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But just as they are working on a more harmonious relationship across the Channel, they have fallen out with their own regulating body, the recently established Conseil des Ventes.

Simmering distrust between French auctioneers and the state-appointed Conseil des Ventes that oversees their activity has come to a head, with the auctioneers’ union accusing the Conseil of damaging the profession’s image among the public.

The row follows the auctioneers’ attempts to water down what they believe are restrictive measures brought in as part of last year’s legal reform and opening up of the market – measures that have tightened the Conseil’s grip over their activities.

Hervé Poulain, President of the Syndicat National des Maisons de Ventes Volontaires (SYMEV), the auctioneers’ union, has condemned Conseil Président Gérard Champin call for a “transparent” approach to “restructure” the French art market, saying the comments would undermine public confidence in the

Poulain and his members want a pragmatic interpretation of France’s new auction law. They are particularly worried by the “excessive paperwork” engendered by the reform, requiring them to run dual accounting systems for court-order and voluntary sales, and to keep an official register with descriptions of every lot they offer – a herculean task for auctioneers who sell thousands of items every year if not every month. And Poulain and the SYMEV feel that Champin and the Conseil are not even trying to help, despite assurance from Culture Minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon last July that the law should free auctioneers from “the judicial and economic straitjacket” they previously endured as State-appointed officials.

In particular SYMEV oppose the need for sale experts to be officially recognised by, and registered with, the Conseil. The text of France’s new auction law is unclear as to whether such recognition is obligatory or optional, but most opt for the latter interpretation.


The Conseil, financed by a 0.10 per cent levy on auction turnover, is widely unpopular with French auctioneers, who are particularly angry with Gérard Champin. In the run-up to the reform, he was their spokesman in his former capacity as President of the Chambre Nationale des Commissaires-Priseurs. He is now seen, as SYMEV Treasurer Dominique de Muizon puts it, to have “betrayed” the interests of French auctioneers.

SYMEV also feel that Champin is trying to take over their role and act as spokesman for the French auction profession. Poulain insists the Conseil’s role should be confined to approving auctioneers, ensuring the law is respected and reporting to the government.

Representing and promoting French auctioneers, he says, is SYMEV’s job. Meanwhile, Poulain is keen to mount a united stand with British Art Market Federation chairman Anthony Browne to defend auctioneers’ interests across Europe on fiscal matters such as VAT and droit de suite.

Independent studies, including one paid for by the European Commission itself, have all shown that Import VAT is driving business away from Europe to the United States.

The co-operation of the French in the fight against the taxes is seen as highly significant by Mr Browne, both because France is one of the most influential countries within the EU and because in the past the French have often led the way in insisting the taxes be adopted by other countries such as Britain.