Hôtel Drouot: The World’s Oldest Auction House

Hôtel Drouot: The World’s Oldest Auction House

About 15 minutes before the doors open on auctioneer Christophe Joron-Derem’s most important sale of the year – one of seven scheduled that day at the Hôtel Drouot – an animated group is gathered in front of Salle 8. By the looks of the casually dressed men and women, anywhere between the ages of 20 and 80, you’d be hard pressed for clues as to what was on the block, especially at an auction house that might feature anything from a relic of the true cross to a phalanx of stuffed circus animals.

Truth be told, the Drouot auction house has as much in common with the circus as it does with the hushed and hallowed halls of Christie’s or Sotheby’s. The world’s oldest auction house, founded in 1852, and a beloved Paris institution, Hôtel Drouot thrives on a charged atmosphere, with enough characters, spectacle and drama to rival a chapter out of Zola. The bustling house’s 16 auction and display salons, spread over three floors, are in constant motion, with a steady stream of walk-ins, curiosity seekers and potential bidders, who range from museum directors to junk sellers – about 5,000 people per day, to be precise.

“When I’m here, I think I’m in some sort of souk. It’s the  least refined of all the auction houses I’ve been in and it’s my favourite,” says Bruce Leimsidor, a Drouot regular who’s come to the sale to bid on a graceful stone fragment of a 12th-century Indian Buddha listed at €300-400. An American law professor living and teaching in Venice, and a serious amateur collector of Chinese antiquities, Leimsidor has been coming to Drouot for years. “The beauty of Drouot is that there’s something for everyone, and everyone comes here, but if you really want to find a treasure – and there are definitely treasures to be found – you are best to know what you’re looking for.”

Something for Everyone

Besides Drouot’s auction rooms – occupied for one four-hour auction per day, six days per week – the house’s exhibition salons display, for one day only, the entire contents of each sale, usually the next day’s, which are open to anyone who wants to inspect the objects up close. At Drouot this could be anything: stamps, photos, posters, vintage designer clothes and accessories, fine jewellery and watches, rare books, wine, posters, silver, rugs, tapestries, furniture and artworks of every quality and period – even vintage automobiles – the list is inexhaustible.

How does a single auction house assemble so much loot? The answer is, it doesn’t. The Hôtel Drouot isn’t an auction house, it’s merely a building – an umbrella, as it were – for a group of some 75 small, private Paris-based auction houses, each with its own commissaire-priseur or auctioneer, which function like shareholders, pooling operating expenses and governing as a democratic body.

In today’s sale in Salle 8, among the hotchpotch of European paintings and sculptures, modern and contemporary artworks, African masks, French period furniture and Chinese jades and statuettes, the standouts include a museum-quality pastel by French symbolist Odilon Redon, a late Matisse line drawing and an ornate 17th-century gilded Chinese Buddha, estimated at between €150,000-200,000 and which, judging from the auction catalogue’s glossy, two-page spread, is the star of the show.

“He came from a modest chalet in a tiny village in the French Alps,” explains Christophe Joron-Derem, an elegant, meticulously dressed gentleman and the namesake of the house which acquired the Buddha. “The owner had nothing else of value but this bronze was passed down by her grandfather, who had picked it up in the 1920s on a trip to China.” Drouot’s experts confirmed its age and origin and helped determine a departure price. Joron-Derem held on to the piece for the December sale, a traditional month for the most important works.

Land of Riches

As described by Joron-Derem, France is a giant grenier or attic – the French expression for garage sale is vide-grenier, as in emptying the attic. “Since the time of Louis XIV and up to the 19th century, France was the wealthiest country in the world,” he says, “with an incredible accumulation of riches, especially in terms of artworks.”

In the mid-1600s, Louis XIV and his minister, Colbert, assured France’s future as leaders in the metiers d’art through privileging and subsidising the guilds that produced every luxury item under the sun, from perfume to porcelain. French conquest and colonisation, which assured a steady stream of exotic goods and artworks from abroad, coupled with the country’s artistic heritage, meant an incomparable legacy of treasure. “Every household in France, no matter how modest, has at least one important object that’s been passed down through generations,” says Joron-Derem. “I see this time after time in estate inventories after a death, even in poorer families – a grandmother had something from her grandmother or a relative knew an artist who gave him a painting. This is very specific to France.”

Despite a love and appreciation of beautiful things, the French also harbour an extreme disdain for ostentation – another reason for keeping things hidden away, generation after generation, without necessarily monitoring an object’s provenance or value. Joron-Derem could fill volumes with stories – the Ingres in the wine cellar; the Picasso among the postcards – but his favourite is of a personal friend whose father had been a broccanteur. From time to time, when money was tight, the elderly friend would bring something to Joron-Derem to sell at auction.

