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  • Christie's Tops List in French Auction Sales for Third Year

    Christie's International, which is owned by French billionaire Francois Pinault, racked up more sales in France than any other auction house for the third time in a row as it reached for a bigger share of the art market.

    Christie's, the biggest art seller, had French sales of 115 million euros ($138 million) in 2005, up 33 percent from 86.4 million euros last year. It is now selling 2.6 times more art in France than Sotheby's Holdings Inc., the No.2 auction house.

    The gap highlights the opposed tactics of the two international rivals in France as well as Christie's pursuit of market share around the world. Sotheby's, whose second-largest shareholder is U.S. shopping-center magnate Alfred Taubman, briefly overtook Christie's in worldwide sales last year, before slipping back to second place in this year's first half.

    ``Christie's is once again the No.1 auction house in France and in the world,'' Francois Curiel, 57, who announced the French results today in Paris, said in an interview.

    Curiel, who is a member of Christie's managing board as well as running European operations, held the company's first Paris sale in 2001 after a reform of the law that barred foreign companies from selling art in France. Within two years, Christie's was outperforming other auction houses in the country, including Tajan SA.

    French auction houses operating in association at the Hotel Drouot in Paris reported combined sales of 422 million euros, up 16 percent from last year.

    Posh Quarters

    Christie's and Sotheby's are benefiting as museums and collectors such as Pinault and U.S. billionaire Eli Broad stock up on art. The rival auction houses occupy palatial buildings in Paris. Christie's, with about 90 employees, operates among the galleries of Avenue Matignon while Sotheby's, with some 60 employees, is across the road from the Elysee Palace on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore.

    Publicly traded Sotheby's, which has its main auction rooms in New York, uses France more as a base for exporting art. Sotheby's said yesterday it sold 43.7 million euros of art in France, while dispatching about another 100 million euros to London and New York, the largest markets.

    ``We help our clients sell where the buyers are,'' said Philipp von Wurttemberg, who runs Sotheby's French and German operations.

    In September, Sotheby's used $168 million in cash and 7.1 million shares of common stock to buy half of the Taubman family's stake and abolish its control of the auction house. Sotheby's shares, with a market value of slightly more than $1 billion, have lost about 2.6 percent this year. The stock closed yesterday in New York Stock Exchange composite trading at $17.68, down $0.08.

    Christie's, which doesn't report earnings, may release sales for the whole company early in January, said spokeswoman Catherine Manson. ``We are market leaders,'' she said. Sotheby's usually releases annual results in March.

    Meissen Birds

    Christie's growth in France accelerated in the second half after slowing to 7 percent in the first six months. More of the important sales fell in the second half, Curiel said. They included auctions for Daniel Filipacchi, the Wildenstein family and filmmaker Claude Berri, along with a wine auction for the Hospices de Beaune.

    In June, Christie's in Paris sold a pair of 18th-century Meissen birds for 5.6 million euros, a world record for European porcelain. Forty-six records were set during 2005, including for artworks by Dora Maar, Simon Hantai and Francois Xavier-Lalanne, the company said in a statement.

    Sotheby's French sales slipped this year from last year's 50 million-euro total. Exports from France rose 20 percent this year, von Wurttemberg said. Of these, 69 percent were sold in London and 29 percent in New York.

    A painting by the Fauve artist Maurice de Vlaminck, ``Le Jardinier,'' sold in London for 7.2 million euros, he said.

    French Treasures

    Christie's and Sotheby's are by far the world's two largest auction houses, with nearly equal international sales last year of about $2.5 billion a year each. Before the reforms, they used to run offices in France that were essentially export bureaus, finding French treasures and selling them abroad -- a strategy that Sotheby's still largely follows.

    In the first half of 2005, Tajan was in second place in France, with sales of about 34 million euros, behind Christie's with 49.3 million euros. Artcurial reported first-half sales of 28.7 million euros. Piasa, also owned by Pinault, had sales in the first six months of 20.2 million euros.

    Competing Markets

    Paris was once the world's largest art market and then lost ground to New York after World War II. London is the No.2 market, followed now by fast-growing Hong Kong.

    Sotheby's and Christie's both say they're making money in France, though neither house reports profit for the region.

    Christie's cost Pinault's holding company, Artemis SA, more than $1 billion. In 1998, the French investor agreed to buy the 70.9 percent of the auction house he didn't already own in a bid that valued the company at 721 million pounds.

    In 2002, Sotheby's and Christie's settled a U.S. antitrust suit, agreeing to pay $512 million to 130,000 clients. The auction houses agreed to settle for $40 million a separate federal action relating to auctions conducted outside the U.S.