France’s share of the global auction market fell by 5.8 per cent in 2006, warns the Conseil des Ventes, the national auction watchdog, in its annual report published on June 25. Worldwide auction activity, it says, rose 34 per cent over the same period.

The figures, which include sale totals at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, do not show a decline in revenues, simply a slower rate of growth compared with the rest of the world’s leading art markets.

Despite its auction strengths, France has not benefited from the massive surge in Contemporary art prices to the degree seen in New York and London.

French auction exports “increased significantly, which shows French auction firms’ lack of competitiveness and affects the balance of payments”.

The Conseil says France’s declining market share is not just due to “well-known handicaps like import VAT and droit de suite”, but also to the absence of an “auction industry powerful enough to face competition from multinationals”, and urged French auctioneers to “operate more collectively”.

The Conseil also warned of potentially damaging effects on the auction market of impending EU directives.

It has written to Meglena Kuneva, the EU Commissioner for consumer protection, complaining about the Distance Selling directive, which could allow successful bidders to change their mind once the hammer has fallen.

Other areas of concern include the Electronic Commerce directive, which “does not acknowledge the principle of the intermediary’s responsibility in guaranteeing the transparency of the sale process”.

And the Bolkenstein Services directive, to be applied from December 2009, would entail a “profound revision” of French auction law by affecting the legal obligation for firms to obtain state approval, thereby casting doubt on the Conseil’s very existence.

By Simon Hewitt