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letter from paris

by Adrian Darmon

Bad news for Paris auctioneers during the holiday season! Francis Briest, one of the city's top auctioneers of modern art, was charged with giving over-generous appraisals of works that two dealers used as collateral in a huge bank loan in 1990 (the exact amount of the loan is undisclosed but could be over $2 million). The dealers, Josée-Lyne Falcone and her associate, M. Carpentier, eventually defaulted on the loan. A Paris judge, who has yet to impose any penalty, said Briest had acted carelessly in giving what turned out to be exaggerated estimates.

Meanwhile, another Paris auctioneer has been charged in a case involving the theft of art and furniture from the ailing 90-year-old widow of a big industrialist. According to a report in Liberation, the woman's heirs have accused her servants -- a caretaker, maids and a gardener -- of gradually depleting her bank account and selling her valuables at auction. For instance, an unnamed Paris auctioneer sold a selection of her belongings for some $10 million without permission from her legatees. Justice sources said the auctioneer will face charges for such neglect.

In a controversial verdict handed down in December, the Paris Supreme Court of Appeal has allowed art-copyists to include the original artist's signature on their copies -- if the artists died over 70 years ago. The court's decision has baffled the art profession in France, which fears that the transformation of mere copies into credible fakes cannot be far off.

The court decision came in a lawsuit involving Daniel Delamare, the owner of a Paris gallery specializing in copies of Impressionist paintings by the likes of Renoir, Monet, and Degas. His gallery, situated on the plush Avenue Matignon, opened in 1988 at the height of the art boom. Delamare had many painters under contract producing copies, which could fetch as much as $30,000. Delamare said his customers were happy to have his replicas, since they couldn't afford the originals.

Delamare's copies were usually an inch smaller than the originals, and were marked on the back that the work was "a faithful and unique copy from the Delamare workshop." Needless to say, Delamare's copies did not always match the quality of original works.

Nevertheless, Delamare's industry alarmed Paul Renoir, one of Pierre Renoir's heirs, who filed suit in 1992 under France's strict moral rights law, which prohibits the misuse of an artist's name or reputation. Such copies could be deceitfully used, according to the suit, and perhaps relined so as to mask the disclaimer on the back of the canvas. After a decade or so, copies could pass on the market as original works.

Renoir had the backing of other gallery owners, such as Bernheim Jeune, as well as the Toulouse-Lautrec museum. He won in the first round but the decision was reversed in 1996 by the Court of Appeal, which stated that affixing the signature of an artist on a copy of one of his paintings -- if the artist's work was no longer protected by copyright law, a period usually calculated as 70 years since the artist's death -- was not prejudicial as long as there was no confusion between the copy and the original work.

Delamare subsequently sued Paul Renoir and the other plaintiffs, charging that as a result of their lawsuit he had lost a huge contract with a Japanese firm involving over 2,000 copies. Delamare's claim was rejected by the court, which stated that Renoir's right to launch an action was protected.

The sale of 19th-century and Impressionist paintings from the Collection Rouart at Drouot Montaigne in Paris on Nov. 27 was quite a success, with many lots selling well above their high estimates. Julien Rouart, son of Ernest Rouart and Julie Manet (the daughter of Edouard Manet's brother), had important paintings and such provenance was enough to attract collectors, notably Americans, from all over the world. The collection was sold by his widow, with the proceeds going to benefit a Paris orphanage.

A 1901 Gauguin landscape with horses went for FF 24 million ($4 million), while a 1882 Degas pastel of ballerinas backstage went for 25 million francs ($4.2 million), above its presale estimate of FF 10 million. Several works by Berthe Morisot sold above one million francs. A stencil portrait of Manet by Edgar Degas was sold to the French government for FF 1.2 million ($200,000), under its FF 1.5 million estimate. The low price is due to export restrictions, which forbid it to leave the country.

The Paris market has been booming recently, with high prices being paid for good works. A Pierre Paul Prud'hon study of a seated nude fetched FF 2.5 million ($620,000) against a presale estimate of FF 800,000. A 16th-century German drawing of Saint Augustine washing the feet of Christ sold surprisingly well for FF 630,000 ($108,000), above its modest FF 10,000 estimate. The drawing went to an excited German collector. A Géricault drawing of a procession, with a study of a seated man on its verso, fetched FF 1.4 million ($235,000) against a presale estimate of FF 300,000.

In another auction at Drouot, Berthe Morisot's painting In the Garden (1894) went to a British buyer for FF 3 million ($505,000) against a top pre-sale estimate of FF 1 million and the study of a ballet dancer by Degas sold for 1.7 million ($300,000). All these results prove that bidding can reach stupefying heights when works of good quality are offered. Another indication about such high prices is a renewed interest in good paintings shown by investors who are more and more cautious about the present stock exchange unrest in Asia that might affect other countries.

ADRIAN DARMON writes on art from Paris.