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Art Deco, classic cars and tribal art drive sales in France but growth remains sluggish

Single-owner consignments and a €13.5m portrait by Modigliani help Sotheby’s emerge ahead of its rivals in a stagnating market

In 2014, auction sales as a whole held firm in France, but the combined growth of the top five auction houses stalled, up only slightly on 2013 (from €633m to €660m, having grown by 50% the previous year).

“The market is stagnating,” says Guillaume Cerutti, the president of Sotheby’s France. “We don’t have the size of China, or the international appeal of London. Instead, we have to focus on the history and excitement of certain sectors.”

Art Deco and tribal art—and classic cars—helped keep 2014 sales afloat. For the second consecutive year, Sotheby’s led the pack, with a record €213m total, its highest reported turnover since 2001. The auction house won several single-owner collection consignments, which represented a third of its turnover. The collection of the Art Deco dealer Félix Marcilhac, sold in partnership with Artcurial, alone made €25m.

Sotheby’s also sold the highest-priced work at auction in France in 2014: Modigliani’s Portrait of Paul Alexandre, 1911-12, which came to the Paris saleroom directly from the sitter’s descendants and sold for €13.5m in June.

Contemporary art sales at Sotheby’s accounted for a quarter of the total (€51m), but other areas also fared well in the French capital, particularly tribal art, where turnover was up 30% over the year. Here again, single-owner sales made the difference, most recently Murray Frum’s collection of Oceanic art, auctioned in September, and Alexis Bonew’s Congolese works in December. “The strength of the French market is that it is very diverse and not reliant on contemporary art, in contrast to other countries,” Cerutti says.

Hot on Sotheby’s heels was Artcurial, which took the second spot (for the first time), with a total of €192m in sales, an increase of 8%. Unlike its competitors, however, Artcurial’s results include VAT (averaging around 2%, so accounting for around €4m of the total), but even allowing for this it remains in second place. The secret of its success is its “Lifestyle” department (total, €67m), with sectors such as classic cars (up 67% on the year) and comic books (up 71.5%) proving particularly popular.

Demoted to third place, Christie’s—whose owner is France’s leading collector, François Pinault—sold €180.7m of art in 2014, a fall of 3%. Ricqlès Francis, the president of Christie’s France, says: “It’s not easy to convince sellers to consign works to Paris given our economic situation. They tend to say that the market is elsewhere.”

Behind this leading trio, sale totals quickly fall to below the €40m mark. Millon & Associés made €38.4m; Tajan’s sales totalled €36.2m, almost the same turnover as at Piasa; and Cornette de Saint Cyr’s total was €33.5m, including sales from its Brussels business. These medium-sized houses sought to distinguish themselves by opening new premises in 2014—Piasa occupying a 1,000 sq. m site in the rue Saint-Honoré, and Cornette de Saint Cyr’s new 1,600 sq. m space on Avenue Hoche.

Auction houses in France are targeting overseas buyers, who accounted for 68% of sales at Sotheby’s and 75% at Artcurial. The latter plans to expand its European network in 2015, having opened in Vienna in September.