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They were there to debate the forthcoming opening up of the French market and the threats and opportunities of the Internet.

Most astonishingly, both the French auctioneers themselves and the French government minister who opened the one-day conference, focused on denouncing Import VAT and droit de suite as damaging to the trade – the very argument they refused to accept from the British trade and government as they insisted last year that the UK double its import VAT and introduce droit de suite.

Hosted by Paris-based Internet auction firm eAuctionRoom and the French newspaper Les Echos, the event attracted the leading lights of the major international auction houses, but save for Robin Woodhead, Sotheby’s worldwide executive vice president and chief executive of Europe and Asia, who was bullish and appealed to the French auctioneers to welcome the international market, the mood was largely one of fear and mistrust of the changes.

Many commissaires-priseurs feared that they would be swamped by the major international auction houses, either being bought up by them or simply losing their clients to them. But Mr Woodhead told them to look at the precedent set by the French stock exchange, which opened its doors to the international market 15 years ago – French companies were doing more business than ever.

One of the most interesting questions raised (which remained unanswered) concerned the possible fate of the Hôtel Drouot, the Paris auction house owned by 92 shareholding commissaires-priseurs. Was it possible that a foreign concern could acquire a controlling interest, one delegate wished to know.

Also mooted was the possibility of turning the Drouot itself into a major commercial auction house to rival Sotheby’s and Christie’s as a “third force” in the French auction market. Even if this were to take place, it would be competing with Phillips, whose LVMH/Tajan links are likely to secure it at least that position when the market opens next year.

One of the more interesting contributions of the day came from dealer/auctioneer Simon de Pury, who noted that decorators and collectors’ agents were taking on a more significant role on the international scene.