Auctioneering in Paris

For Guy Loudmer, one of Paris's leading auctioneers, the globe is his office and the telephone his constant companion as he tracks down rare and beautiful objects for his exhibitions and sales -- but it's a business he enjoys. `To succeed in this business you must love objects, love handling them, and love learning more about them as you channel them to new owners.' VENDU (sold)! That's the magic word for Guy Loudmer, a one-time teacher of law who turned his talents to auctioneering.

As one of France's leading auctioneers, Mr. Loudmer has sold literally tons of objects from countless countries to bidders who travel to Paris from the globe's far corners. They gather en masse in the capital city's L'H^otel Drouot to partake of that particular brand of excitement that surrounds the selling of treasures from other eras.

The Drouot provides the perfect atmosphere -- although only eight years old, the building was constructed to look like an old mansion and was built on the site of the original l852 auction headquarters. Its interior houses 16 auction rooms rented by Paris's auctioneers for exhibitions and sales.

Today, as head of the second-ranking firm in Paris, Loudmer averages 25 to 30 sales a year, with a turnover last year of about 100 million francs (about $30 million US). The top firm, Ader-Picard-Tajan, does about twice that annual volume. Although there are 330 auction firms in France, those in Paris represent about 50 percent of the total French market.

``To succeed in this business you must love objects, love handling them, and love learning more about them as you channel them to new owners,'' says Loudmer, who's one of 70 government-authorized auctioneers working in Paris today.

Although he was trained as a lawyer and taught law, Loudmer never wanted to practice law. He wanted to be an auctioneer, which meant being nominated by the Department of Justice, passing a stiff examination, and buying an entitlement to practice, similar to buying a seat on the stock exchange.

``When I entered the market two decades ago,'' he recalls, ``I had to start with new markets and new consignors and find new buyers. So I went out to many countries, meeting people and peddling my own abilities. I went first to Japan in 1968 and still go there several times a year, as well as to the US and many other countries.'' The scope of his business keeps him on transoceanic phone calls or flights much of the time. (He also does all the auctioneering for the firm.)

Explaining his method of operation, he says, ``I run and I fight. I run to all parts of the world to find goods to sell and to build a good mailing list of prospective buyers.'' And he fights, he explains, to keep his fees competitive. Loudmer takes art works and objects only on consignment. When an object is eventually sold at auction, he receives approximately 8 percent from the seller and 3 to 9 percent from the buyer; the more valuable an item, the lower the percentage from the buyer.

At an interview in his book-filled office, Loudmer presides at an antique English breakfast table in lieu of an executive desk. With a wave of the hand he explains that he refers daily to his hundreds of books on art. He is his own expert in 19th- and 20th-century paintings and sculpture and calls in outside experts to assess furniture, archaeological objects, and Oriental and Middle Eastern objects such as Islamic ceramics and bronzes.

Twenty years ago, says Loudmer, the chief collectors were in the United States, England, Germany, Switzerland, and France. Then the Portuguese came into the market, followed by the Japanese and the Middle Easterners. Now people in Argentina and Australia are also buying. ``Today collectors in all these countries go where they know something they want is being offered on the market, and that includes Paris. So we are looking at a completely global market.''

Prices used to vary in different auction markets, says Loudmer. ``Now, due to international media information and instant replay of prices, it takes only a short period of time to see an adjustment of prices in all markets.'' Some 1985 highlights from his auctions include Edouard Vuillard's 1910 painting ``Petit D'ejeuner `a Villerville,'' which sold for 3,050,000 francs; Gustave Courbet's ``Le Ruisseau de la Br^eme'' for 2,500,000 francs; a signed charcoal drawing by Odilon Redon called ``Visage de profil,'' which sold for a million French francs; and a rare goldband vase from the 1st century BC, which sold for 850,000 francs.

What does Loudmer see as good buys in the French auction market today?

``Over the next three to five years in France, I should say that paintings from the French School of Paris, both before and after World War II, could be good buys. One can still make good purchases, especially in the School of Paris after the war, because that school had a number of painters whose talents are more and more being recognized. There are many good artists of this period, including Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulages, Serge Poliakoff, and Jean Bazaine. Right now, paintings by these artists are bringing from 300,000 to 600,000 francs, and I think they will go higher and higher because in the history of the period they are very talented and very important.'' He considers these French painters comparable to American abstract painters of the 1950s, such as Jackson Pollock, Adolf Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, and Franz Kline, whose work commands far higher prices today.

France, he says, has long been -- and still is -- one of the most important producers of art in the world. ``I am still dealing largely in French-produced art,'' he notes. For instance, his April 7 auction sale will feature Impressionists and 20th-century art, including works by Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso. He is not dealing much in French furniture, however, because ``prices are very high now, especially for the first quality furniture.''

Part of this, he explains, is because the whole thinking behind the disposal of estates has changed. ``People are far more aware of the value of family collections, so it is not so usual for us to be offered the entire contents of a great mansion. After all, one important Renoir painting in a house may sell for $2 million or $3 million, which could be three times the value of the mansion itself. This means that many people are keeping their most prized possessions or seeing that they get into the hands of appropriate museums.''

Americans visiting Paris often love to attend an auction, Loudmer says, ``in the hope of putting their hands on a real bargain. But we can guarantee no miracles. All we know is that pieces of average quality will bring average prices, as is true everywhere, and that truly rare objects could fetch any price, depending on the enthusiasm of the collectors present.'' As to how buyers get their objects home, Loudmer's firm, like others, maintains a shipping firm within L'H^otel Drouot.

Visitors to Paris can learn about the auctions going on during any specific period by subscribing to, or buying at French newsstands, La Gazette de L'H^otel Drouot, a weekly publication which comes out every Friday and is sold for 8.5 francs. Published at 99 Rue de Richelieu, 75002, Paris, it has 36,000 subscribers and is the most effective way of learning about French auction sales in all parts of the country. Its two- to four-week advance notice allows time to write for catalogs on any sales.

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