The Contemporary Art market in France



In pure supply terms, France’s Contemporary Art market is one of the broadest, deepest and most diverse market’s on the global art map with nearly as many Contemporary works sold at auction as in the US, and more than in the UK. This diversity and dynamism is partly related to France’s centuries-old cultural tradition of collecting works of art. However, nowadays, France’s specificity in this area has been substantially amplified by the selling power that Christie’s and Sotheby’s have brought to the French market and also by the reasonable prices and international flavour of the works proposed by France’s home-grown auction operators. For example, Cornette de Saint Cyr and Millon have decided to work in tandem with their Belgian outlets organising sales in both Paris and Brussels, while Tajan has decided to develop its focus on the globally popular segment of Street Art. Meanwhile, Artcurial has just opened in Hong Kong and plans to develop its expertise in the field of comics strips.

The three leaders

Sotheby’s and Christie’s both have strong positions on the French market and substantially contribute to its international standing. Together, they generate 37% of France’s auction turnover in the Contemporary art segment (18% at Christie’s France and 19% at Sotheby’s France). However, the largest share is hammered by Artcurial, the undisputed market leader on the Contemporary segment in France with 23% of its turnover.
Major results above the $5 million threshold are rare in France, but Artcurial has generated a few. Since the launch of its comics strips department in 2005, Artcurial has won new customers and set several new records in the segment. Exceptional plates by the stars of the 9th Art (Enki BILAL, HERGÉ and Hugo PRATT) have fetched very high results. In fact, the market for comics strips has proved so explosive that Christie’s and Sotheby’s have recently launched comic strip departments … but Artcurial hopes to impose its global leadership in the field by setting up in Hong Kong. This was the backdrop to its inaugural sale in Hong Kong in early October 2015, From Paris to Hong Kong, where a small 17th century clock was offered for sale alongside works by Wang Keping, Tang Haywen and plates by Bilal and Moebius (Jean GIRAUD). Leader on comics strips in France, Artcurial plans to be the first to promote this segment in China where the culture of comics and manga is particularly developed.

The French high-end is not the Western world’s high end…

Although the major French auctioneers regularly irrigate their Contemporary Art sales with works by the international stars of the Western market like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Francis Bacon, Arman, Christo, Miquel Barceló, Atlan, Sol Lewitt and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the works by these artists are rarely as “important” as the works that appear in the catalogues of prestige sales in London and New York. In the plethora of Contemporary works in circulation on the French market, not many are likely to fetch over a million dollars. If they are, the sellers take them across the Channel or the Atlantic. In the past 12 months, only two works have crossed the million-dollar threshold in France and, not surprisingly, they were both by the highest priced and most internationally-renowned Contemporary artist in recent years, Jean-Michel BASQUIAT. And nor was their sale managed by a “French” company, as both results were hammered at Sotheby’s Paris. Moreover, the higher of the two results ($3 million for Untitled [1986] on 7 June 2016) is the only French result in the world’s top 100 Fine Art auction results of the year; the other 99 were all hammered in either New York, London, Beijing or Hong Kong.

In the current global climate, the French market’s independence from the ultra high end represents a substantial advantage. Over the last year, the slowdown of the global art market has primarily affected the race for records in its major hubs (London, New York etc). As the French art market is not part of this race, it is showing excellent resistance to uncertainties at the market’s summit and France is still the second largest European market behind the UK.