Going, Going, Gone--to the Small Fry

As France's art auctions open up, private dealers win big

The Pope of Surrealism was a pack rat. That's welcome news for art collectors, who will get a crack at André Breton's 5,300-piece stash when it comes up for auction in early April. Breton's collection, which includes works by such legends as Joan Miró and Man Ray, could fetch as much as $44 million. So who will be wielding the gavel? Not Christie's International PLC. Not its rival, Sotheby's Holdings Inc. Breton's stepdaughter has tapped a small Parisian outfit, CalmelsCohen, to handle the sale. "She chose us for our expertise in 20th century art," says co-director Cyrille Cohen, who acknowledges that his relationship with the Breton clan also was a factor.

When the French Parliament threw open the auction business to competition in 2001, ending a 500-year government monopoly, it seemed certain that the big winners would be Sotheby's and Christie's. The two giants dominate the global market, with more than $2 billion in annual sales each, and have been eager to establish a firm foothold in France. Yet to everyone's surprise, it's private local dealers such as CalmelsCohen, which was founded only last year, that are grabbing the lion's share of the spoils. And investors betting on the liberalization of the $600 million French market for fine arts are lining up to back these upstarts. "The French market is unlike London or New York. There are myriad smaller dealers," says François Curiel, president of Christie's Europe. Curiel claims that Paris now has more potential than either of these art capitals.

Indeed, the French market is just emerging from its own Dark Ages. Prodded by the European Union's antimonopoly authorities, French legislators moved two years ago to do away with a system dating to the 16th century that permitted only a select group of government-licensed specialists -- most of whom worked out of the creaky Drouot building in Paris -- to handle auctions. The government also has agreed to put a $13,500 cap on royalty taxes that apply to sales of most 20th-century art. Such factors helped drive business offshore, limiting Paris' share of the global market for fine art to below 10%.

With these restrictions stripped away, the French scene is perking up fast. Lured by the prospects of a livelier bidding scene, French collectors are bringing more works to market. But they're confounding predictions by often displaying a preference for local houses. What's behind that? A dash of nationalism, perhaps -- why share the spoils with les Anglo-Saxons? The more likely explanation is that the principals at the small local houses have spent decades cultivating relationships with both buyers and sellers. And they have enough backing from local money to stand up to Sotheby's and Christie's.

Take up-and-coming ArtCurial Briest Poulain et LeFur. Housed in an exquisite 19th-century building on the Champs Elysées, the newly established auction house -- the product of a four-way merger -- is backed by the Dassault aviation dynasty and Monaco real estate magnate Michel Pastor. ArtCurial pulled in $77 million last year, mostly from sales of 20th-century art, its forte. That's $14 million more than the $63 million Christie's rang up in France in 2002. "Now we can cover all the major specialties, and in a more prestigious location," says founding member Francis Briest.

The heavyweights, however, are fighting fire with fire. Christie's poached top auctioneer François de Riclès from Drouot when it inaugurated its own elegant Paris showroom in December, 2001. Besides, Christie's and Sotheby's still boast a significant edge over local rivals: With global networks at their disposal, they can import art from other countries to sell in France.

Collectors say such networks could help the big auction houses pull off a Paris coup: staging a big Impressionist sale in the city that gave birth to the artistic movement. A typical Impressionist sale at Sotheby's in London in February pulled in $35.5 million. A Paris event could be equally successful. For now, though, it is the small French houses that are making their mark.

By Christina Passariello, with Nassim Majidi, in Paris

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