Paris: the crisis…. and museum strikes



As the year draws to a close, the success last February of the first round of the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint-Laurent sale looks increasingly incongruous: was it a bold leap out of the crisis, the sign of a genuine recovery of French art market dynamism… or was it just a one-off event with no particular market significance?

Losing altitude since the 1950s, overtaken by China since 2007, the French art market does not appear to have gained much from the latest speculative bubble (2004-2007). In fact while auction sale revenue rose by 30 to 40% in the UK and the USA, in France the progression over the same period was no more than 5 to 6%. However, this didn’t stop art price inflation for at least three years, until the peak in January 2008… followed by a 25% decline until December 2009.As this price contraction has not affected intelligently-estimated masterpieces, the French market has managed to post a much better performance this year thanks largely to the Bergé –YSL sale (part I). In fact, with €206m ($264.9m) generated by art works alone and 22 seven-figure hammer prices, that sale (organised by Christie’s on 23 February 2009) produced the world’s best auction result of the year. The Top 10 best French auction results in 2009 all came from that sale.

TOP 10 French auction results in 2009

This single prestige sale doubled the number of French seven-figure results compared with 2008 (40 vs. 19 in 2008) and it gave Christie’s in Paris a spectacular first place on the French annual revenue podium.

The best results at Paris auctions
Parisian results for the year 2009 also included a world record €2.56m ($3.5m) for a Auguste RODINPenseur on 17 June 2009 at Drouot Richelieu (Mathias, Baron Ribeyre & associés, Farrando-Lemoine) beating the previous record of $2.7m for the same subject. That was the world’s 20th best auction result in 2009.
During 2009, Sotheby’s decided to take advantage of Parisian global ambitions in the photography segment by switching its specialised sales from London to Paris. The first results at its 20 November sale were mixed with 54% of the photographs remaining unsold, but a world record for Eugène ATGET. The work in question (Femme) fetched €370,000, substantially beyond its estimate of $555,000. Five days later the same auctioneer, generated a record €420,000 ($630,000) for an extendable table by Charlotte PERRIAND, a unique piece estimated at between €250,000 and €400,000.

Recovering margins?
The Parisian sales of the two leaders Christie’s and Sotheby’s were, on the whole, more profitable in the autumn of 2009 than in 2008, and with catalogues that were just as large. For example, Christie’s Impressionist & Modern sale on 1 December 2009 was four times more profitable than the same sale in 2008 (€16.2m and 15% unsold vs. €4.2m and 27% unsold in 2008). Contemporary Art is nevertheless still struggling to recover with 41% unsold on 8 December 2009 at Christie’s (total revenue: €3.7m) vs. 50% unsold in December 2008 (total revenue: €4m). In this segment, Sotheby’s posted better results with nearly €9m (87.5% sold) from its Contemporary Art sales on 8 and 9 December versus €5m a year earlier.

In a Parisian winter characterised this year by strikes that have closed a number of French museums – including the Centre Pompidou – the French art market is awaiting the translation into French law of the so-called “Bolkestein” directive on 28 December 2009, (EU Directive 2006/123/CE). This piece of legislation is designed to enhance the free movement of services within Europe and would give French auction houses, for example, an equal competitive footing with Europe’s top auctioneers. Whether or not that will suffice to buck the somewhat morose trend on the French art market remains to be seen.