BUYING at auction in France might seem an intimidating prospect for the uninitiated but probably the most daunting aspect is deciding to cross the threshold and have a go, writes Simon Hewitt.
Once inside on sale day you will find that what seemed arcane and baffling has its own method. But there are a few things worth knowing before you get there.
France’s auction system, dates back to 1556 but a reform in 2001, attempted to modernise it. One aspect of the reform was that it allowed French auctioneers, hitherto state-appointed officials, to become commercial operators.
It is still very much a bureaucratic set-up in the Gallic tradition but the plus side is that, because auctioneers were considered to be performing a public service, you’re never very far from one.
While the majority of sales in Paris are catalogued, in the provinces it’s the other way round, most have little more than a printed sheet. And not all are staged in salerooms: many are held on the premises of companies that have gone bust and everything must go, furniture, computers, merchandise… the lot!
Your best way to find out about these sales is the auctioneer’s notice-board and the local press.
Communication remains cursory in the smaller firms, and staff who speak English are the exception rather than the rule. If there is a catalogue, treat description with circumspection: auctioneers can be sued for mistakes for up to ten years after the sale, which can lead to some very cautious wording and attributions.
Reserves (the minimum price at which the vendor is prepared to sell) cannot be higher than the lower end of the published estimate (a price range given to indicate the potential value of a lot). But in the absence of reserves, estimates tend to have scant connection with market reality.
In addition to the sum bid at the fall of the hammer, purchases at auction attract additional charges such as a buyer’s premium and VAT (TVA). In France buyer’s premiums tend to hover around 20%. Most firms quote the full (tax-inclusive) figure, but some don’t, so an extra 19.6% VAT must be added. Involuntary, ‘court order’ sales (usually bankrupt stock etc) have a mandatory, lower, premium of just 10.76%.
Most auctions are held in the afternoon, with viewing in the morning and the day before. In Paris, sales are seldom staged on Saturday, and never on Sunday. In the provinces, most sales are held on Sunday. They are often very well-attended, and a regular afternoon outing for the local bourgeoisie.
At Drouot, the purpose-built premises where many Parisian auction firms choose to hold their sales and viewings, display showcases are sometimes opened only on the morning of the sale.
The auctioneer directs the sale but, always at Drouot, and sometimes in the provinces, is assisted by a crieur (bid-spotter). Auctioneers must pronounce the word adjugé if a lot is sold; the fall of the gavel has no significance, and is often used to suggest an item has been sold when it hasn’t.
A paddle (raquette) is seldom used by bidders except at the biggest sales but, if you intend to bid, it will save considerable hassle if you register beforehand, preferably at the viewing.
First-time buyers are requested to provide one or sometimes two documents proving identity, e.g. passport and driving-licence. Payment can be made by cash (up to €3000), cheque (if you have a French bank account), credit card (in the more go-ahead salerooms), or bank transfer.
Bank details are needed in advance if you leave a commission (absentee) bid or bid by telephone (some firms insist telephone bids be confirmed by email during the sale.)
Firms prefer goods to be collected during or straight after the auction, and they may (or at Drouot, will) charge for storage if you delay. If you bid by phone or commission, your goods will not be shipped until payment (e.g. bank transfer) has been confirmed.
Naturally, everything takes place in euros and… French.
Useful Words To Know
1. enchère = bid (aux enchères = at auction, enchérisseur = bidder)
2. commissaire-priseur = auctioneer
3. étude = auction firm
4. frais = premium
5. crieur (aboyeur) = bid-spotter
6. SVV = société de ventes volontaires (commercial auction house)
7. ventes courantes = uncatalogued sales
8. vente judiciaire = court-order sale
9. Anglo-Saxon = the English-speaking world (often used as short-hand for Christies/Sotheby’s)
10. TTC = toutes taxes comprises (tax included, ref. to 19.6% VAT charged on buyer’s premium
11. expert = a specialist called in to catalogue the sale.
Simon Hewitt has written for the Antique Trade Gazette.