I have been in the art market trade for some 26 years! Making a living out of it, not counting the years of volunteering and observation! I am familiar with auction houses, as I was the director of one! Not a single person I know and who works for an auction house would happily welcome this absurd French situation where auction houses are open to the public, organizing exhibitions, when we, galleries, have been shut down!
Are we any different in the face of Covid prevention? Certainly not! As an example, here is a description of the protocol we apply in our gallery:
- Matignon: only 5 people are admitted at a time in addition to the staff (42 m² public / 8);
- Seine: only 3 people are admitted at a time in addition to the staff on the ground floor (26 m² public / 8);
- Visitors are asked to maintain a physical distance of a minimum of 1 metre between people present in the gallery;
- Wearing masks is compulsory for everybody who are either in possession of their own mask or are provided with one free of charge by the gallery;
- The main door of the gallery is controlled by the personnel in order to limit the number of visitors;
- On entry to the gallery, visitors are invited to help themselves to anti-bacterial gel from a dispenser at their disposal;
- Delivery men and messengers (other than those delivering works of art) remain on the doorstep and do not enter the gallery;
- A notice on the door clearly visible from the street, lays out all these rules.
Are we competitors? We certainly are! And here is why:
- Our client-vendors are the same: They are free to choose to sell their works either at auction or privately (auction houses or galleries);
- Our client-buyers are the same: they can either buy at auction or privately from galleries (or via auction houses as these establishments are also entitled to sell privately on the same premises as that on which their auctions are carried-out!);
- Promotional activities such as exhibitions on premises accessible to the public are exactly the same, as is the publication of catalogues;
- Out of the 3.37 billion Euros sold at auction in 2019 in France, all sectors included, 1 billion Euros were produced by the « Art and antiquities » sector, namely, precisely the sector of competition. Christie’s (200 M€), Sotheby’s (289 M€), Artcurial (161 M€), and Drouot (302 M€ for 60 auction houses) all situated in Paris and almost exclusively dedicated to this sector, sold 952 million Euros, or 95,2 % of the French total, in Paris! Yet the galleries, or at least those who are members of the art dealers associations, are mostly situated in the capital. Yet have I not taken into account private sales carried-out by the auction houses, nor those of lots sold abroad in London, New York or Hong Kong that originate from France!
- As to the other sectors that sell at auction in France – « second-hand vehicles, industrial material » or « horses » -, the private vendors in these segments are, as opposed to art galleries, all authorized to open to the public!
- Judiciary sales are under the authority of legal officers and thus cannot be defined as competitive as they are protected by a monopoly!
Is there, in this context, a logic to the decision that led to the closing down of art galleries and the permission for French auction houses to continue to receive the public? As far as I am concerned, none, but there is an explanation:
- Firstly, for historical and structural reasons, auction houses are supervised by a different ministerial authority to the galleries;
- Secondly, as I have often explained, the art-market is a difficult domain for political decision-makers to grasp. I am not therefore in a position to blame them, especially when choices these days are certainly amongst the most complex since the Cuban crisis in 1962 (which really only concerned France remotely …)! The art market is counter-intuitive by nature! Rarity does not always define the price (it is often the contrary…)! Clients are buyers and also… vendors. Those, as opposed to common belief, are not suppliers! The State benefits from importing artworks and they lose-out from exporting them! Much different from all other economic sectors, isn’t it?! Art galleries are the clients of these auction houses….who are their competitors!
Make of that what you will….but for heaven’s sake, open up the galleries!