La Biennale Paris 2017
Paris Biennale 2017

Could Paris replace London as Europe’s art market centre? With Brexit and all its uncertainties around the corner in the UK and a culture-savvy president at the helm in France, market players are beginning to consider the possibility of this previously unlikely scenario.

This week, for the first time, Christie’s launched a $300m-plus collection of American 20th-century paintings not in New York, London or Hong Kong — as is the art market norm — but in Paris. The works, which belonged to the American luxury-travel tycoon Barney Ebsworth, include potentially record-breaking pieces by Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

According to Guillaume Cerutti, Christie’s (French) chief executive, Ebsworth was a Francophile. Timing also plays a part in the auction house’s marketing strategy, as the Paris Biennale fair opening in town this week tends to kick off the art market’s autumn season. But Christie’s decision to begin a global tour in the French capital underscores the extent to which Paris is back on the art world map.

President Emmanuel Macron may have had a difficult summer, but his positive effect on France’s art world has been unabated since his En Marche party came into power in May 2017. Almine Rech, who has had a gallery in Paris since 1997, says, “Politics always has an effect on the markets, art and otherwise. Now we have a young president, who has a great interest in culture, generating the optimism that art needs.”

Fellow Parisian dealer Emmanuel Perrotin, who accompanied Macron on a state visit to Washington in April, says that the French president represents “the impossible dream come true” in a country that needed change.

In the past couple of months alone, arts-related initiatives from Macron’s corner include commissioning street artist Yseult Digan (known as YZ) to redefine Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic and so-called “face of France”, and the launch of the Africa Cultural Season in France in 2020. Macron’s wife Brigitte spent a good couple of hours at the Fiac art fair last year, providing a boost that exhibitors say stayed throughout the event.

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) speaks next to French-British street artist Yseult Digan aka YZ (R), during the inauguration of the mural painting depicting French national symbol "Marianne" designed and painted by YZ, in the district of Bas-Toulon in Périgueux on July 19, 2018. (Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION - TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION (Photo credit should read NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP/Getty Images)
President Macron with the mural depicting ‘Marianne’ by street artist Yseult Digan aka YZ, 2018 © Nicolas Tucat/AFP/Getty Images

It’s not just a soft power play. The pro-business Macron has also sought to reduce some of the country’s wealth taxes. While these didn’t target art directly, they had contributed to a much-reported exodus of rich individuals from France over the past five years, undermining its art market.

“We’ve been paralysed by politicians,” Perrotin comments — and now that Macron has limited the tax to apply only to property, dealers already note an invigorated clientele.

“There’s a new, young generation of French contemporary art collectors now, coming from the real estate, tech and finance worlds,” Rech says.

And then there’s Brexit. No one knows what its effect on trade will be, and art world executives are reluctant to speculate, but time is running out so some scenario planning must be happening behind the scenes. Experts raise the likelihood, for example, of an additional import VAT to move art, currently in free circulation, from the UK to the EU — and vice versa. And what about the artist’s resale right, an EU directive that clearly benefits artists but has divided opinion since it arrived in the UK market in 2006? There are, of course, ways that post-Brexit regulation could make the UK more attractive, eventually, but the art market is hardly a governmental priority.

Such uncertainties “leave France in pole position as a conduit for trade,” says Clare McAndrew, founder of the research and consulting firm Arts Economics, noting that it has the lowest import VAT duty in Europe (5.5 per cent) after the UK. Jennifer Flay, director of Fiac, says, “Nobody in France wanted Brexit, but certainly some prospects have been boosted because of it.” Perrotin also reluctantly admits that the EU referendum result had a “silver lining” for trade in Paris.

Cerutti, who ran Sotheby’s in Paris between 2007 and 2011, doesn’t expect any significant change to the market’s existing ecosystem, however. “London has more than resisted any concerns since the vote and it’s too early to say whether other locations could take advantage,” he says.

He and other market players emphasise that France’s strength is in niche categories — tribal art, photography, street art — rather than the mega contemporary, Modern and Impressionist fields. Impressionism may have been born in France, but its principal buyers have long been in the US. “The market is growing in Paris, at a good pace, but a major eight-figure [Gerhard] Richter has yet to sell there.”

Other commentators point to the fact that red tape in France has hardly disappeared. Its auction houses, for instance, have only relatively recently emerged from a heavily regulated system that was developed in the 16th century.

Certainly, the numbers aren’t yet convincing: the UK had a 20 per cent share of the art market in 2017 and, while France may be the next biggest market globally, it represents just 7 per cent, according to the latest Art Basel/UBS report. But the UK’s share has been falling in the past 10 years, while France’s has shown a slight, steady increase.

It’s a compelling thought that a city offering a gentler quality of life could begin to encroach on an art market rethinking its relentless, international beat. The magnificent Grand Palais, which hosts this week’s Biennale as well as the Fiac art fair later in the season, offers a setting that no convention centre in the world could match.

Perrotin is convinced the tide is turning: “Sometimes we make life too complicated for collectors, with so many things to do and see. People want to enjoy life, go into restaurants without a reservation, stay in a fine hotel, have a romantic walk by the river — Paris offers all this.”

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