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Drouot, where sales were stable, resisted relatively well, no doubt because, as an insignificant centre for auctions of contemporary art, Paris was better placed to resist the global market crisis than many other venues.

Meanwhile the gap between the ‘big three’ (Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Artcurial) and the rest continued to widen.

Christie’s, whose sales of 455.2m euros (£410m) were treble their 2008 total, regained the top spot they have held with one exception since 2002 (the first full year they and Sotheby’s were allowed to sell in France). Excluding the Bergé/St-Laurent sale, that total would have read 112.8m euros (£101.6m), a drop of 25 per cent – prompting Christie’s French boss François Curiel to observe that: “We’re back at 2005 levels, before the upsurge and speculative bubble.”

Even without the Bergé/St-Laurent sale, Christie’s would still have regained the top spot they lost in 2008 to Sotheby’s, whose 98m euros (£88m) total was a 37 per cent fall (albeit after successive annual hikes of 92 and 30 per cent). At both firms, foreign buyers accounted for over three-quarters of turnover.

Of the leading French firms, Artcurial resisted best, consolidating their third position with sales of 81m euros (£73m), down a relatively modest 13 per cent: a shortfall largely accounted for by a 9m euros (25 per cent) drop in sales of modern and contemporary art.

But Artcurial opened up a significant – possibly definitive – gap with long-term rivals Tajan, where sales plummeted 38 per cent to 35.8m euros (£32.3m). That figure includes their Monaco summer sales (where both Tajan and Artcurial totalled just over 5m euros) – meaning that Tajan were, for the first time, outsold in Paris by Piasa. Small comfort: during the year, Piasa lost dynamic chairman Jacques Baboneau and the last of their founding triumvirate, Pierre Audap; and saw sales dip 24 per cent at 32.7m euros – with just one price of over 500,000 euros.

Nonetheless, Piasa, remain the largest of the 70 firms to sell at the Hôtel Drouot where, after two years in decline, sales stabilised at 410m euros (£369m) thanks to a December surge when sales rose 45 per cent on the corresponding month in 2008. The year’s top hammer price at Drouot was 2.56m euros (£2.3m) for a 1917 casting of Rodin’s Le Penseur – one of just eight individual prices over 1m euros, compared to 54 at Christie’s/Sotheby’s combined.

2010 will see Drouot face a monumental task to re-establish public (and specifically vendor) confidence after warehousemen and an auctioneer were charged with theft and racketeering at the start of December.

A clutch of Paris firms posted results in the 20m-30m euro range, led by Aguttes on 26.6m euros (£24m), to which can be added 3m euros from their sale of the contents of the Mamounia Hotel sale in Marrakesh, Morocco, and 3.2m euros generated by a dozen auctions in their provincial offshoot in Lyon.

Pierre Bergé & Associés totalled 22.6m euros (£20.4m) at Drouot, complemented by a further 26m euros (£23.4m) from their Brussels saleroom.

Millon & Associés and Cornette de Saint-Cyr, two firms now run by the sons of Drouot grandees, purportedly merged in 2009, duly reporting combined sales of 50.8m euros (£45.8m). But of this merger there are, as yet, no tangible signs: both firms continue to run separate offices and websites, and organise sales and communication independently of one another.

Typifying the resilience of a number of smaller Drouot outfits, Beaussant-Lefèvre registered a 43 per cent upturn, with sales of 19.7 euros (£17.7m). Another firm to enjoy increased sales was Osenat in suburban Fontainebleau where, largely thanks to the resilience of the market in Napoleonic memorabilia, sales were up five per cent at 16.7m euros (£15m).

All totals include buyer’s premium.

By Simon Hewitt