection: it totalled FFr 302.5 million, about £44 million in today’s money. Contemporary art was also riding high with buoyant prices: FFr 1 million then, £123,000 in today’s prices, for Bernard Buffet, FFr 10 million (£1.2 million) for Manessier.

Today the lustre has long disappeared from France. Drouot’s sales failed to grow with the market (see table), and now represent just 5% of the world art market. The lion’s share goes to Britain and the United States, who, according to the Art Sales Index represent almost 30% and over 50% respectively of the world art market at auction.

How did Paris lose its pre-eminence? A combination of factors are generally blamed: the anachronistic system of auctioneering; the shift of the contemporary art market to America and Germany; the imposition in 1957 of a 3.3% tax on art galleries (droit de suite already existed but was only levied on sales at auction), the 1958 devaluation of the French franc and the increasing dominance of Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

Today, however, revolution is in the air. From next year the French auction monopoly falls and the country will finally allow the main salerooms – Sotheby’s, Christie’s et al – to hold sales in France. The question everyone is asking is, will this reverse 50 years of decline and propel Paris to becoming a serious rival to New York and London?

Sotheby’s and Christie’s certainly believe in Paris; both have been investing heavily in France, and boast sumptuous offices with large salerooms in Paris that are waiting, metaphorically dustsheeted, for the first crack of the auctioneer’s hammer. Sotheby’s is cheekily installed – in the old Galerie Charpentier, if you please – just opposite the Elysée Palace, while Christie’s has a no less glorious townhouse in the avenue Matignon just a stone’s throw away.

Christie’s now belongs to the luxury goods mogul François Pinault, who also has a “co-operation agreement” with the French saleroom PIASA. Phillips, owned by Pinault’s arch-rival Bernard Arnault, has formed an alliance with Jacques Tajan, France’s top auctioneer, and has an office in his smart exhibition space.

Despite these Gallic takeovers, opinion remains sharply divided as to whether France can regain its lost glory. On the plus side are its long tradition of collecting and expertise, and the fact that the country is still the “attic of Europe”. Paris is rich in culture and museums.... but on the downside are the many fiscal and administrative obstacles with which France encumbers its art market.

Foremost among these is the dreaded droit de suite, levied on the sale at auction of work by living or recently dead artists. Britain has fought a bitter battle over this tax and has managed to put off application.

Another handicap is the higher rate of Value Added Tax in France, which at the full rate is 19.6%. Imported art is taxed at 5.5%, but only for objects over 100 years old – which excludes Art Deco, one of the hottest areas of the antiques trade. “Because of these taxes France is just not competitive,” says Jacques Tajan, citing a Japanese client with a collection of 18 Impressionist paintings to sell. “His total costs to sell in the States were 3% – just the droit de suite here”.

Other potential deterrents are reproduction rights when paintings for sale are published and the continuing threat that one day works of art will be included in the wealth tax.

Even after the reform, auctioneers will not have the same liberties as Britain or America: the new-look commissaires-priseurs will be nominated by a commission, and they will probably not be able to offer guarantees, the rather two-edged weapon that les anglo-saxons (as they are still erronously dubbed by the French) use to woo important buyers.

Most under threat are the French commissaires-priseurs themselves, who many see as a seriously endangered species. However at a recent conference about the French art market, Gérard Champin, President of the Chambre Nationale des Commissaires-Priseurs, emphasised France’s advantages: low capital gains tax on art sales (5% or even none, in the case of long-held collections), no VAT on exports nor on imports that are subsequently re-exported.

He also pointed to the 10-year guarantee of authenticity that French auctioneers and specialists provide, and to the fact that clients are protected against the bankruptcy of any auction house.

François Curiel of Christie’s believes that, although Paris cannot hope to equal London or New York, “it can become a lot more important.” He sees the whole market being boosted by the reform: “If you add a third selling centre, the whole cake will become bigger”. His words are echoed by Robin Woodhead of Sotheby’s, who flew in to address the same conference. “Don’t expect Modern and Impressionist paintings to come here,” he said, “but we can bring in buyers for many other national traditions: French decorative arts, tribal art, Old Master paintings, photography and books.” These fields are where Paris can develop, and a measure of its potential is that in 1999 Sotheby’s sold FFr 900 million (£90 million) worth of art from France (it is reasonable to think that Christie’s achieved a similar sum).

Laure de Beauvau-Craon, head of Sotheby’s France, concludes that with the reform, “Paris can help regild Europe’s star” and “counterbalance the increasing clout of New York.”

Sotheby’s

1964/65 FFr 221 million

1976/77 FFr 1.029 billion

1983/84 FFr 4.65 billion

1999 FFr 14.15 billion

Drouot

1964 FFr 120 million

1976 FFr 514 million

1983 FFr 1.24 billion

1999 . FFr 4 billion

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A new French revolution?'