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Removing French trade barriers still leaves London auction houses with upper hand

Five years ago, France finally allowed outsiders to hold auctions in the country by ending the 400-year-old monopoly of state-appointed auctioneers

At the time this was hailed as a new dawn for the French art market. It would see, the optimists said, the revenge of Paris, which would once again rival London for supremacy in the European art market. The pessimists said it would see Sotheby’s and Christie’s triumph over the Parisian saleroom Drouot, which would disappear completely.

It is already clear that neither prediction has come true. While the French market reported greatly improved results for 2005 (see p.39), the country remains a distant third on the global art market, far behind the US (which has 44% of the market, according to Artprice.com, and the UK, with 29%).

Sotheby’s and Christie’s tend to export most of the high-priced art sourced in France. Last year both the Safra and Wildenstein sales (which totalled $48 million and $38.8 million respectively) were held in New York and London although they consisted mainly of French material, sourced in France.

Drouot, which is an association of all the Paris auctioneers, is still alive even if many of the capital’s prestige sales no longer take place in its now dilapidated premises.

Where France is doing well, and where the predictions were correct, is in the decorative arts, a traditional French collecting field. High prices were made last year for furniture, books, Art Deco, tribal arts (Sotheby’s Parisian department made €2 million more than the New York department last year) and Asian art, and this is what boosted its figures in 2005.

The usual providers of statistics, Artprice.com and others, do not always reflect the totality of the market, as they only record prices for painting, sculpture, prints and photographs. Last year a Chinese work of art sold for €6.06 million (Qing dynasty scroll, Christie’s Paris, November); a Dunand vase made over €1 million (Camard, November) and a Louis XV desk fetched €6.8 million (Artcurial, December). Tribal art is being boosted by the opening this year of the capital’s new tribal art museum at the Quai Branly.

Fine art, of course, is overwhelmingly an American and British market. Sales of contemporary and Modern art, the strongest part of the market last year, were greatly improved last year in France, but still only represented 4% of this market. Artcurial (€14.8 million in sales in this category), Cornette de Saint Cyr (€11.2 million) and Tajan (€10.5 million) all increased turnover in this sector, but a single sale at Christie’s in New York (on 9 November 2005) produced the same amount (€31.6 million, $37.6 million), as all of the above firms did in a whole year.

Can harmonisation of artists resale rights throughout the European Union (see p.43) change the balance of power between Paris and London in this field? It is too early to tell, but a more likely effect, according to the auction houses, is that more art in this category will be sold outside Europe altogether.

In conclusion, the French market was a little stronger last year: French auctioneers have neither disappeared, nor really profited from the ending of the monopoly. London and Paris remain, as ever, in competition, but London still has the upper hand.

The writer is a correspondent of our sister publication, Le Journal des Arts

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Removing French trade barriers still leaves London with upper hand'