The French art world got some unexpectedly positive news this week: The Conseil des Ventes Volontaires, which regulates and tracks the French auction market, announced in a press release that French auction sales totaled €2.4 billion ($3.2 billion) last year, an increase of 8.6 percent from 2010. In fact, it's the biggest total since the organization started keeping track in 2003 — even beating 2009, which saw the "sale of the century," when the Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé collection hit the auction block.
This boom will be compared with other international auction totals when they are released in June. But, in the meantime, "these results reveal the flourishing health of the French market overall," Catherine Chadelat, president of the Conseil des Ventes Volontaires, told Le Figaro. One tendency that is visible in the results is the strength of the "art and collectible objects" category, which includes wines and spirits, and saw total sales of €1.25 billion ($1.7 billion), an increase of 9.4 percent over last year.
Hôtel Drouot, an umbrella group of 74 independent auction houses, represented 47.33 percent of the French sales total (showing that it has recovered from the scandal in which artworks were stolen by the storage and transportation company that Drouot used). The two biggest players in France, Christie's and Sotheby's, had 19.19 and 18.26 percent of the market, respectively, and the growing French company Artcurial took home 11.40 percent. Christie's saw several high-level charity auctions last year, including the 150th auction of Burgundy wine for the Hospices de Beaune (a historic hospital). Artcurial achieved some historic records in 2011, such as Nicolas de Staël's "Reclining Nude" (1954), which fetched €7 million ($9.4 million) in December — the highest price for a work of art at auction in France in 2011.
Paradoxically, the financial crisis has made the luxury market more dynamic, as buyers focus on safe investments like rare objects from prestigious collections. More ordinary objects are no longer welcomed at auction houses, and instead fill up flea markets, fairs, and garage sales. Alongside the art market, other luxury sectors are developing, especially in the provinces. Antique cars and industrial equipment are very hot, and brought in €1 billion ($1.3 billion) in 2011. Also, major Arab clients are returning to France to buy horses, after the timing of Ramadan kept them away from the yearling sales in 2010. The French thoroughbred market saw sales of €109 million ($146 million) last year, and the French city of Deauville is now the world capital for this sector.