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Letter from Paris
by Adrian Darmon
  Will France ever modernize its auction regulations, thus allowing Sotheby's, Christie's (and now Phillips) to do business in Paris? In the latest move in this interminable saga, the French parliament on May 24 adopted a draft reform of the auction profession. The long-awaited draft, due to be considered by the Senate in June, calls for payments to auctioneers put out of business by the reform of a sum amounting to 50 percent of their average turnover over the past five years.

The bill also proposes a special council that would be able to implement disciplinary measures. A spokesman for the Company of Parisian Auctioneers, however, complained that the draft ignored the situation of younger members of the profession who have incurred heavy start-up costs.

The reform overturns privileges dating back to the 16th century. And though it enables Anglo-Saxon auction houses to carry out sales in France, it is expected that heavy French resale royalty taxes for works by living artists will continue to drive sales of modern and contemporary art to New York or London.

Jochen Gerz, agitator
The German-born political artist Jochen Gerz is causing a stir in Paris with his plans for a summer art event. From June 15 to Sept. 15, Gerz is inviting tramps -- who he considers major folkloric figures of the French capital -- to speak to passersby in front of the Notre Dame cathedral. Dubbed The Words of Paris, the project is designed to raise money for charity.

"Tramps have been part of the mysteries and miseries of Paris for over a century," Gerz said, "and their image has been perpetuated in films, songs and postcards. Tramps stands for a kind a freedom, a choice in life and this romantic equation is still vivid in many people's minds. Now we are facing a totally different situation, because tramps are no longer part of a folklore or poetry. They are only an additional problem for society, which has rejected them. They have thus disappeared and my project is designed to bring them back."

Gerz is known for his political works, including a monument against fascism he built in Hamburg that consisted of a 12-meter-tall column covered with lead, on which people were invited to sign their names. The column was gradually submerged into the ground from 1986 until 1993, leaving behind only a plaque with a text in seven languages recalling its presence.

He built another monument against fascism in 1993 in Sarrebruck with the help of art students and members of the local Jewish community. A total of 2,146 paving stones were replaced overnight by similarly shaped sculptures, each bearing the name of a Jewish cemetery in Germany on its hidden side. Following the event, the section of town, formerly the site of a Gestapo headquarters, was renamed the Square of the Invisible Monument.

Problems at the Hermitage
An official investigative committee has accused the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg of mismanagement of both funds and its collections. An incredible 90 percent of more than 221,000 objects in the museum inventory is reportedly missing. When members of the committee asked to see 50 objects only three could be found.

Many porcelain pieces produced during the 18th and 19th century, loaned years ago to Soviet officials for the marriages of their daughters, have yet to be returned to the museum, according to the report.

The financial situation of the museum is described as equally disastrous. The committee notes that the museum houses 27 trade organizations, none of which are paying any rent. At the same time, huge sums are allocated to cleaning the premises -- and five of the nine maintenance firms have no official address.

Museum officials, for their part, disputed the investigation's inventory and accused the committee of incompetence. Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovski admitted a lack of staff but insisted that only a few objects have in fact disappeared.

In addition, the investigation revealed that several contracts signed between the Hermitage and foreign museums brought no profits. A total of $850,000 in fees is owed for loan exhibitions in 1998 and '99. What's more, the Hermitage did not ask for fees for reproductions of its works in catalogues, posters and postcards.

The committee went so far as to suggest that Piotrovski had secretly received funds from foreign museums. Piotrovski retorted that he had adopted a philanthropic attitude in that matter, but admitted he felt ill at ease when it came to asking foreign museums for increased fees.

It now rests with the Kremlin to decide whether criminal charges should be brought against museum officials. Piotrovski may weather the scandal. He has been one of the most influential supporters of Vladimir Putin during his presidential campaign.

Gauguin's genes
A New Zealand art dealer has decided to have a scientific examination carried out on a painting by Paul Gauguin after experts said it was a fake.

Tony Martin from Auckland said four pieces of hair mixed with a patch of paint on the canvas would be examined to determine whether they belonged to Gauguin himself. However a laboratory would have to enter in possession of the artist's genes to carry out such test. In addition, there is no certainty whatsoever that these hair fragments did belong to Gauguin, even if he did paint the picture. Stay tuned.

LVMH buys art magazine
Bernard Arnault's LVMH Moet Hennessey Louis Vuitton group has purchased the venerable French art magazine, Connaissance des Arts. The monthly, which was founded some 50 years ago, has a circulation of about 35,000 copies and was owned by the art collector Jodidio. Arnault stepped in to make the purchase after negotiations with François Pinault, owner of Christie's and of the Artemis group, fell through.

Eugene Leroy, RIP
Eugène Leroy, 89, a French abstract painter known for using thick pigments to capture the light of northern France, has died in Wasquehal, where he lived and worked. Born in 1910 in Tourcoing, Leroy was rediscovered at age 70 thanks to Georg Baselitz who held him in high esteem. Leroy studied painting at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Lille and then at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris before settling in Groix, near Roubaix, in 1935. A monograph on the artist was published in 1994 by Bernard Marcadé.

ADRIAN DARMON writes on art from Paris.