In December I wrote about a typical English provincial auction house, the century-old and now third- and fourth-generation Hartleys Auctioneers and Valuers in Yorkshire. There can be no French equivalent, for three simple reasons.
First, there is no such thing as a typical French auction house. That is because France, socio-geographically, is more like the U.S. than the U.K. The regions, départements (states) and the towns within them are more clearly and individually defined by their own histories, their inhabitants and their costume, cuisine, commerce and industry.
France was unified only 300 years ago. Until then, and for some time after, it was the regional Dukes who held the real power, not the King. Her borders and alliances were constantly being rewritten – in the early 1800s (by Napoleon), in the 1830s (when Belgium was created) and in the 1870s, 1914-19 and 1939-45 (wars with Germany). Sometimes areas are defined by their very language. For example, there is a district in the town of Saint-Omer where a form of Dutch is still spoken – 700 years after the French fought there with the Flemish.
French wardrobes are large – this 7 foot tall one is a typical example. A good shipper will know how to fill it with other purchases.
Not only does every part of France have its own flavor, all auctioneers add a few ingredients of their own. Do you register, with or without ID, before, during or after bidding? At what point do you hand them any security – and should it be a blank check, your passport or driving license or a 50-euro bill? Are the lots numbered, sequentially, or by the vendor’s code, or not at all? Who takes the initial bids – the porter or the auctioneer? I’ve bought or sold at maybe 20 auctions throughout France and found no two quite the same. You must establish the ground rules if you don’t want your prized lot to slip away from under your raised hand …
In England, anyone can be an auctioneer. There is no required educational standard, nor are there any dedicated qualifications.
To be an auctioneer in France you have to complete a seven-year course of dedicated studies and work experience. Furthermore, graduation at auctioneer level is competitive; 150 hopefuls may successfully complete their studies in subjects including valuation, art history and law. They are then faced with five oral examinations by the Louvre Museum, French Court of Appeal and the Paris auction premises Hôtel Drouot – including the appraisal and valuation of items recently sold. Only the top 25 qualify as auctioneers. That’s how tough it is.
Even when fully qualified, every auctioneer has to apply to the local authorities for a license to operate in that particular town or county. Another applicant, better suited – application refused. So, the French auctioneer cannot automatically be followed by his son in this noble profession, though he does have the right to nominate his successor.
On being licensed to practice, the French auctioneer uses the title Maître (loosely translated, master), shared only with lawyers and some high-ranking government officials. It reflects the fact that he has been examined by the French Court of Appeal and has been licensed to perform quasi-judicial functions such as appraisals and valuations on bankruptcies or inheritances – crucially important under French law, where estates must be shared equally among the children. Some are matter-of-fact about their titles, others can be very prickly; “Bonjour maître” is always the safest greeting.
These levels of qualification, professionalism and status, and the fact that an auctioneer may have been the only one in town for 20 years or more, give him the same kind of position in the community as the local mayor, headmaster, doctor, judge, fire and police chiefs or the president of the local chamber of trade. So, when dealing with a French auctioneer, you have every right to expect to be in a safe pair of hands.
The role of “l’expert”
Small auction houses just can’t support teams of specialist appraisers. Outside his own areas of expertise, the auctioneer can call upon one of 400 or so experts – similarly examined and qualified to himself. You’ll see the names of any experts used on the front of the catalog, or at the head of that section of the sale – e.g. ceramics or jewelry. Under French law, both auctioneer and expert are personally liable for their work for a period of five years.
Don’t worry if your French is a little rusty – though it will help if you can count to 1,000. The porters will hold up or point clearly at the lot under the hammer. You need to pay constant attention because sometimes the lots aren’t sequentially numbered, but the auctioneer will have a good idea what time they are likely to come up.
Bidding can be painfully slow, around 70 lots per hour is the norm. If asked to call out your name then it’s easier to use something they will understand – I’ve used “David” (a French surname) in the past.
Unlike in the U.K., no opinions are offered about product safety – whether electrical goods are wired to present standards or if fabrics comply with fire-retardant regulations.
Buyer’s premiums are around 20 percent. The seller’s commission is around 15 percent, negotiable depending on the size of the consignment. Additional taxes may apply to French residents selling higher-value items, particularly bullion.
This 19th century oak Normandy wardrobe, 7’ high, was $1500 on the day. A good price there and then, but what about airline charges for excess baggage?
Meet Maître Patrick Fourquet, Saint-Omer (population 16,000, light industry, agriculture)
Maître Patrick Fourquet is both old school and new. He qualified in 1976 and has practiced in Saint-Omer since 1977 – the premises having housed auctions since 1875. He was the second French auctioneer to introduce IT systems into his auction house. That was in 1983, the year in which France Telecom introduced Minitel, an on-screen information service among their own customers – a predecessor to the Internet and still running strong.
Nowadays, Me (abbreviation for Maître) Fourquet has one of the best Web sites around. His online fine art and antiques sales catalogs are well illustrated by his own use of an upper-end Canon digital camera. That catalog encourages bidding from further afield, notably from Italy and Greece – by telephone, but not by live Internet bidding. Me Fourquet has found the Internet invaluable – seven telephone bidders recently pushed up a painting by the Russian artist Ivan Choultsé to around $62,000 after premium.
With French provincial auction houses being defined by locality, auctioneers in neighboring towns are more colleagues than competitors. Etude (office) Fourquet often shares resources, expertise and even catalog sales with Etude Girard in Dunkerque (Dunkirk). Me Fourquet also subscribes to interencheres.com, the indispensible online resource for all French auction houses.
Me Fourquet has an even-handed attitude to eBay and other auction sites. Yes, like Andrew Hartley in England, he often finds himself being used as an unpaid appraiser for eBay consignments. “But the items in question can end up in my saleroom after all. I once gave an opinion about a limited edition model of a Citroën car. It did nothing on eBay, but was bid to $3,000 in my saleroom – and I’m sure that had something to do with the high level of consumer confidence in the French auction system.”
Me Fourquet holds 200-300 lot general sales each Monday afternoon, with viewing on the Saturday and morning of the sale. Finer cataloged sales (350-400 lots) are held on a Sunday, every month or two. Typically sized (small), the atmosphere reflects that of provincial auctions throughout France. On that note, get to any weekend or evening sale early if you want a seat. Otherwise you’ll be standing in the doorway, peering over the heads of people who regularly attend local sales purely for the entertainment.
Any anecdotes? “Family sales spring to mind. You have to be a diplomat – the fact that it was their great-grandmother’s doesn’t necessarily make it 200 years old, that kind of thing. Competing relatives can be interesting. One family agreed not to slug it out in the saleroom. Four of them all wanted some of the furniture, but were so astonished at the prices being realized that they happily settled for the money instead. Another family went to war over a modest silver napkin ring and forced it up to $250. So many napkin rings were brought in the next week …”
Me Fourquet runs at up to 180 lots per hour – a sprinter by French standards, and still quick at his more usual 80-120. His own expertise is in books and ceramics. Free valuations on Saturday afternoons. Shipping can be arranged, the insurance being the buyer’s responsibility immediately on sale. The next fine catalog sale is on March 29, at 165 rue de Dunkerque, 62500 Saint-Omer. 0033 3 21 93 23 11 (English spoken) and etudefourquet.com. Etude Fourquet’s Web site also gives details of local hotels and services.
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