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Sotheby's Paris Initiative
by Adrian Darmon
  Sotheby's has made a major investment in the Parisian auction group Poulain-LeFur with the intention of holding sales in Paris, according to well-informed sources. The move comes in the absence of the long-promised reform of French auction rules, which at present allow only native auctioneers to hold the hammer.

The deal, secretly struck during the first week of August, should come as a surprise to major players in the French auctioning profession, the sources said.

Sotheby's teamed with the Poulain-LeFur group to conduct the successful Château de Groussay sale last June. That five-day sale, held on an estate outside Paris, totaled $26.4 million.

When auction reform was annouced two years ago, Sotheby's and Christie's proved themselves more than eager to hold sales in France. Sotheby's bought new premises facing the Elysée Palace and Christie's followed by purchasing the ArtCurial building on the plush avenue Matignon.

But there was much resistance on the part of French auctioneers, who demanded indemnities for those who would lose business or be forced to find new alliances in the face of the Anglo-Saxon assault. Neither the government of Alain Juppé nor Lionel Jospin took action, and the National Assembly and the Senate dragged their feet when it came to prepare a draft on the reform. The issue is to be taken up again this fall.

Now, thanks to the deal reached with the Parisian group, Sotheby's will not have to wait. Art-world insiders say that Sotheby's is eyeing for its Paris sales the renovated Palais des Congrès compound 400 yards away from the Arc de Triomphe monument. It seems likely that Sotheby's, with the advantage of its Poulain-LeFur alliance, will beat Christie's off the starting line in the French capital -- even though Christie's is now a French-owned company!

ADRIAN DARMON writes on art from Paris.