France’s top three auctioneers, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Artcurial have all posted annual turnover growth for 2016 suggesting that the country’s art market has resisted the international turmoil relatively well.
With a total of €220 million (all sales combined), Sotheby’s France has posted its best annual turnover since it opened in France. Sotheby’s produced France’s best result for an artwork this year (excluding antiques and anonymous works) with Squelette arrêtant masques, a painting by James Ensor created in 1891 which had remained in the same family for nearly a century. Recently rediscovered, this oil painting of 30 by 50 centimeters was presented with an estimate of €1 – 1.5 million and was finally hammered for more than €7.3 million ($7.82 million) setting a new auction record for the artist. In addition to this historic result, the auctioneer’s success this year was largely driven by its Contemporary Art department which totalled €56.7 million of which more than €13.4 million came from two paintings by Pierre Soulages and a new auction record for Simon HANTAÏ. Thanks to Sotheby’s sale on 6 December 2016, the master of “outre-noir” [beyond black] paintings among others (Soulages), signed his two best-ever art results on French soil (Painting 162 x 130 cm, 14 December 1958 fetched €5.22 million [$5.5 million] and Painting 195 x 130 cm, 7 March 1958 fetched €3.7 million [$3.99 million]). The better of the two results gave Pierre Soulages third place in France’s Fine Art auction ranking for 2016, while Simon Hantaï’s new record of €4.432 million (over $4.7 million) for « M.A.4 (Mariale) », takes 4th place after easily doubling its high estimate at the same sale. Sotheby’s France, with two thirds of its buyers registered as foreign, was nevertheless beaten by Christie’s annual total of €244.6 million.
According to Christie’s, the three keys to the Parisian market’s success are provenance prestige, high-quality works and market ‘newness’. Its 2016 total of €244.6 million was up 4.2% versus 2015. Christie’s therefore remains leader of the French Fine Art auction market with its second best-ever annual performance after 2009 (year of the famous Yves Saint Laurent/Pierre Bergé sale).
To boost its chances of success, Christie’s organizes its sales to coincide with major Parisian art events such as the FIAC and the Drawing Fair. The Paris Avant-Garde sale, organized during the FIAC on 20 October, generated €20.5 million. The section devoted to the sale of Claude Berri’s collection was particularly well-received with a Monogold Sans titre (MG 44) by Yves Klein fetching $1.3 million and a 3-meter masterpiece by Jannis KOUNELLIS (Untitled, 1960) fetched $1.7 million ($500,000 above its high estimate). Indeed Christie’s success owes much to the sale of private collections with elements being offered to the public this year from no less than twelve collections including those of Zeineb Marcie and Jean-Pierre Rivière, Claude Berri and Alain Delon (12 animal bronzes by Rembrandt Bugatti). The same sale (20 October) also saw a Joan Miro gouache from the Bernard Monnier collection fetch four times its high estimate for a hammer price of €2 million ($2.2 million). Alberto Giacometti’s lampe coupe aux deux figures from the same collection also demolished its estimate of $200,000 – $300,000 when it fetched $1 million. On the same day, a Hans Arp painted relief from the Louis Aragon collection fetched €458,500 ($503,000). But Christie’s best result of the year was generated by a Francis Bacon painting entitled Man in Blue VII(1954), a sombre canvas from 1954, which sold within its estimated range for €6 million ($9 million).
The most recent Parisian sales on 7 and 8 December were also successful generating €16.6 million ($17.8 million) with 84% of the lots sold and 42% of these fetching above their average estimated price-range. A painting by Jean Dubuffet, « Trime burine », (1961) flirted with €3 million on December 7 signing the artist’s third best result in France. His world auction record dates back to 11 May 2015 when his Paris-Polka fetched the equivalent of €22.1 million ($24.8 million) at Christie’s New York where the most prestigious paintings are usually sold.
The French auctioneer Artcurial has little reason to be envious of its English and American heavyweight rivals in France having earned a very respectable third place with an annual turnover of €210.1 million, up 10% on 2015 and above the 200 million bar for the first time in its history. Its recent Modern and Contemporary Art sales (between 28 November and 6 December 2016) produced a total of €13 million and thirteen new auction records for artists like Claude Gilli, Gérard Deschamps, Martin Barré, Bruno Peinado and Saâdane Afif. It also managed to sell a set of 45 drawings by the Franco-Chinese artist Sanyu for nearly €480,000 ($518,000), no doubt boosted by its Asian buyers who represented 80% of the company’s turnover in 2016. Founded in 2002, Artcurial is putting all its efforts into international development (with a presence in Asia, Italy, Austria and Germany notably). This is clearly an effective strategy because in 2016, 44% of its buyers were new clients. There were also better turnover figures from other French auctioneers like Cornette de Saint-Cyr (+ 12% at €34.5 million), Millon (+ 11.5%) and Leclere, which has grown its turnover 2.5x in two years.
In an increasingly competitive environment, France remains the epicenter of Old Europe’s market. It beats Germany and Italy by a long way, but remains in fourth place a long way behind the United States, the United Kingdom and Greater China (including Hong Kong). Faced with a drop in global activity representing hundreds of millions of dollars, the French art market has shown strong resilience, driven by a high-quality offer and the internationalization of its clientele.