February 8, 2011

Dr. Tom Flynn Talks to ARCA about his most recent blog post concerning the French auction house scandal and the future of the art market

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin

ARCA lecturer, art historian, and journalist Dr. Tom Flynn out of England published his first post of the year on "artknows" about the French auction house scandal and his recent trip to Paris. Always passionate and outspoken, Dr. Flynn graciously answered via email my question about how this scandal will play against the future of the French art market.
Dr. Flynn: French commentators say the process of reform following the Drouot/Savoyard portering scandal has already begun, with investigations in train and potential criminal prosecutions on the horizon. Meanwhile, a new logistics company has been recruited to handle the Drouot's portering, transport and storage services previously conducted by the disgraced cols rouges. Quite how those illegal processes were allowed to take root deep inside in the country's ancient auction nerve centre, and continue unchecked for decades, remains the great unanswered question.

But let's not forget that the international art market has always been amenable to corruption at every level. Look at the Italian antiquities scandal uncovered by Peter Watson. Look at the Sotheby's and Christie's price-fixing scandal. Fakes and forgeries and manufactured provenances abound. Blind eyes are everywhere.

Beyond the Drouot, the French auction scene is still undergoing the slow process of rationalisation following the opening of the auction market to Sotheby's, Christie's and other non-French companies in 2001. That will take time to shake out, but some might argue that it was too little too late and that France long ago lost the battle of the gavels, while London and New York exploited the freedom and latitude of their own unregulated markets. Some analysts claim that Paris is no longer even in third place after London and New York and that Beijing is now the third largest art market centre and expanding at a rate of knots.

That said, new Parisian auction business ventures such as Artcurial, which have taken advantage of external investment made available following the partial relaxation of government regulations, are providing the sort of competition the French art auction market badly needs. Meanwhile, French dealers and collectors are tapping into an increasingly global market, buying and selling in the most commercially favourable centres, whether it be New York, London or Beijing.

The Drouot scandal notwithstanding, Paris still has a lot going for it in the art market stakes. It's a beautiful city with an ancient artistic heritage and a noble tradition of art commerce. Fashionable international contemporary art dealerships are opening all the time in the city's chic quarters around the Marais and in the Avenue Matignon. If it can deal rapidly and effectively with the cols rouges scandal and the recent, highly publicized allegations against the Wildenstein dealership, then perhaps it will turn the page and once again compete on the world stage. The next several months will be critical.
Photo: Colette Marvin and Tom Flynn recently toured art auction houses in Paris.


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