Auction is a resolutely modern and a very efficient way of selling. The present bidding system is still inspired by the auction sales of the Roman period.
The first registered auction sales date back to the Roman period. The name of a certain Caius Jucundus has been found in the ruins of Pompeii, after the city had been destroyed in 79 A.D. Jucundus was an “auctionator”, which means “auctioneer” in English.
In France, the first signs of auction sales appeared in 1254, when Saint Louis appointed “sergents à verge ou à pied” for Paris and mounted sergeants for the rest of the country, to whom he bestowed the “privilege” to set up sales by order of the court: legal sales.
At the same time “voluntary” auction sales also appeared. Then, in Paris and in its suburb, the “maîtres fripiers en icelle” were charged to value and to share goods and pieces of furniture.
What we generally consider as the founding event of the trade of auctioneer took place in 1556, when Henri II created offices for “auctioneers and sellers of movables” and granted them the exclusive control of valuation and appraisal, which was abolished in 2000.
The word “auctio” was used for every auction sale, those of private individuals as well as the State, including voluntary as well as forced sales. These sales were subject to various procedures. They were advertised either on public notice boards or by the verbal announcements of a “praeco” (a crier). This led to the writing of specifications, which were called “lex bonorum vedendorum”. The sales were managed by a legal officer (the “magister”) and legal middlemen (the “auctionatores”). The auctionatores performed the auction sales with the crier (the “praecox”) in the auction room, which was called the “atrium auctionarium”. After the barbarian invasions of the fifth century, the trade of auctionator disappeared. Auction sales were then run by solicitors and bailiffs. Auctioneers reappeared in Europe during the XVIth century.
The name “auctioneer” appeared during the XVIIIth century, under the reign of Louis XVI, and it becomes a common word during the Napoleonic Empire. Paris became the most important market of art, and the newspaper Le Mercure provided a list of the upcoming sales and published the results of the previous sales. The sales took place at the address of the sellers.
The French Revolution took advantage of these sales by selling the furniture of Versailles and the confiscated goods of the aristocracy. At the same time, auctioneers were replaced by solicitors, bailiffs and “sergents à verge”.
The French emigrant nobility collections were sold by the British. Comtesse du Barry’s jewel collection was sold by Christie’s in 1795, and the books of Talleyrand’s library are disposed of by Sotheby’s.
Auctioneers regained their monopoly under Napoleon Bonaparte, first in Paris, then in the whole of France under Louis XVIII. During the French Restoration, there were a lot of very beautiful art sales in Paris. During the XIXth century Paris followed the path it had taken during the XVIIth, and the French capital city becomes the leading world art market.
During the First World War, the trade of auctioneers was opened to women, confirmed by the law of the 20th April 1924.
In the USA, during the 30’s, Anglo-Saxon auction houses began their domination of the world art market with the foundation in New York of the Park Bernett House, which was purchased by Sotheby’s in 1965. During the 50’s, the leading French auctioneer office Drouot recorded annual adjudications equaling the combined activity of its English and American competitors.
Christie’s followed the same economic expansion. These auction houses were quoted on the stock exchange and they opened new auction rooms in the biggest capital cities of the world, and created real international empires. As of 1960, Paris was no longer the world capital of the art market.
The law of the 10th July 2000, whose purpose was to make the French market more competitive, reformed the auctioneer's professional status. They were obliged to work within trading auction companies. They kept their monopoly only on legal sales.
Some figures about the French market:
- 550 auctioneers are authorized to “hold the hammer”.
- 360 registered auction companies.
- Drouot group includes 70 auction houses.
- The average selling price of an item during an auction is 100 Euros.
To buy at auction, you need a certain amount of know-how, but, whatever the place or the operator you have freely chosen, it always works the same way, which makes things easier.
Auction houses, also known as voluntary sales companies (VSC) must be authorized by the Council. You first have to make sure that the operator you have chosen is registered and possesses a certification number, which grants you a protection under the law. To find a VSC, depending on where you live and on its speciality, you just need to click on “buy or sell at auction” on the Council homepage, or to follow “sell link” in the “my tools” menu bar, on the right of the screen, under “research”.
