Sotheby's breaks France's auction monopoly
The US auction house Sotheby's held its first-ever sale in France in November - after a decades-long campaign to break the monopoly of France's government-appointed auctioneers. Jocelyne Zablit reports.
"This is a breakthrough for us," commented Princess Laure de Beauvau Craon, chairwoman of Sotheby's France. "I have been waiting for the last 10 years for this moment. To know that we will be able to hold a sale in our own premises and under our own control is a great achievement."
The landmark sale, on 29 November, featured 19th-century books and manuscripts as well as more modern works from the literary library of Charles Hayoit, a famous Belgian collector.
The works - estimated at between FF 15 and FF 20 million (USD 2 - 3 million) - included a manuscript of French author Andre Gide's Les Faux Monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters), and was expected to fetch between FF 3 - 5 million.
Part of Hayoit's collection was already sold by Sotheby's acting through the agency of the French auction house Poulain et Le Fur.
Sotheby's opened its office in Paris in 1997 in anticipation of the sweeping reforms about to end four centuries of a stranglehold on the lucrative French market by a group of state-appointed auctioneers.
The planned reforms met with fierce opposition by the majority of these 458 state auctioneers, or commissaires-priseurs, eager to maintain the monopoly they had enjoyed since 1556. But, despite their lobbying, in June 2000 the French parliament approved a new law privatising the industry and finally opening it to international competition.
However, there were many legal hurdles to overcome, including compensation by the state for losses the commissaires-priseurs were expected to incur as a result of the reforms.
Official figures show that French state auctioneers in 2000 increased their sales by 22 percent to FF 11.94 billion (EUR 1.819 billion), an amount slightly higher than sales realized by Sotheby's or its main competitor Christie's.
But despite the impressive figure, the country's share of the world art market stood at only about five percent in 2000 compared to 90 percent at the end of World War II.
In fact, France now annually exports some FF three billion (EUR 460 million) worth of art and antiques, four times more than it imports, and much of it actually goes to auction houses in London and New York.