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letter from paris
by Adrian Darmon
  American Auctions in Paris
The Paris Chamber of Auctioneers has moved to block Sotheby's run into the French auction market via the New York auctioneer's recently announced partnership with the Poulain-Lefur auction group. Sotheby's made the alliance after the French Senate shelved long-promised reforms of auction regulations until next April.

But the Paris chamber is claiming that Sotheby's has failed to obtain a license for sales in its new Paris headquarters, located in a fashionable gallery district across the street from the Presidential palace. Sotheby's says it has a letter from the EEC Commission dated Nov. 22, 1995, that would allow such auctions in Paris.

Sotheby's has enlisted the Poulain-Lefur group to organize the previously announced sale of $18 million worth of property from the Château de Groussay on June 2-6, 1999. The Paris auctioneers cannot block the scheme, since the Château is in Montfort-l'Amaury, outside its jurisdiction.

In any case, Poulain-Lefur's "wedding with the enemy" has provoked considerable bitterness among other French auctioneers. Joel Million, chairman of the Paris Chamber of Auctioneers, said Poulain and Lefur were "surrendering Paris to the Anglo-Saxons." Million complained that Sotheby's would gain an unfair advantage if it were allowed to hold sales in its future salesroom.

Leading French auctioneer Jacques Tajan also charged that the move by Poulain and Lefur was "scandalous." Tajan noted that it was he who had first reached an agreement with then-Sotheby's head Peter Wilson in 1975 regarding sales in Monaco. "Now, I cannot accept that Sotheby's can circumvent the law whereas we are in a deadlock because our statutes need to be modified," he added.

Gérard Champin, the chairman of the National Chamber of Auctioneers, said that the present situation was dangerous. "French authorities should move at once to reform our profession. It's stupid that French officials don't defend France's patrimony and its art market," he added.

Sotheby's is being conciliatory -- though it notes that it could continue to hold European sales in London or Monaco. Laure de Beauvau-Craon, head of Sotheby's France, said, "We are not the enemy. We only seek to free ourselves from a four-year-long bureaucratic delay that has been lethal for the Paris market. Our initiative is made in good faith. Commissions on sales would have been entirely paid to French auctioneers, who were due to hold the hammer."

Another prominent Paris auctioneer, Pierre Cornette de St Cyr, said he was backing Poulain and Lefur. Christie's and Sotheby's are not enemies, St Cyr said, but worthy opponents and even future partners in the French art market. "Their presence is an established fact and they will be active in our market tomorrow. Let them work in peace."

"We only wish to open the Paris market and see French auctioneers adapt to the realities of the international art trade," said Hervé Poulain, partner in the Poulain-Lefur auction group. "We have lost enough time and so much energy! Regarding other French auctioneers, I now believe that we have no hope of unity. In fact, many of them are glad that reforms have been delayed because they feel safe from foreign competition for a few more months. Our profession has not been reformed in the last five centuries -- and I feel that's quite long enough in view of the economic reality."

It Takes a Thief, Still
A thief who used his remarkable climbing abilities to snatch paintings and art objects from private homes was arrested in Paris on Jan. 13, 1999. The 31-year-old man, identified as Vjeran T. by police, would dress in a Ninja costume to scale the walls of buildings, using a mini-catapult to send a hook up to snag onto roofs of his targets. On his final caper, Jan. 6, he netted two paintings by Bernard Buffet as well as a pastel by Camille Pissarro from the flat of a French law professor, who was asleep in the bedroom.

The thief was arrested by police following a tip from a French antique dealer to whom Vjeran had offered part of his hoard. At Vjeran's home police found over a dozen 18th- and 19th-century paintings stolen between 1992 and early 1999. They also found several art index books which enabled him to know the value of what he was stealing.

Rachel Ruysch Makes It Big
A 17th-century still life painting of flowers with a bird's nest by artist Rachel Ruysch fetched 2.9 million French francs ($508,500) in an auction sale at Deauville, Normandy, on Jan. 31, 1999.

The oil on canvas, measuring 44 x 39 cm, had been found behind the door of a country house by the auctioneer. Its owners had no idea of the work's value. The painting only carried a presale estimate of $100,000. The incident shows that art treasures can still be discovered in French homes.

Disaster for Finacor Fund in New York
The collection of drawings bought for the French BNP-Finacor Fund nine years ago was sold for well below its purchase price at Christie's old master drawings sale in New York, Jan. 28, 1999.

For example, a loss of $1 million was registered on the set of 20 drawings by Frederico Zuccaro illustrating the life of Taddeo Zuccaro. The series, which had been bought by a group of French experts on behalf of the fund, sold for $1.76 million, well below the presale estimate of $2 million-$3 million. And that's including the auction-house commission of over 10 percent.

Another failure occurred for two drawings that had been bought for Finacor in an auction sale in Strasbourg ten years ago. A French revolutionary portrait by Jacques-Louis David, which had then been bought for $607,000 by Finacor, only fetched $376,500 in New York. A portrait of a man by Chassériau, which sold for $339,000 ten years ago, went for the ridiculous price of $57,500!

A landscape with Saint Philip by Claude Lorrain sold for $145,500, although its previous owner, Agnew's of London, was asking $200,000 for it in 1982. Two other drawings by Cézanne and Goya were sold for between 15 and 20 percent below their estimates. A work by Barocci, Christ and Madgdalena, presented last September in Paris as a masterpiece and estimated at around $650,000, did not appear in the Christie's sale, probably because some specialists had expressed doubts about its authenticity.

The experts acting for Finacor finally showed too much haste and too little discernment in spending so much for these drawings. The purchase of the collection was a bad operation overall, and considerably damaged the reputation of French experts.

ADRIAN DARMON writes on art from Paris.

In the bookstore:

Sotheby's: Bidding for Class
by Robert Lacey