The Paris art auction market



Traditionally London and New York host the so-called ‘prestige’ sales that generate the world’s most spectacular art auction results whereas 89% of the art auction lots sold in France fetch less than $10,000. Nevertheless, from time to time some impressionist, modern and contemporary works offered at French sales generate results on a par with Anglo-American results.

The top auction houses in terms of revenue
In Paris, Christie’s France and Sotheby’s France generated the lion’s share of the French art auction market’s revenue. After six Paris sales between January and June 2010, Sotheby’s posted its best result for its Impressionist & Modern Art sale in France on June 3 June 2010, with a very substantial contribution from a Pablo PICASSO drawing that fetched €3.3m. The previous day, Sotheby’s generated two new artist’s records when Maria Elena VIEIRA DA SILVA’s Hiver fetched €920,000 and a 1959 “lifting” by Jacques VILLEGLÉ entitled Boulevard Saint-Martin sold for €260,000.
Sotheby’s has opted for a dynamic sales policy in France by designating Paris as the capital for its Photography sales and by organising half of the sale of the famous Vollard safe-box in Paris on 29 June, one of the most publicised sales of the year. Indeed, Sotheby’s hopes to regain its leader position on the French market that it lost to Christie’s in 2009 after the latter’s highly successful Pierre Bergé /Yves Saint Laurent sale.
As for the French auction houses (SVVs or Sociétés de Ventes Volontaires Françaises), with an annual auction revenue total of $40m, Artcurial was in third position in 2009 despite a 14% fall in revenue vs 2008. In fourth place, Millon-Cornette de Saint Cyr ($29.6m) with Piasa and Claude Aguttes, neck and neck, followed by Tajan, J.J. Mathias, Baron Ribeyre, Farrando Lemoine, Versailles Enchères and J.P.Osenat in Fontainebleau.

The Parisian auctions in 2010
Since the beginning of 2010, a number of 7-figure results have been generated in Paris including €1.22m for Fernand LÉGER’s Nature morte sur fond jaune on 19 March at Piasa, €1.25m (substantially higher the estimate) for Hubert ROBERT’s fiery painting entitled L’incendie de l’Opéra vue d’une croisée de l’Académie de peinture at J.J. Mathias, Baron Ribeyre, Farrando Lemoine on 9 April, and €1.95m (vs. an estimate of €500,000 – €700,000) for a 2-metre mobile by Alexander CALDER generating the artist’s best result in France, on 1 June at Artcurial.
The following day, Jean-Michel BASQUIAT’s Joy fetched its best ever price. In effect, the last three auction appearances of Joy have acted as fairly accurate market barometers. In February 2008, just a few months before the crisis hit the art market, the work sold for the equivalent of €1.12m (Phillips de Pury & Company). Nine months later, in full market meltdown, Joy fetched 53% less at the New York sales (approx. €527,000 at Sotheby’s on 12 November 2008). On June 2 last, carrying a prudent Sotheby’s estimate of between 700,000 and 900,000 euros, it finally sold for €1.25m excluding fees.
A month after Christie’s New York set a new world record for Pablo Picasso at $95m, Sotheby’s offered an ink-wash tint (Le repos du sculpteur) estimated at between €400,000 and €600,000 on 3 June in Paris. Galvanised by the impressive Picasso record, collectors were extremely eager to acquire the work, taking the bidding to €3.3m! On the same day, the American auction company sold a Chaïm SOUTINE painting entitled Le Canard Blanc for €1.7m versus a €700,000 – €1m estimate. At such high prices, the bidding is of course very international.
But the most impressive number generated at the Paris sales so far this year has been the $38.5m for a Amedeo MODIGLIANI sculpture on 14 June 2010.

Spectacular new Modigliani record
At Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Art sale in Paris on 14 June 2010, Modigliani’s Tête fetched the astonishing sum of €38.5m against an estimate of just €4m to €6m, i.e. nearly ten times the work’s lower estimate. A veritable record for this Italian artist because this sculpture’s result alone quadruples the artist’s total 2009 auction revenue generated from 34 lots. The previous record for a Modigliani sculpture was $3.5m for his Tête de femme au chignon which sold at Phillips de Purys, in New York in 2001.
More famous for his portraits, for which the current auction record of $28m (€21.8m) was generated by his Jeanne Hébuterne, devant une porte (Sotheby’s NY, November 2004), Amadeo Modigliani’s has now signed his new world record in all artistic mediums with this 64 cm limestone Tête sculpture carrying the characteristic lines of his portraits. That result has given Modigliani second place in the ranking of best auction results for sculptures behind Alberto GIACOMETTI whose L’homme qui marche I fetched £58m (€60.3m) last February.
This new artist’s record did not however set a new record result for the Paris art market, still held by Picasso’s Les noces de Pierrette which fetched €45.7m when it was offered for sale by Binoche-Godeau in Paris in 1989. It has however taken the second place ahead of Henri MATISSE’s Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose which fetched €32m at Christie’s in Paris in 2009.