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paris auction blues
by Adrian Darmon

As Europe moves towards a truly common market, changes are in store for the French auction system. At present, dozens of independent auctioneers operate under a web of government regulations to mount a grab-bag of sales at the Hotel Drouot in Paris. The total 1997 auction sales recorded at Drouot was $436.6 million, compared to worldwide totals of about $1.6 billion for Christie's and Sotheby's. But soon Christie's and Sotheby's will be free to hold sales in the French capital, a development that could cut Drouot's turnover by 50 percent -- and perhaps more as most major pieces would go to the bigger houses.

Sotheby's has recently moved into the premises of the former Galerie Charpentier at 76 Boulevard Saint-Honoré, facing the Elysée Palace. This facility will allow Sotheby's to have over 400 people in its salesroom. Meanwhile, Christie's will soon move to the Art Curial building at the corner of the Champs-Elysées, some 500 yards away from Sotheby's. Both houses are therefore bracing themselves to dive into the French auction market as soon as they receive the official go-ahead. This could possibly come in six months.

There are at least 100 auctioneers in Paris. About a dozen have enough stature to hold important sales, among them Tajan, Piasa, Millon and Associates, De Quay, Gros-Delettrez, Ferri, Briest, Kohn, Laurin-Guilloux-Buffetaud, Cornette de Saint-Cyr and Boisgirard. Drouot's 19th-century premises were rebuilt 20 years ago but the new salesrooms were designed in a disastrous way. The Drouot auction rooms can be so packed that it is impossible for buyers to find a seat, or worse, to leave a sale and try to attend another. What's more, auctioneers must pay high fees to rent space for their sales.

French auctioneers have been slow to adopt modern auction methods. They are unmethodical in listing their lots, and may offer a dozen works worth over $100,000 mixed with lots estimated under $5,000. Other sales mix Old Master paintings with modern ones. The richly illustrated catalogues and media promotion so familiar at Christie's and Sotheby's is seldom in evidence at Paris sales.

Specialty auctions are rare and when they occur major lots are mixed with common pieces. (In fact, most 19th-century paintings are bought by one or two big dealers -- such as Charles Bailly -- who then consign them for sale at New York, notably with Sotheby's and Christie's, where they fetch higher prices.) Even worse, presale exhibitions only last for one day, the day preceding the sale, making it difficult for potential purchases to be carefully examined by would-be buyers.

Paris auctioneers have not been aggressive in seeking major pieces from collectors, depending instead on the French Justice Ministry as a source of estate sales. To spar with Christie's and Sotheby's, they must find other ways of attracting important works for sale -- perhaps by hiring members of noble families.

Tajan and Piasa have understood that their future relied on alliances with foreign auction houses. Tajan has been allied to Bonham's of London and Dorotheum of Vienna while Piasa has been working with Phillips of London since last year.

In addition, the French are really padlocked by their statutes. At present, Paris auctioneers can be sued for selling unsold pieces below the reserve after a sale. They need an overhaul of the regulations that govern the business to give them more freedom in conducting their sales. They need to be able to guarantee a minimum turnover to vendors at their own risks and sometimes can act as bankers.

The future of the Drouot salesrooms themselves is also at stake, since some auctioneers wish to operate in their own premises. Tajan held a successful sale at its own headquarters last month. What's more, many gallery owners believe that once new rules are in force they will be allowed to hold sales themselves. Clearly, the French do not have a unified plan to face the challenge represented by Sotheby's and Christie's forthcoming offensive into their own territory.

The present mess the Paris auction business finds itself in will not be cleared in a single day. To compete with Christie's and Sotheby's, Parisian auctioneers must find the necessary funds to create competitive groupings, to work with a new generation of experts, to learn how to exhibit pieces and restore them if necessary, to publish documented catalogues and to pack lots -- in short, to enter the 21st century of the art business.

ADRIAN DARMON writes on art from Paris.