Auctions are public. Everybody is entitled to attend as a member of the audience. Anyone can make a bid, buy or sell, provided he or she is of age, responsible and solvent.
1 - Get ready for the auction!
Rare is the auction house that informs you about the upcoming sales of works of art or art objects you are looking for. In France, there are thousands of sales each year, so it’s not easy to keep a watch on every auction and it’s very likely you will miss a highly coveted lot. On Auction.fr, with a single click, you can access an exhaustive schedule of the upcoming sales and you can consult the 900 sales catalogues that are put online each year by our 77 partner auction houses.
In order to make your research easier, Auction.fr has set up an alert service on lots (by items, artists, period and so on). Thanks to this service, you are informed by email as soon as we find in an upcoming auction a lot that matches one of your enquiries. Then just one click, you can access the full description of the lot.
You can put an alert on whatever lot likely to be sold in a public auction (up to 1,000 research profiles) among twenty-six themes: painting, drawing, engraving, sculpture, furniture, tapestry, ceramics, design...
If you are looking for a specific artist, style or object type, you can use our keyword search engine. And to avoid missing a sale, you can subscribe to our alert service; it automatically relaunches your research. We also provide a newsletter service: subscribe to our weekly newsletter and, every Monday, receive the list of the sales of the following week, classified according to your main interests.
To bid, it is strongly recommended to have a thorough knowledge in painting, furniture, or in the items that are sold. Therefore, you need to gather information before the auction. Since photographs will never replace a real object, it could be useful to attend the exhibitions that precede the sales. Before every session, usually the day before and during the morning, auction houses set up the display of the items of the sale. This public exhibition is important, it allows you to review the lots and inspect their general condition. During the exhibitions, the auctioneers, the experts, the clerks and other people working for the auction house are at your disposal to inform you, to give you advice and to show you the appraisal of the items you covet.
It’s during these exhibitions you can make up your mind. It is also possible to ask the VSC to provide you a full description of an item (for a painting, it is also called a status report).
Before attending an auction, it is wise to ask about the selling terms and conditions that vary with every auction house (for each sale, take a look at “information on this sale” and “selling terms and conditions”).
You can consult these terms on the premises of the sale, where they are always on display. They concern the obligations of the auctioneer towards the buyers: the means and modalities to make a bid, the restrictive clauses concerning responsibilities about the condition of the lots, the selling costs and the payment terms, the conditions of delivery of the goods, and so on.
2 - How to make a bid during an auction?
Auction.fr isn’t an online brokerage house. Therefore it does not allow you to bid directly on the lots displayed on our website. To attend a sale, you necessarily have to contact the auctioneer office who runs the auction.
At the set time, the sale starts with the reading of the selling terms and conditions. Then, the first lot is put up for sale. Each lot is presented with a description and its starting price. Now you can bid!
During a public sale, there are many way to bid:
> If you are attending the sale and if you want to bid by yourself.
You just need to be there when the coveted lot is put up for sale and to offer a higher amount than the starting price or than the previous bids. If you want to make a specific bid, it is recommended to announce the amount aloud. The last bidder, the one who has made the higher bid, will be declared as the purchaser of the lot, and the auctioneer’s hammer blow will determine the final selling price, also known as the hammer price. Right after the adjudication, the buyer receives a payment slip from an employee of the auction room. It gives the reference number of the lot, its description and its price. When he accepts the payment slip, the buyer must give his name and his address. Once the buyer has settled the payment, he is allowed to take possession of his lot.
> If you don’t want to attend the sale.
You can send a purchase order to the auction house. On every list of lots displayed on Auction.fr, you’ll find a purchase order form. You just need to fill it out and to send it to the appropriate auction house. Please note that some auction houses don’t accept purchase orders received less than 48 hours before the beginning of the sale. On the purchase order you have dated and signed, you imperatively have to write down your name, your full address, your telephone number, your bank account details, the number and the designation of the lots as well as the maximum bid you want to make for each lot. During the sale, the auction house will bid for free on your behalf and will respect the limits you have given. After the sale, the auction house will tell you if you are the purchaser or not of the lots you ask them to bid on your behalf.
> How to bid by phone or online?
