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The change in the law that forbade them from doing so came in July after vigorous lobbying from Christie's, Sotheby's and others in the face of equally vigorous attempts to prevent a change by those who stand to lose out the most as a result: dealers.

The changes come into force on September 1.

Cutting away the red tape of French auction law has been an ongoing priority for the industry since the landmark changes of a decade ago started the process of sweeping away 200 years of stifling bureaucracy and tradition that many blamed for France's decline on the global auctions stage compared to the US and UK.

French auctioneers made it clear that they had the lucrative business of private treaty sales in their sights when they gathered almost two years ago for their national association's annual conference. They wanted to see the implementation of changes proposed in the 2006 European Services Directive, which were adopted by the French Senate in October 2009.

Some auctioneers have found a legal route around the ban in recent years by setting up holding companies to conduct these sales at arm's length, but this has not prevented an asset drain - with the accompanying loss in tax revenues to the French government - across the Channel to London, where no such niceties are necessary.

Private treaty sales are becoming an increasingly attractive option for vendors of high-value goods because they tend to be cheaper, simpler and less time consuming than auctions; sellers often get their money more quickly and their works of art run less risk of being blighted than if they are seen to fail in the glare of the saleroom spotlight.

For auctioneers, private treaty sales create an almost endless new stream of revenue potential at the top end at a time when rising auction commission levels are seen as an increasing barrier to business. Private treaty sales are also generally easier to administer and tend to need less marketing and staff support, allowing for a leaner, faster-moving and more versatile operation.

Sotheby's and Christie's both started to push their achievements in the private treaty sector to the fore some time ago when presenting their results - a sure indication of where they see future battle lines as being drawn. In February Christie's announced £369.3m in private sales for 2010, split between private treaty sales and business conducted by Haunch of Venison, their dealer subsidiary. The company stated that this was a rise of 39% on the previous year and accounted for just over ten per cent of Christie's entire turnover.

Meanwhile Sotheby's 2010 annual report put private treaty sales at the top of the agenda for investors, behind only technology, reporting totals of £327.5m, a slight rise from the £313m taken in 2009, but again representing just over ten per cent of the company's entire turnover.

Indeed, both firms continue to highlight their performance in private treaty sales in their latest sets of figures.

Further changes to the law in France now permit auctioneers to complete after-sales beyond the previous two-week deadline and also to offer guarantees, a highly significant marketing tool in recent years, but a system that all but closed down when the market crashed in late 2008, leaving Sotheby's and Christie's significantly exposed in the short term.

Regulation has also been tightened, however, with real powers to prosecute auction houses in the civil courts given to the Conseil des Ventes, France's industry watchdog.

By Ivan Macquisten

Links: Auctioneers latest figures show private sales on the rise