Image by xiquinhosilva via Flickr
11 December 2009
Paris Art Market Buzz
By columnist Paul Paradis, Art Historian, Specialist Consultant in French Furniture and Decorative Arts.
The art world in Paris was shaken by a police raid at the Hôtel Drouot Tuesday of last week. According to the French press, the office responsible for monitoring illicit trade in cultural artifacts (OCBC) had been observing Drouot for the past ten months based on suspicion that works of art were “disappearing” during inventories and shipments. The police arrested twelve people on suspicion of organized trafficking of works of art, including one Commissaire Priseur (auctioneer) and 8 members of the union of commissionaires (UCHV), those responsible for moving and storage of the works of art as well as the day to day functioning of the auctions. One source mentioned that a judge had requested an extension of the usual holding period for several of them.
The 110 commissionaires are a distinctly French phenomenon, the remnant of the corporatist system established centuries before. They wear a Mao-like uniform of dark grey with a red collar, each bearing a distinct number. Sharing equal stakes in the profits of the company, they are all from the Savoie region of France exclusively. (People commonly refer to them as the Savoyards.) Benefitting from a de facto monopoly since1860, the agents pass down their posts between family members at village level. They basically run the show at Drouot despite their status as manual support staff, and one has the impression that the auctioneers would prefer not to cross them.
The Hôtel Drouot, Paris
The articles I read concerning the arrest all seem to skirt around
the topic as if there were some kind of conspiracy. The left-leaning daily Libération is the bluntest in its direct allegations that the Savoyards have been running a scam for years and that
everybody knows it. The paper
alleges that small items (jewels, books, wine) tend to “disappear” during the
process of on-site inventories and transport and that there is some sort of
tacit complicity in the process.
One should keep in mind that Libé (like many papers) loves a scandal and that perhaps this assessment is
a bit harsh. On the other hand,
the police did find a painting by the French 19th century master of
realism Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), Paysage marin sous ciel d’orage (Seascape under a stormy sky) during their raid. The
work is estimated at €900, 000.
Here is where the story becomes even more opaque. Apparently, the painting was reported
missing only 10 months ago, although it was stolen in 2004. The police also seized other allegedly
stolen objects from the warehouse of the commissionaires including small objects, drawings, paintings and
watches according to one police source.
More than 100 storage containers were sealed by court order.
Paysage marin sous ciel d’orage, Gustave Courbet, 1869. (Photo: La Voix du Nord)
The entire affair is confusing and troubling. I spoke to a friend who is a commissaire priseur while admiring a gilt-bronze and thuya wood guéridon attributed to Adam Weisweiler (1744-1820) up for auction the next day. In his view this scandal is a horrible blow to the Paris art market which has slowly regained its elusive prestige over the past five years, culminating in the historic Yves Saint Laurent Pierre Bergé sale last February. Drouot is an odd animal, the largest “auction house” in France, although its structure based on an agglomeration of tiny houses is very different from the Christie’s and Sotheby’s models. The president of Drouot Holding, the umbrella company for the house, refused to comment stating that he would wait until all of the elements of the investigation were in. Perhaps this is a wise decision.
A Bizarre Ménagerie
The Saturday after Thanksgiving I
strolled through the salerooms at Drouot and found the most odd presale
exhibition. The double-room was
loaded with animals and creatures of every sort, sculptures, mounted dinosaur
bones, fossils, wildlife photos and paintings. The mixture was quite effective: a life-size baby giraffe
with his spindly legs stretched forward, as if about to attempt to stand, immediately
attracted my attention. Upon
closer inspection, I realized that the giraffe, despite its lifelike allure,
was made entirely of the rubber stripped of tires of all sizes. His glassy gaze was more than
convincing. The work was by a sculptor
names Serge Van De Put (b. 1958) and was estimated at € 20,000 - 25,000. It went unsold. A fossilized ammonite (prehistoric sea
creature) from the Jurassic period sliced in half to reveal its mica-like
petrified interior and mounted on a handsome black pedestal created the mystique
of a work of modern art. It sold
for €3,200. On another wall, a
tall black slap revealing the imprint of a delicate prehistoric “sea lily” frozen
in time for millions of years looked almost like the negative of a modern
Baby giraffe, by Serge Van de Put (b. 1958)
Fossilized ammonite from the Jurassic Period, Russia.
Raised platforms in the centre of
the room presented sculptures and an almost macabre mixture of animal parts
re-concocted by contemporary artists.
Small lambs, one with the head of a duck protruding from its behind and
another with a bird’s head on its face, peered at me with knowing stares. They were entitled Mafia III and Mafia I, by Thomas Monin (b. 1973), neither found a buyer. A terrifying creature composed of 8
real horses’ legs resembling a tarantula crawling out of a scene from the Land
of the Lost or an Edgar Allen Poe nightmare
made me shiver as I wondered whether it was a chair or a sculpture, or whether
it really mattered. The work,
also by Monin was estimated at €7,800 - 8,800 and did not find a buyer.
Near the exit, a bronze baboon by Florence Jacquesson (b. 1962) seemed to ponder a brightly colored modern painting with giraffes and butterflies, wisely stroking his chin at the spectacle.
Baboon, by Florence Jacquesson (b.1962)
This seemed to be “theme” day with another room featuring marine related items from sextants to mahogany chests and seascapes. Another presented only perfume bottles (many empty) of all sizes shapes and colors from the 1920s to the present. The French are collectors of everything, from the decorated tin tops of champagne corks to public telephone cards, and as this day’s exhibits were a good example. One of the perfume bottles was particularly unusual and naughtily “non- PC”. It depicted a caricature of a presumably African “native” standing next to a steel pot over a flame, spear in hand, topped by a headdress and clothed in a grass skirt. Oversized hoop earrings and wide eyes render the piece grotesque despite its effort to be cute. I was only slightly relieved to see that the perfume was from the 1950s, Italian. This little treasure made €2,400 at the auction. I guess that taste has no price.