“One day he brought me an album of 70 colourful gouaches,” he says, “depicting what looked like Chinese men in native costume. He’d presented the album to Christie’s, who gave it back after a week, deeming it worthless.”

The owner thought that the album would bring at least €7,000 if the auctioneer broke it up and sold each gouache separately for €100. Finding the paintings charming, Joron-Derem agreed and delivered it to an expert whom he frequently worked with. Upon close examination, the expert admitted that he hadn’t a clue what it was, “But he would ring me at home every night just to say, ‘I have no idea what this is but it’s wonderful’.”

This went on for a week, until one night the expert called to say he’d identified a red seal stamped on several of the pages as that of a Chinese emperor.

When Joron-Derem brought the album to auction it was valued at €150,000-200,000 but the expert, who’d fallen madly in love with it, confessed that he thought it could bring a million. When the gavel fell, Joron-Derem’s friend, who had suffered a stroke 15 days before the sale, was a multimillionaire. The album, finally identified as one of six commissioned by Chinese Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796), to document his empire’s many ethnicities, went to a Chinese collector for €7.8 million.

Buyer Beware

Experts are fallible, auctions move quickly, and at the end of the day the value of an object is precisely what someone will pay for it. During Joron-Derem’s auction, an elderly gentleman, seeing me furiously scribbling notes, leans over to comment that a pair of porcelain jardinières that had just sold for €10,000 – listed in the catalogue at €800-1,200 – were “worthless”. Mr Leimsidor seconds the opinion, adding, “Beware of anything described as ‘in the style of’ or similarly. Auctioneers protect themselves in the rhetoric.” There’s a good reason for this. In France, and only in France, the garantie trentenaire makes the auctioneer responsible for the authenticity of a work for 30 years.

Therefore, Drouot’s consortium of auctioneers relies on a 200-strong team of independent experts who authenticate every object up for sale, whether it’s a Greek marble or a Sevres bust. Though relatively few buyers have the expertise required to recognise the real gems, they can still be confident that they’re getting what the auction house says they’re getting. However, this doesn’t mean that Drouot is immune from dispute or controversy. Last spring, the house went ahead with a protested auction, of 24 sacred Hopi headdresses which were included in a sale of American Indian artefacts that had been delayed by court order at the request of the tribe.

When the French court finally ruled that the sale was lawful, protesters and media swarmed Drouot, to no avail. Every item in the highly publicised auction sold, but in a final poignant twist it was revealed that the winner of all but three of the Hopi objects was the Los Angeles-based Annenberg Foundation, whose board had approved the curators’ last-minute plea for permission to purchase all the artefacts in top secret, to return them to the Hopi tribe.

A Mighty Machine

The works behind Drouot are impressive. Besides extensive transport and delivery services – the house ships everywhere in the world – each week Drouot publishes the Gazette, a deluxe, full-colour magazine with a substantial national readership, that chronicles upcoming sales, highlights and the results of past auctions. Non-subscribers can find the magazine on news stands across France or, easier still, on Drouot’s website. An important engine for the house, the site – in French, English and Chinese – now generates about 30 per cent of Drouot’s total sales and offers a virtual experience of everything in the house pre-, during and post auction. The online catalogues provide a vital tool for collectors and armchair buyers. And for sales that aren’t quite important enough to warrant a catalogue, bidders will find 360-degree views of exhibition salons and stills of each item in the sale.

Another Day, Another Drama

Halfway through the sale in Salle 8, the room is teeming. Spectators mill in and out, bids fly fast and furiously. To my right, a woman calls out internet bids, to my left half-a-dozen operators intercept phone bids. Assistants at the front display each object to the audience – “Touch, feel!” encourages Mr Joron-Derem. Finally, the Buddha is up. Despite the low catalogue estimate of €150,000, bidding starts at €500,000 and rises in increments of €50,000, then €100,000 until, at a breathless €1.9 million it’s between two Chinese bidders in the room.

Joron-Derem deftly finesses each bid, pausing and cajoling, “One million nine, do I hear two million?” At the crack of the gavel, the Buddha is sold at €2.15 million – with surcharges and taxes, nearly €2.7 million. A few lots later, Mr Leimsidor’s fragment goes to another bidder for more than ten times the estimated price. “It’s okay,” he sighs, philosophically, “Tomorrow’s another day.”

From France Today magazine

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American journalist Jennifer Ladonne, a Paris resident since 2004, writes regular features on French heritage, culture, travel, food & wine for France Today magazine, and is the restaurants and hotels reviewer for Fodor's Paris, France and Provence travel guides. Her articles have appeared in CNN Travel, AFAR, The Huffington Post, MSN and Business Insider.

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