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The Romanian-born, American-trained Ms Seward acquired Tajan S.A., France’s top auction firm for nearly a decade, last December from LVMH (who bought Tajan in 2000). Retaining her role as vice-president of American-based merger-and-acquisition specialists Platinum Equity, Ms Seward left Jacques’s son François in day-to-day control as chairman, with Jacques Tajan, at 63, happy to play an advisory role and conduct some sales.

But now Ms Seward says her commitment to Tajan will be full-time. She is relocating to Paris from the US and moving into Jacques Tajan’s office in September.

The change follows Ms Seward’s abortive attempts to engineer a rapprochement between Tajan S.A. and Paris rivals ArtCurial earlier this summer, a project that both Jacques and François Tajan strongly opposed.

“As things stand, I shall be with-drawing definitively from the firm on December 31,” says Jacques Tajan. “I have no wish to lend it my continued backing.”

• Sales at the Hotel Drouot dropped nine per cent in the first half of 2004 to €205m (£136.7m), compared to the same period of 2003 (which was boosted by the €46m Breton sale). But sales improved by 15 per cent in May/June after a sluggish start to the year.

Christie’s consolidated their position as leading French auction firm in terms of sales totals, with €46m (£30.7m) in the first half of 2004, up 13 per cent on 2003 (and not including the €10.6m taken at their vintage car sale in Le Mans on July 23). Tajan remained in second place with sales of €34.4m (£22.9m), down 10 per cent. Sotheby’s ranked third with sales of €29.5m (£19.7m), up from €17m in 2003; but ArtCurial, with sales down 35 per cent to €24m (£18m), dropped to fourth place, just ahead of Piasa, whose sales remained stable on €23.8m (£15.9m).

Sales at Beaussant-Lefevre climbed nine per cent to €10.4m (£6.9m), ahead of CalmelsCohen, who organised last year’s Breton sale, with sales of €9.6m (£6.4m).

All figures include buyer’s premium.