If you don’t want to leave a purchase order, the auction house may contact you by phone during the sale of the lot to allow you to bid in “real time”. To do so, you can send by fax to the auction house a purchase order form on which you have previously specified the number of the lots you covet and ticked the box “bid by phone”. This service is also totally free.
3 - When the auction starts.
In France, the bidding system is very open. You can wave your hand or announce your bid verbally. Some (VSCX) (VSCs) pass around signs on which your reference number is written, and you can bid by wielding your sign.
Please note that the person who runs the sale, the auctioneer, pursues the auction at his own will with an auction step he has set himself at 50, 100, 1,000 or 10,000 Euros, depending on the value of the item he is selling and the mood in the room.
Do not forget to establish limits, for example when you attend the exhibition, depending on the valuations the expert or the representative of the VSC has determined.
Avoid waving at an untimely moment, or it could be interpreted as a bid. Don’t worry, the auctioneer knows his trade, and he often announces the successive amounts. He will know how to ask you if you want to bid again and he will recognize in a simple gesture, like a faint nod, if you agree or not to bid.
When the auctioneer strikes the hammer and says “Adjugé!”, the lot is for the last bidder. Sometimes, the lot is rebought if the bids weren’t high enough and if the reserve price set by the seller has not been reached.
Every sale has its own peculiar rhythm. If it is your first auction, perhaps you’d better not buy anything and just watch how it works.
4 - When the auction ends.
The lot is sold and the sale is over when the auctioneer strikes the hammer and says “Adjugé”.
The good is yours if you have been the last bidder. Usually, a crier or a clerk working for the VSC immediately asks you your name and a blank signed cheque in exchange for a ticket with the reference number of the lot you have just bought.
But if the level of the bids is too low in comparison to the market price or if the reserve price has not been reached, the lot is removed from the sale.
Usually, you have to pay your lots in cash. You must pay your purchase as soon as the sale is over. You can also pay a clerk at the head table if you do not want to stay till the end of the sale. Some (VSCX) (VSCs) grant a settlement period, but this is optional and negotiable. You have to know that the seller must be paid within two months after the end of the sale. The law grants the possibility to French individuals and professionals to pay in cash up to 750 Euros including costs and taxes, and up to 3,000 Euros to private individuals whose address for tax purpose is not in France. For a higher amount, you must pay with a bank cheque, a credit card or a transfer payment please be sure to understand before the sale what means of payment are accepted.
Please note that the “hammer price” given by the auctioneer does not include taxes (VAT) since it is a second-hand good, and that you have to add the adjudication costs or fees. These costs are freely established by the VSC and they are not negotiable. For voluntary sales, they vary between 10 and 20 %, depending on the type of the good you have purchased. They can be calculated on a sliding scale according to the size of the bid. On top of these costs, you’ll have to add the VAT of 19.6 %, except for books that are taxed at 5.5 %.
- Lots from outside the European Union (as is specified in the catalogue) are subject to commissions and taxes on top of what you have to add the import VAT, that is 5.5 % of the hammer price (19.6 for jewellery).
- For a purchaser who is from outside the European Union, it’s possible to retrocede taxes (VAT on commissions and import VAT) if he produces proof of export outside the EU.
- A European purchaser able to produce an EU VAT number will be exempt from VAT on commissions.
Also called a payment slip, your invoice shows the characteristics of the purchased good (description, period...), the hammer price and the amount of the buyer costs. Even if it is compulsory, make sure you’ve got the payment slip and it is properly filled in. In case of a sale with a catalogue, make sure it specifies the number of the lot you have bought, an accurate description and any element proving the authenticity of the work of art. The payment slip represents your title deed, and it will be useful in case of a later resale or to insure the good.
To sell a good by auction, you just need to contact an auctioneer. You are free to choose him as you wish: according to where he is established, his speciality, the upcoming sales, and so on.
You will find on Auction.fr a directory of the French and foreign auctioneers offices.
After having set an appointment, either in his office or at your own home, the auctioneer will give you a first appraisal – most of the time it’s free –, and he will give you advice on the appropriateness of such a sale, according to your needs and to the condition of the market. You also can establish a reserve price, which is a minimum price below which the item cannot be sold.
