Since the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016, industry players speculated that Paris would benefit where London lost.
The French capital’s concentration of museums and high-powered collectors and its long history of art put it in pole position on the Continent, should the trade race restart after shifting from London.
The stately mansion at 9 Avenue Matignon in Paris is steeped in history. Built in 1913 by architect René Sergent, it spent the last few decades as an art gallery.
Since 2000, the building has served as the headquarters of Christie’s, the auction house owned by fashion magnate François Pinault. When Christie’s arrived on Avenue Matignon, the area around it already boasted some high-quality galleries – including Jérôme de Noirmont and Galerie RX – but as rents ascended, many had to leave and make way for the deeper pockets of international luxury goods stores.
The gallery boom on Avenue Matignon is just one facet of Paris’s recent resurgence as an art center. In big-picture terms, France has taken on a more progressive image in the past few years by opening up to conversations surrounding cultural restitution. The market for luxury goods – a growing sector and increasingly a pathway to art collecting – is strong. The country’s longtime titans of art collecting, Bernard Arnault and François Pinault, are as active as ever.
Meanwhile, French media mogul Patrick Drahi recently bought Sotheby’s—which operates its own Paris headquarters just a short swanky walk away from Christie’s – and has grown more ambitious in his own collecting.
The current Paris gallery boom traces back in many ways to 2012, when Larry Gagosian opened his ninth international space there and Thaddaeus Ropac opened his third. Nearly a decade later, the city has kept up its momentum. “Even if people are fearful for no reason and the build-up is in some way artificial,” Ropac said, “it’s a fact now: Paris is having a renaissance.”
France’s art market is small, when measured in macro terms. In the latest Art Basel and UBS Art Market Report, economist Clare McAndrew estimated the French market’s value at $3.1 billion in 2020, making for 6 percent of the global whole. She also found that France’s market fell 33 percent over a difficult year that affected business everywhere. By comparison, the UK’s 2020 market was estimated at $9.9 billion—or 20 percent of the whole—while falling less year-over-year, by a measure of 22 percent.
But the city has proved attractive beyond the size of its market. At auction, the highest-profile livestream sales of late have been transmitted mostly from four art market centers: New York, Hong Kong, London … and Paris. And the gallery scene continues to benefit from the city’s age-old allure. “There is a queue of dealers looking for somewhere in Paris,” Ropac said.
France’s colonial ties to Africa and the government’s recent commitment to restitute colonial holdings coincide with a booming market for the Continent’s contemporary art. In January, the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair relocated its Marrakech edition to Christie’s Paris, a one-time only plan born of necessity in unusual times that all the same underlined the existence of a willing collector community already in place.
Paris can also lay claim to a long association with luxury goods—another growing sector that is huge in its own right, as well as a gateway to fine art. At a livestreamed auction of Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s in January, specialists on-screen flashed their Bulgari jewelry as they placed bids on artworks by Salomon van Ruysdael, Tintoretto, and Botticelli.
The auction houses have been expanding to Paris or reorienting their design and jewelry departments toward the city to be closer to both the source of consignments and a potential pool of buyers. Also driving the trend is that, since Brexit, buyers must pay a 20 percent UK import VAT on EU-consigned luxury items sold in London; fine art draws only 5 percent. While the export and import implications of the tax for art sales since Brexit are still not fully understood, and seemingly under constant review, it makes sense, when possible, to offer works in relative proximity to the majority of its buyers and sellers.