Monday, June 14, 2010
Paris is well known for its large number of fancy galleries, both on the Left Bank and the Right Bank.
Usually they can be found on narrow streets in the elegant neighborhoods of the lst, 2nd, 6th and 7th arrondissements.
Perhaps you are in the market for a painting, fine antique furniture, or a rare print...
...Maybe exquisite bone china or silverware is your passion...
...Or that very special piece of jewellry.
You'll certainly have your choice of destinations where, after pressing a discreet button by the door, you can enter into the hushed and hallowed heart of those fancy galleries, where negotiations are conducted with great formality, and where the gallery owners are usually far more elegant, and definitely more snooty, than the potential client.
If, on the other hand, you want to find all of those things under one roof, then there's really only one place to go: the sprawling, bustling Drouot Auction Gallery on rue Drouot, right in the noisy, congested commercial area of the 9th arrondissement. Here, on almost any day of the week, you can find paintings by the grand masters, furniture and furnishings, trinkets, stamps, rugs, jewellery, rare books, coins and other items, all up for sale in some 16 "salles de ventes."
The original building on this site, known as the Hotel des Ventes de Drouot, opened its doors for business in 1852, although the company itself had been in existence elsewhere for the previous 50 years. During the 1970s and 1980s, the building was demolished, and the enterprise moved into the old Gare D'Orsay building, whilst the current building was constructed.
When you visit the building today, you'll find the lobby filled with people milling around, checking through La Gazette Drouot for news of recent and upcoming sales, looking up at the big screen that tells you what each "salle" is selling that day, at what time the sale will begin, when you can walk through beforehand to inspect the items up for sale, see if there's anything you fancy.
Each room is usually a veritable pot-pourri of somebody's "treasures". Are they items from Grandma's house that no one in the family wanted? These elegant dining room chairs, for example, are stacked on top of their matching table, up against rugs and armoires. How many wonderful dinners had taken place around this table, we wondered. And why did no one in the family want them?
The rugs and mirrors here line the walls, whilst the chandeliers sparkle down on the rapt audience from the ceiling.
At 1:30 or 2 pm, promptly, the auction begins. Starting from one side of the room, small items are sold first - jewellry, photos, china, guns, sometimes clothing.
Front and center, and in complete control is the auctioneer. Surrounded by staff who carry the small items to a table in the middle of the room, or go and stand by the larger items, the assistants who are taking phone bids, or recording each sale carefully in a ledger, the auctioneer drives the energy of the auction. He has a microphone on his lapel, announces each item by number and description and opens the sale up to bid. Depending on the item, the bidding can begin as high as 500 or 600 euros, or as low as 30 euros. Sometimes the bids come fast and furious. Sometimes, he has to cajole the audience to get the bidding started.
In this short video clip, our favorite auctioneer is trying hard to stir up some interest in some little piece of "tat", I can't remember what it was, but we just loved the way he pouted and sulked even, until someone raised their hand to start the bid at 30 euros.
Although we saw a few women in attendance, and bidding, the audiences at these auctions seem to be mostly men. Sometimes businessmen, stopping by on their way back to the office after lunch, but more often they seemed as though they had their own small brocante business, or a stand at the various weekly flea markets around town. All of them hoping to pick up a bargain that they could then turn around and sell for a small profit.
Mr. Rasta Man sat in front of us at this particular auction, although he was not successful with any of his bids. "Non, merci", he said ruefully again and again -- the standard phrase when you're dropping out of contention.
Smaller items are taken from the side displays and put on a central table, often it's several small items, or a bundle of things. Immediately, those interested leave their seats and crowd around the table, checking the condition, even as they are nodding and bidding. Or walking away with a "non merci" tossed over their shoulder.
Sometimes, as in this little video clip, the auctioneer's assistant is with the piece in the middle of the room. Here, the item in question was a beautiful mirror. His job seemed to be to whip up enthusiasm, encourage higher bids, sometimes he was bidding himself, for an absentee person we presumed. In this particular case, the mirror was sold for 850 euros to the young man in the leather jacket who came forward to get the "ticket", which he then takes to the cashier.
At the end of the day though, the most important part of each bid, is when the auctioneer decides that the bidding has reached its limit. He raises his gavel, calls out "adjugé" (literally "awarded"), gives the price, and bangs the gavel on the table. At this point the item is legally sold. If he doesn't follow this protocol strictly, then apparently anyone has the right to go to the cashier and offer to buy the piece at a mutually satisfactory price!
We've attended several of these auctions for the fun of seeing who's there, what's being sold, what the prices are like. They can last for over 3 hours, with the larger pieces of furniture and the rugs coming up last. By this time, the room is quite empty, and some remarkable bargains can be had.
Without doubt, though, the most astonishing item we came across during our various trips to Drouot was this painting of sheep coming down to drink from a creek, followed by the shepherd.
Astonishing because we have almost the identical painting in our little TV room in Inverness. Our painting belonged to my father, who loved it and always told us that it was undoubtedly worth a fortune. It's a pretty schmaltzy piece, but I like it because I associate it with my father. The signature on the canvas says "E. Pail". My father always thought E. Pail was some unheralded-but-soon-to-be-discovered Scottish painter, Ernest Pail.
Imagine our amazement to discover that it actually was painted by a 19th Century French painter, Edouard Pail (pronounced "Py-ee") 1851-1916, part of the Crozant school -- similar to the Barbizon School -- whose members principally painted pastoral landscapes in and around the Nièvre part of southern France. Plein air painting. Pail's paintings appeared in various Paris Salon exhibitions, where he won awards. Unfortunately, we weren't able to go to the actual auction this time, but the estimate was between 500 and 600 euros. I think my father had a somewhat larger figure in mind!
But at least his painting is still in our family. In spite of all the energy and fun, there is a measure of sadness in these auctions, when you realize that all the items on sale come from someone's home and that for a whole variety of reasons they are leaving that family and being scattered near and far. Hmmm, is that the fate that lies ahead for all of our "treasures"?!!