The French can compete

When the barricades that France’s protectionist auctioneers had erected to prevent the reform of their art market were finally stormed in late 2001, it seemed as though revolution was in the air. Many people believed that “les Anglo-Saxons”, as the French refer to Sotheby’s and Christie’s, were about to sweep their smaller, local competitors aside.

The logic was simple. The 456 licensed French auctioneers (commissaires-priseurs), who had been legally protected against foreign competition since 1556, would be no match for the two international giants now that the latter were allowed to hold sales in France for the first time. However, the reality has proved very different and in less than two and a half years Paris has evolved into the world’s most unpredictable and fiercely competitive art market centre.

And how can the French possibly compete?

The local auctioneers have survived by using their contacts, particularly among lawyers who arrange estate sales, and in some cases by reorganising and bringing in outside investors, which the law reforming the market allowed them to do for the first time. ArtCurial is a new creation, an alliance of three well-known French auctioneers – Francis Briest, Hervé Poulain and Remy Le Fur – with the Dassault aviation and newspaper dynasty and the Monaco real estate millionaire and art collector Michel Pastor. Its main specialities are modern art and vintage cars, and last year it came in third behind Christie’s and Tajan [another French firm] with sales of £41.7 million.

My take: European culture isn’t dead, it is simply oversubsidized and overprotected. Here is the full story. Here is an article about how the French have an unjustified fear of being bought out by foreigners.

Note also that Coca-Cola has postponed and possibly shelved its plans to compete with the leading French mineral waters. The British version of the product, Fasani (a terrible name, no?), turned out to be purified tap water. It is now an open question whether the French release will ever see the light of day.

Addendum: Daniel Drezner points out that McDonald’s is more popular in France than elsewhere in Europe. I blame expensive French food, high labor costs through regulation, and bizarre opening hours (i.e., your favorite place is usually closed). But if you think that French haute cuisine has been harmed, you haven’t eaten in Helene Darroze, where last night I had one of the finest meals of my life.


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