Once the valuation is set, the item is authenticated and the type of sale is determined, you have to fill in a sell order. This is a mandate by which you allow the auction house to sell on your behalf one or more goods. The sell order must mention your name, the description of the goods you want to sell, the date and location of the sale, and the reserve price if there is one. The sell order also lists the selling costs. The sell order is free and sometimes negotiable. It includes the price of the service and expenses concerning the sale: the catalogue, advertisement, expert fees, shipping and handling costs, and so on.
After the sale, if the item has been sold, the auction house will send you by mail, usually within a month, your settlement which is the hammer price less the costs.
If the good has not been sold, the auction house could try to sell it during another sale, or you can recover it.
Public auctions run by a legal auctioneer or an authorized auctioneer are far better than online brokerage on the Internet, since in this last case you do not benefit from any insurance during the transactions.
The auctioneer puts at your disposal all his expertise and his professionalism.
From the organisation of the sale to the supervision of the handling of your goods and the confirmation of the buyer’s payment, the auctioneer takes in charge the whole selling process.
With a public auction run by an auctioneer, you are certified to have the benefit of transparency, security, swiftness and efficiency. Prices are known to all and are unquestionable.
The legal auctioneers and the authorized auctioneers are a guarantee of seriousness and serenity during a transaction. Indeed, this trade is very supervised and regulated.
Auctioneers also assure you a complete confidentiality.
Auction houses and experts are responsible to the sellers and the buyers for the price and the delivery of the goods. They are also responsible for the authenticity of the work of art they sell. These risks are covered by mandatory insurance the VSC and the expert must subscribe to.
The buyers never take any risk on the nature of the goods they purchase. Authenticity and general condition are guaranteed for a ten year period.
The sellers have the benefit of a guarantee of payment of the auctioneer. Auction houses must be able to give proof of insurance or a bail bond to be in a position to guarantee to the sellers the settlement of the proceeds of the sales.
In case of dispute, you have the possibility to submit a claim to and only to the “Conseil des ventes volontaires de meubles aux enchères publiques”.
Please note that a claim to the CVV is not considered as mediation or a judgement of your litigation. The “Conseil des ventes volontaires de meubles aux enchères publiques” is not authorized by law to conciliate the parties involved nor to mediate the litigation caused by auctions.
Neither is this Council authorized to settle a litigation caused by an auction.
The CVV is only charged by law to punish, according to the terms of the article L. 321-22 of the French “code du commerce”, the breaches in laws, rules and professional obligations that apply to the CVV, to the persons who are authorized to run sales, to the registered experts and to the citizens of a European Union state or of a state that is part of the agreement concerning the European Economic Area, who is performing the occasional activity of voluntary sales of movable property by public auction in France. It is a disciplinary authority, so it will not give any judgement upon civil, commercial or financial consequences. To do so, you must have recourse to the appropriate court.
Before the Council, you could be summoned and heard as a witness, but you can not be a “party”, and, therefore, you can not obtain damages. Finally, note that your claim to the Council does not put an end to the prescription of the litigation acts you may want to bring forth. When claimed by a state commissioner, the Council is competent to be in charge of the litigations concerning the VSC and the registered experts. It is in a position to take disciplinary measures. Voluntary sales of movable properties by public auction are now organized and run by trading companies, the registered voluntary sales companies (VSC).
> More information:
Le Conseil des Ventes : http://www.conseildesventes.com/
“Le Conseil des ventes volontaire de meubles aux enchères publiques” is a regulation authority responsible for the registration of the sales companies and the experts, and to gather the statements of the European states citizens, and to punish the breaches in laws, rules and professional obligations.
Le Syndicat National des Maisons de Ventes Volontaires : http://www.symev.org/
The SYMEV is a professional organisation that represents the public auction companies. Its main purpose is to promote the general principle of auction, to conduct lobbying actions before the French and European public authorities, to carry out institutional communications operations in order to improve the public sales image.
La Chambre Nationale des Commissaires-Priseurs judiciaires : http://www.commissaires-priseurs.com/
The CNCPJ, to which 437 legal auctioneers are affiliated, has for its main purpose to represent the trade before the public authorities.