It's like high stakes gambling coupled with flea market finds and fine art… keep calm!

French market regulation

The auction market was very protected in France until 2011: a long monopoly by the French state graduated and controlled the number auction houses.

In 2011, it opened the market to international operators, the 2 biggest being Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s French offices were in Paris before only to collect works from private collections in France to be sold in London or NYC.

Interestingly, these companies can also now trade between private people without the works even going to a public auction, much to the chagrin of traditional auction houses.

Most of French auctioneers hold their sales at Hotel Drouot, which is still ruled like a medieval corporation. Since the 1860s, staff have been trained and come almost exclusively from the Savoye region (Alps), and are affectionately called “Cols rouges”.

Learning about the sales

To stay on top of the many auctions happening all the time, it's important to subscribe to some publications, online or otherwise. Common sales (as opposed to prestige sales) are often announced only a week in advance. Go in person to consult catalogues in auction houses or read them online. Follow them on social media, where available.

The big sales mostly follow the art calendar:

  • in Fall around FIAC
  • photography auctions in November during Paris Photo
  • big Spring sales in May

In Drouot, there is always something running. Busy all week long and some addicts go every day.

Preparing for the sale

If you’re interested in a sale, buy or download the catalogue, look for exhibition schedule, which will tell you when to go and see the works (usually it’s the day before or the morning between 10-12) :

  • Check the size, colors and state of conservation (ask for the report on very expensive works). Look at the description and provenance.

  • Ask the advice of an expert for specific and expensive works (although they are presented by an auctioneer, some incorrect authentications happen).

Before the sale

  • Decide how you want to participate:
    • in the room

    • via your art advisor on the phone

    • online (must pre-register your bids)

  • Register for the sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, etc. online or in advance of the sale at auction houses.

  • Buy or download the catalogue so you can follow along and note sale prices.
  • There is usually no registration required for common sales at Drouot.
  • Set the value you don’t want to exceed for each work you’re interested in.
  • Don’t forget that you will pay 15-20% taxes (for the auctioneer) plus VAT on the top of the “hammer” price when paying.

During the sale

Follow the lots and prices with your catalogue.

When it’s your turn, raise your hand to indicate your interest. Then the auctioneer either announces a slightly higher price or you can speak your offer.

If the auctioneer slams his “marteau” or hammer at your price, you win… unless the price has not met the reserve bid set by the vendor. In which case you're out of luck.

Warning again : Don’t forget the circa 20% of taxes + VAT that always make the prices higher. As he is taking a commission on the work seller, it means the auction house takes approximately 35-40% on each transaction.

After the sale

An agent will come and give you a piece of paper to fill with your information. Ask where you will pay and collect your purchase.

Auction houses can also offer shipping solutions.

Participating in an auction online

It’s started… Always difficult to bid without seeing. For small items, standard goods (furniture like Panton chairs), or very trained buyers.

Some are Artnet, Expertissimo (with decreasing bids on a set time)

Additional reading

Seattle Times, 1990 (dated, but captures the spirit of the place!)

Grayson Perry: Democracy Has Bad Taste (Thanks, Suzanne, for the link!) A podcast about "the complex process of judging whether contemporary works of art are good or bad quality."