FRENCH culture minister Christine Albanel has announced a major overhaul of France’s auction system to meet President Sarkozy’s urgent call to “turn the French art market around”.

What is seen as a revolution in State attitudes will see many of the legal constraints on the auction industry lifted. The proposals go as far as turning on their head French-inspired laws that have spread across the European Union, such as the payment of the Artist’s Resale Right to the estates of dead artists.

Albanel’s Renewal Plan (key proposals are listed below) is based on 37 recommendations in the 60-page Bethenod Report handed to her in early March.

The working party drafted the report under FIAC boss Martin Bethenod at Albanel’s request,following more than 100 interviews with dealers, auctioneers, collectors and museum curators.

Among the few foreigners consulted was Anthony Browne, chairman of the British Art Market Federation (ATG will report his views on the report and the British government’s new report on the Artist’s Resale Right in more detail next week).

Madame Albanel said the report had been approved by the President and Prime Minister, and implied that its recommendations would be followed in full, after noting with alarm that France’s world auction ranking had recently slipped to fourth behind China, with art exports outweighing imports 2:1.

Albanel says she wants the proposals “adopted rapidly”, with fiscal measures to be included in the 2009 budget. Some of the proposals require changes to French law, while others entail lobbying for change at European Union level – with Albanel calling for France to present (at last, one might add) a united front with the UK.

The two-part report contained proposals designed to encourage collectors, both private and corporate; and to render the French art market more competitive by “easing and modernising” auction regulations in line with the new EU Services Directive.

The reaction among France’s senior auction figures has been little short of ecstatic. Christie’s boss François Curiel said the report is “good news for us”.

“The measures can only help us develop our business in France,” he said.

He is particularly pleased at the prospect of being able to conduct estate inventories (a huge source of major sales in France); private sales being allowed in France (which account for about ten per cent of Sotheby’s and Christie’s global turnover); and no restrictions on vendor guarantees.

Curiel envisages Paris becoming a far bigger centre for both contemporary art – if Artist’s Resale Right is applied on the firm’s margin rather than the purchase price – and jewellery, if import VAT is reduced to 5.5 per cent.

Christie’s recently hired five new specialists in Paris, and their staff increases look set to continue.

Sotheby’s Paris supremo Guillaume Cerruti welcomed the “chance for equal competition at international level, thanks to private sales, vendor guarantees and being able to sell objects we own”.

Hervé Chayette, President of the French auctioneers’ association SYMEV, said the proposals were “in line with SYMEV’s demands on the whole, and reflect a very positive change in the government’s attitude to the market”.

He praised Albanel for “adopting the position advocated by the European Federation of Auctioneers” on the Artist’s Resale Right.

The only disappointment for French auctioneers was their ongoing obligation to pay a one per cent artists’ welfare tax and Albanel’s refusal to let them sell new goods.

While expressing reservations about auctioneers being allowed to buy and sell “like dealers”, Christian Deydier, President of the Syndicat National des Antiquaires, welcomed the proposals. “It’s the first time we have had a report that sets out all the problems facing the art market,” he said. “It’s very important to take a comprehensive approach.”


French auction firms to be allowed to:
• make vendor guarantees as they see fit;
• sell works they own;
• conduct private sales;
• negotiate after-sales without any restrictions (currently must be within 15 days and for not less than the final bid);
• carry out estate inventories (hitherto the preserve of commissaires-priseurs judiciaires);
• set up without being vetted for State approval (by the Conseil des Ventes).
The report also calls for:
• harmonisation of fiscal regulations for auction firms and galleries;
• abolition of recently-introduced auction “tableware tax”;
• dealers to be granted access to the State database for stolen goods;
• interest-free loans for young collectors, along the lines of the UK’s Own Art programme.
The French government are to lobby the EU with a view to:
• droit de suite being charged only on works by living artists, as is currently the case in the UK;
• droit de suite being charged on the profit margin instead of the total purchase price;
• import VAT on “objects of collection” less than 100 years old (notably Art Deco, manuscripts and possible jewellery) being reduced from 19.6% to 5.5%;
• the EU harmonisation of domestic laws on stolen goods.

By Simon Hewitt