Francois Tajan has been working in art auctions since 1990. He began alongside his father Jacques at Tajan SA, and remained in the family business for 15 years, supervising sales of Art Deco Contemporary and Modern Art, photography, design, and comics. In 2005, Tajan joined Artcurial as co-president to help develop the then-budding enterprise. Tajan initiated prestigious sales in Monaco and diversified the offerings further. In 2017, the French auction house sold 191.1 million Euros across the board (highlights included items by Herge, Camille Claudel, Kaws, Pierre Soulages), and at the end of the year, Artcurial was bought by John Taylor, a network of powerful real estate agents. “People who sell houses also sometimes sell their contents, so its an interesting opportunity,” Tajan remarked. Artcurial’s Paris auctions in June include a suite of Paul Gauguin paintings from the Favre-Tessier collection, and an oil painting by van Gogh. In July, Sarah Andelman, owner of former trendsetting Parisian boutique Colette, will curate a selection of vintage jewelry and watches for an auction in Monaco.
Art+Auction spoke with the seasoned French auctioneer about following shifting tastes, the importance of place on a sale, and Paris’s ascending reputation.
How has the market evolved at large during your tenure in this industry?
I’ve been in this business 27 years altogether, and we’ve seen a lot of evolution. There are some specialties that formerly did not exist; others that have almost disappeared, even though they used to be quite important… specialties that we continue to offer because they are significant, at the historical and heritage level, even if they are a little less fashionable. Artcurial’s development results from the interest that we have maintained across all domains. It doesn’t prevent us from continuing within the classical domains, such as antique furniture and antique sculptures. But we must also adapt to the strength of the demand for 20th-century art and art de vivre. Today, the premium is on everything 20th and 21st century — the modern world, the world of today.
With certain antiques falling out of fashion, what has risen in their place?
For a long time, luxury goods were not considered objets d’art. Today they hold a prime spot in creating revenue for the maison — jewelry, watches, vintage, wine. The vintage car is at the crossroads; it’s an art de vivre luxury, but it falls within the world of collectors.
What’s the most noticeable recent shift in field of interest?
The first sale of street art at Artcurial happened about a decade ago. We were trailblazers on this, and over the last five years, the sales have been increasing. For a long time, street art was “underground” and trendy in a restricted, niche way. Today, we see a very strong development; the domain attracts a clientele who also buys Contemporary art.
For purchases above 50 million Euros, about 75 percent of your clientele is foreign, which is a striking figure.
The globalization of the market is accelerating. You can see it through analysis of our sales: the people at our auctions can represent 30 different nationalities. Indeed, 75 percent of items are exported abroad, in the European community or further afield. For design, collectors in Asia — Japan, China, Korea — are very decisive in the domain. The interest from this region changes the overall outcome. It boosts the market, which used to be more American and European.
The “mythology” around Paris as a place is very powerful.
Selling things near where they were conceived of, or created, or lived with… it’s always a bonus. It’s pretty natural from a psychological standpoint. Buying an object francais, whether its a table by Charlotte Perriand or 18th century furniture, it’s a way of incarnating it.
People come to spend three-four days in Paris. They take advantage of the trip by going to luxury boutiques, staying in the best hotels, eating meals in top restaurants — and they attend an auction. It completes this notion of French art de vivre, and it’s not by chance that the French market for auctions has developed considerably the last few years.
Were sales fairly evenly spread across the Americas, Europe and Asia?
Asia is much stronger. For example, with the Ritz sale, there were a handful of Asian collectors who were here specifically for this occasion. The world is bending more to the east. Statistically, the U.S. is still a strong player too — a hotbed of buyers, collectors — in terms of sales. But it is rivaled by Asia.
You mentioned online presence — can you elaborate on this? Is this approach evolving?
Enormously. If we take an example of two auctions from the same typology: the auction of the Crillon five years ago, and the sale for the Ritz recently in April, the behavior of buyers relative to the Internet is much stronger today. We sold close to 1,500 objects by way of the Internet in terms of lots — which is not far from half of them.
Is it generational? Is there a new wave of young buyers?
It’s beyond generational. It’s true that at the beginning, as is always the case, the younger generation started utilizing online as a tool for this, since they were familiar with it first — but today, it’s everyone. Even more traditional buyers use it.
Art often seems defined by what happens at the top of the market. The rich are getting richer — and they’re making bigger purchases… The market then matches the growth of global wealth. Do you see this skewing or eroding the middle of the market? Or does the wealthiest tier remain in a bubble?
When three or four people have no financial limits, it necessarily contributes to making the object cost — its worth — ever-greater. The globalization of wealth also means that the richest people in the world are competing, not just against the richest people of the country or the region, so it necessarily contributes to upping the prices. But the influence of the billionaire has little impact on the rest of the market. This no-limits spending is on exceptional, extraordinary things. It’s very specific, and doesn’t pull the middle closer to the top tier.
Some collectible cars, for example, that are sold for absolutely extravagant prices, don’t affect the ones that are sold at 200,000-300,000 Euros. But a car that say, was driven at one point by Roger Vadim — that Ferrari will attract the people who can afford to say “I want it” and the price doesn’t matter. Because the price, you don’t know it in advance — it’s only clear at the end of the auction. It’s the result of a competition between very, very rich people. It’s the value of an instant, but not the quoted value. That’s the difficulty of the market: to make people understand that it’s not because something once went for 30 million, that things that more or less resemble that are worth 15 or 20 million. It might be 2 million. You can’t compare. It’s very particular, sometimes even a bit irrational.
As of 2015, Artcurial has held auctions in Morocco and Hong Kong. How did these new locales change the nature of the auctions?
If we’re doing an auction in a different place, outside the walls of Artcurial, it’s both because we have more items to sell, and we want to reach new buyers. It’s combination of the two. Why do a sale in Marrakesh? We sell Orientalist pieces — with painters like Jacques Majorelle, for whom we have the world-record. Today, informing a seller: “we’ll sell your Majorelle between Paris and Marrakesh,” its important leverage.
The same applies to Monaco. Everything related to luxury — bijoux, watches, Hermes, certain cars — it’s first and foremost for a specific market. For a seller, they imagine that a pretty Cartier bracelet might sell better there than in Paris. For those areas, Monaco is a place of luxury… It’s reassuring and convincing to sellers; it’s a valid argument. Marrakech, we’ve done annually since 2015—Hong Kong we did twice, but not last year. It was more difficult to target the right people; we maybe have to find things that would specifically work better there. If it’s just doing what we do in Paris and moving it elsewhere, it makes no sense. Today, when we do an especially significant quality sale, we can alert the world of collectors. We exported for years, but today we have less reason to. Now that everyone can sell in Paris, why not sell in Paris? The fiscal regulations have harmonized to European standards; there aren’t really any constraints or objective reasons not to sell here. Today, anything can be sold in Paris in the best of conditions—and the results attest to that.