In my time at the American University of Paris, I shadowed and subsequently wrote about a guided visit of famous auction house Christie’s in Paris. The original “Studies for the World” piece can be found on aup.edu.
Professor Meaghan Scott‘s class for Art and the Market had several unique opportunities this spring, among them a visit to Christie’s, the famous art auction house, led by Simon de Monicault, the director of the furniture department. Communications Coordinator Marie Rousseau joined the class on the visit and shares her experience.
As we enter into the central room of “Le Goût Français” (The French Taste) the upcoming sale exhibit on decorative arts from the 13th to the 19th century, our guide informs us that before paintings took over in the early 20th century, decorative arts were the preferred art form.
“Selling art is an intricate business,” he explains. First, the seller establishes a reserve price, which is a price under which he or she will not sell the art work. At an auction, an auction house like Christie’s will bid on behalf of the seller until the reserve price is reached.
De Monicault motions over to a pair of candelabras estimated between 200 and 300,000 euros. There is also a question of strategy on part of the auction house. For example, with period furniture and art objects, a choice often has to be made as to whether to keep identical pieces together or not. This decision is made all the more difficult when there are, say, four identical chairs. Should they be sold as an ensemble or in sets of two? Indeed people no longer desire matching furniture and it is imperative to cater to current taste in interior design.
A student observing the candelabras
Our guide beckons us over into another room and pulls out a rare piece: a mirror and book holder that belonged to Caroline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger sister. Provenance is incredibly important in the art market. “Napoleon enthusiasts would definitely find this item of interest,” de Monicault adds.
Christie’s also has a wealth of contacts and tools it can draw on to promote a sale. For example, for the sale of a cabinet estimated at a million euros, it is possible to organize a VIP dinner with say, Hubert de Givenchy, as an event around the sale. It is also possible to showcase works in its various galleries all around the world: from New York to Shanghai. Christie’s prestige is an essential asset in bringing together all the means to make a sale successful.
We walk into another room, this time containing a large Louis XIV style wooden desk. De Monicault explains that correctly assessing the origin of a piece is crucial: for example an original of this type of piece is worth 2 to 3 million whereas a copy is worth about 40, 000 euros. When a potential seller contacts Christie’s, its experts first ask for pictures. Then, if the piece seems of interest, they go to see it in person to determine exactly what it is and how much it is worth. “Christie’s job is to be as knowledgeable as possible,” de Monicault underlines. Indeed its work requires dealing with many different pieces with the help of talented experts.
The Louis XIV style wooden desk
“When it comes to paintings,” he continues, “things are very structured.” There is often a catalogue raisonné, a comprehensive listing of all the known works of an artist, and institutions like Christie’s need to subcontract the decision about authenticity to a committee. He adds, “It’s impossible to sell a Picasso if you don’t have the necessary Picasso reference!” Old master paintings are the hardest to authenticate; even experts and museum curators change their minds. However jewelry is much easier.
As we come to one of the last rooms, de Monicault explains that Christie’s likes to expose contemporary paintings along with period furniture to show potential buyers that it is possible to blend periods and styles.
The internet has vastly changed the art market landscape: 5 to 10 years ago Christie’s communicated with its clients solely through its bi-annual paper catalogue. Nowadays Christie’s produces an e-catalog and even has online-only sales on its website. As a result, on top of bidding in person and over the phone, clients can now bid for millions of euros online. Just this April, Christie’s organized an online-only Andy Warhol sale.
Simon de Monicault (left) adding the final touches to the exhibit
As our visit draws to a close, a student asks about the difference between the art market in France and the U.S. De Monicault takes a second to think. “French buyers are more discrete,” he remarks, “and France has more stringent laws with regards to art conservation.” For example, before each sale, museum experts come in to estimate pieces and assess whether they are “of national interest.” If they are, the State makes an offer at a fair market price and replaces the final bidder. In the U.S. museums have to bid on works of art by themselves.
We bid adieu to our graceful guide for the day and file down the large marble staircase and back onto the Parisian streets. We have become art in the market experts in our own right.
* All pictures courtesy of Christie’s Paris.