Auctioneers under the hammer

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The Independent Online
EVER since the reign of Louis XIV, just a few hundred public notaries responsible to the French Ministry of Justice have retained the right to cry "Ajuge! Vendu!" - "going, going, gone" - in France. Now, finally, that may all be about to end.

The French government is about to adopt a reform which will end the monopoly of French auctioneers over the national market.

The bill, which brings France in line with European legislation, goes to parliament in the autumn, and is designed to "give the French art market a boost". Equally, it will open the way for commercial firms to hold their own auctions in France.

Unsurprisingly, the French auctioneers have remained stuck in their traditional rut, saying that the new law will "clip our wings just as we are starting to restructure, invest and confront the multinationals in the art market".

One of their main causes for concern is the proposed compensation package. The President of the National Chamber of Auctioneers, Gerard Champin, has declared that the suggested sum of pounds 45m "does not even cover the profession's debt", which he says runs to more than pounds 50m.

The supremos in the international business, Christie's and Sotheby's, have already set up their headquarters in Paris, without waiting for a parliamentary by-your-leave.

It was the intervention of Laure de Beauvau-Craon, the aristocratic director of Sotheby's in France, which set the debate rolling.

In 1991 she requested permission from the justice ministry to hold a sale in Paris of items from the Paris villa of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, which were being sold by Mohamed al-Fayed. The argument went to Brussels and France was told to come into line with European legislation. The Windsor sale eventually took place in New York at the beginning of this year.

The Sotheby's and Christie's sales will undoubtedly attract important foreign collectors to Paris. But the auctioneers are categorical that without a reduction of VAT levied on imports from non-EU countries, the French market could find itself in some very serious trouble.

Mr Champin fears that if the law goes through in its present form, France could be "permanently marginalised".

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