Storming France's Art Barricades

Sotheby's and Christie's prepare for deregulation

It seemed like any other preview of high-end art going up for auction. Strolling through Sotheby Inc.'s elegant new showroom in Paris recently, guests sipped champagne and admired a display of historic French photographs and rare books. Then came the odd part. After the party, the exhibit was shipped to London, where the 433 items are to be auctioned on Oct. 27. Why the laborious shift in locale? Sotheby's can't sell in Paris because auctions in France are a government monopoly.

Mark it down as another hallowed French tradition soon likely to change. Since the 16th century, France has allowed only a small group of government-appointed specialists to run auctions. They aren't just closely regulated; they're considered government officials. But under pressure from the European Union, France could open its market as early as next year.

SHAKEUP. That will give Sotheby's and rival Christie's International PLC their first crack at one of the world's biggest art and antiques markets. It will also shake up France's dowdy auction business--an industry worth $1.4 billion a year in sales. "We are going to reanimate the art market in this country," says Hugues Joffre, director of Christie's in France.

It's easy to see how. Sotheby's and Christie's, each with nearly $2 billion in sales, dominate the global auction market. Taking a big chunk of the action in France will help them enlarge the market dramatically. With worldwide contacts, the industry leaders can draw more collectors to Paris. And there will be more to buy, too. Many French sellers, unhappy with the prices auctions command under the current system, now ship salable items abroad. If Sotheby's and Christie's auctions end up boosting prices, more art works and antiques are likely to be sold at home.

Sotheby's has already tasted the market. With much fanfare last June, it auctioned off a $17.5 million collection of paintings and objects at the Chateau de Groussay outside Paris. Now, Sotheby's and Christie's are set to move when the gates open. Sotheby's opened a showroom last year near the Elysee presidential palace. Christie's will open on chic Avenue Matignon in December. Francois Pinault, a tycoon and art lover, may have added to the reform effort when he bought a controlling stake in Christie's last year.

All this is producing gloom at Hotel Drouot, cluttered home to many French auctioneers. They are proud and highly educated--but not marketing geniuses. Most operate on a shoestring. "If you don't have the financial clout to open a pretty boutique," laments Marie-Christine Robert, an auctioneer since 1989, "you will die out."

Some French will miss Drouot's atmosphere and service. But many say reform is overdue--and could transform some French houses into modern businesses. In the end, Sotheby's and Christie's may not celebrate alone.