Hôtel Drouot in Paris intends to reopen on May 25.

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In a major boost to auctions in France, Drouot confirmed its plans to ATG, stating that “it won’t reopen ‘as usual’, as the public will only be welcome upon invitation, wearing a mask and respecting social distancing”.

The move follows a call from French auctioneers’ association Le Syndicat National des Maisons de Ventes Volontaires (SYMEV) for the government to allow auction houses to reopen this month.

Impact assessed

SYMEV has published a report documenting the impact of Covid-19 on its members and a plan for how auction houses can introduce practical measures so members can gradually resume business activity while respecting social distancing measures.

The 18-page document, unveiled on April 28, coincided with an announcement from the French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe.

He unveiled a strategy for bringing a phased end to the nationwide lockdown which is due to be rolled out from May 11, provided certain key criteria are met.

With the French auction sector at a near standstill since March 17 (there have been relatively few online sales), the economics make difficult reading. “The figures for the first half of 2020 are catastrophic,” says the SYMEV report. Turnover has fallen by an average of more than 70%, most forecasts for April and May predict “near zero activity”, and 84% of French auction house employees have been placed on a furlough scheme.

The document concludes by saying that three out of four SYMEV members “believe that if activity does not resume before the end of May, they will not be able to cope economically with this crisis”.

Safe operation

Just how auction houses may operate in the light of new health realities is detailed in a section of the report that focuses on “complete rethinking of the auction process”.

In the hope that the government may be persuaded to lift restrictions from May 11, SYMEV is advocating measures akin to those now operating at many supermarkets. They include a single direction of traffic during viewings, equipping customer reception counters with transparent screens and an emphasis on remote payments. Addressing the difficult issue of consignments and collection, the report advises that items should be dropped off or picked up via an airlocked room without the need for auction house personnel to be present.

“Auctioneers took all the precautions necessary during confinement to protect their staff and customers. [Now] we are rethinking the ways in which we might operate,” said SYMEV president Jean-Pierre Osenat. “It is with this spirit of responsibility that we now wish to reopen viewings and auctions.”