French market: contemporary art takes centre stage in October



The 31st FIAC will take place on 21-25 October at the Porte de Versailles in Paris, and will be attended by 215 galleries – 94 of them new – from 20 countries. This internationally famous art fair is without doubt the essential meeting place in France for contemporary art collectors, professionals and aficionados. It showcases works by established French artists, such as Robert COMBAS, BEN and Claude VIALLAT, as well as providing the opportunity to start a collection by purchasing the work of a promising young artist. Houses such as Cornette de Saint Cyr and Artcurial also use the event to hold specialist auctions.

Faced with international competition and the immense buying power of American and English collectors, France gives the impression of being the poor relation of the contemporary art world. The price levels of foreign artists outstrip those of their French counterparts, even the most well known.

In the contemporary art sphere, a real gap has appeared between the French market and the UK and US markets. The figures speak for themselves. Fifty percent of contemporary paintings sold in France change hands for less than EUR 500, whereas in the United States, the median price in this segment is USD 20,000.
So far this year, the highest price paid for a US contemporary artwork has been for a Jeff KOONS sculpture, Jim Beam J.B Turner Train (1986), which on 11 May went under the hammer for USD 4.5 million at Christie’s New York. A total of seven contemporary artworks have exceeded the one million dollar mark. This price category includes works by Jean-Michel BASQUIAT, Maurizio CATTELAN and Jack VETTRIANO, but does not extend beyond the US and UK markets. In France, the record for a Basquiat is held by a drawing entitled Tesla vs Edison (1983), which fetched EUR 27,000 at Artcurial on 8 June 2004, compared with the USD 1.9 million obtained at Sotheby’s the previous month for the same artist’s Low pressure Zone. It seems that Basquiat’s paintings are now too expensive for the French market.

Another key fact is that the most significant contemporary artworks sold in France are put up for auction by US and UK auction houses. Apart from the paintings of American artists Julian SCHNABEL and Eric FISCHL sold by Sotheby’s in Vence on 18 July 2004 as part of the Nahon collection, no contemporary work of art has reached the EUR 100,000 threshold. The best result at Christie’s was achieved by a Tomás SANCHEZ canvas – Meditador y un canal (1995) which sold for EUR 90,000 on 10 June 2004. France’s leading auction house, Chochon-Barré-Allardi, managed only 6th place in the rankings of the most expensive contemporary paintings sold in France, bringing the hammer down on a Daniel RICHTER canvas for EUR 61,000 on 12 May this year.

Top 10 of Contemporary Artists* sold at French Auctions : 1st Half 2004*artists born after 1940NationalityRankArtistAuction Turnover (France)Lots sold (France)1COMBAS Robert€332,120 522SCHNABEL Julian€313,000 43PALADINO Mimmo€148,300 44PINCEMIN Jean-Pierre€142,440 155SANCHEZ REQUEIRO Tomas€141,000 36VENET Bernar€135,050 127FISCHL Eric€130,000 18CANE Louis€111,050 129KOSUTH Joseph€110,000 110CHIA Sandro€67,600 4

It makes even worse reading when we look at French artists. The most expensive French canvas sold so far this year is Robert COMBAS‘s La fiancée de Belmondo, which went for EUR 30,000 at Cornette de Saint Cyr. The same painting fetched the equivalent of EUR 69,000 in 1990 at Poulain-Le Fur! Next in the rankings are YAN Pei-Ming with the EUR 23,500 sale of L’homme invisible (1997) and Isabelle DURET-DUJARRIC (EUR 23,000).

Results of this order make it difficult for the French auction houses to establish a foothold in the international arena. The price segments covered by the French auction houses are too low for them to gain a significant presence in the rankings of contemporary art sales by turnover. Based on the auctions held between 1 July 2003 and 30 June 2004, France accounts for just 4.6% of the market in artists born after 1940, compared with 7.7% for all eras combined. Modern art and 19th century paintings remain the spearhead of the French auction houses.

In purely financial terms, contemporary art generates lower returns than the rest of the art market. Over the last twelve months, the prices of works by artists born after 1940 have risen by 4.59%, while the EUR Artprice Index for the market as a whole is 7.72% higher. EUR 100 invested in a contemporary painting 10 years ago is today worth on average EUR 136 compared to EUR 146 for the market as a whole. Another negative is that 41.4% of contemporary paintings put up for auction in France in the first half of 2004 were bought in, as against 37.4% in 2003, and only 16% in the USA. This shows that as well as offering lower returns than other categories, contemporary art in France looks to be a rather risky investment.