Artcurial, Briest-Poulain-F. Tajan, Retromobile, Paris, February 7-8, 2014
The signature auction at Retromobile, February’s big car collecting show in Paris, has been traded around. From Christie’s to Bonhams to this year’s Artcurial, it arrived at its 2014 expression as a two-day auction of some 175 automobiles with diverse marques on Friday and a ‘Solo Alfa’ auction (of post-war cars) on Saturday.
Now, I have a self-admitted proclivity for the cars of Portello (and Arese). The ‘Solo Alfa’ sale contained examples never seen, nor probably heard about, in the States including diesels, turbos and the despicable Ondine, an Alfa-built Renault Dauphine. But there were GTAs, GTAms, Giulia and Giulietta Ti’s (apologies to my English teachers for that misplaced apostrophe but ‘Tis’ isn’t clear) that encompassed much of Alfa’s postwar history. Hard to resist? You bet!
Retromobile is worth visiting by itself, presenting displays from manufacturers highlighting their history right through the spectrum of exhibitors to fringe (by American standards) marque clubs representing obscure French fascinations like BNC [but think back to the V8-60 powered BNC presented at RM Amelia, not so fringe on that basis.] Vendors sell carburetors, chrome trim, mirrors, models, prohibitively expensive timepieces and everything in between. The book dealers alone could harm even a grandiose IRA.
Ellen, my wife, got a pair of open finger mittens with fur trim. Why were they at Retromobile? I have no idea, but we live in an old New England house and it gets cold in winter so they’ll be put to good use.
Collector car dealers displayed phalanxes of mega-Euro cars … more than we’d see on all the auction blocks of Monterey combined.
But, to the Artcurial Briest-Poulain-F.Tajan auction.
First, cramming 175 cars into a far corner of the vast, but still limited, Hall 1 of the Porte des Versailles exhibition space meant sucking in your tummy and minding your bum while wending through the spaces between cars. The close quarters also explain the many oddly-shot high angle photos in the auction report.
There were a number of American consignors, including the Ferrari 166 MM/53 with Oblin Barchetta coachwork that was, by a handy half million dollars plus, the auction’s highest sale.
Even accepting the site’s restrictions, however, the auction’s presentation was not friendly to anyone not conversant, or better yet, fluent, in French.
That’s not referring to being conducted in Euros – although the currency conversion display had a materially inflated conversion of the Euro bids into dollars.
It’s about the presentation.
The maitré, M. Hervé Poulain, was flanked by nine functionaries on the block, two of them with microphones. Another spotter, also with a microphone, roamed the bidders. All of them would chime in, frequently simultaneously in a cacophony of French — descriptions, calling bids independently, commenting and carrying on conversations — that was incomprehensible. ‘Calling bids’ means exactly that, announcing independently of the maitré the amount of the bid, sometimes even announcing successive bids from different bidders without being acknowledged by the auctioneer. It was like Dean Kruse and Phil Skinner talking simultaneously on the old Kruse Auburn auction block with Marty Hill and Brent Earlywine holding mics on the block and in the audience and calling bids. There was no idea where the bids were, who was in charge or what was going on.
The French-speaking bidders may have been able to sort it out; the rest were left cross-eyed and distracted. One of the mic-bearers would occasionally announce a bid in English, but that was the exception, not the rule.
Don’t get me wrong. This was a successful auction. It sold 152 lots of 175 offered (86.9%) for $39,146,936, 26.3% of them for over the high estimate (38.3% under the low estimate), racking up 99.2% of the estimates on the cars sold. The mean sale was $257,546, with a median of $71,520 (27.8% of the mean) which means a few cars were sold for Big Money but most were accessible, particularly the ‘Solo Alfa’ collection on Saturday.
But it was the most confusing, diffused, erratic auction I’ve attended at least since my last Artcurial Paris sale in 2003. Then they didn’t even have a currency conversion display and announced the bids in French.
Compared with Gooding’s Charlie Ross (the benchmark for clear, concise, defined auctioneering) or RM’s Max Girardo [who moves seamlessly from English to French to Italian and back to English depending upon his bidders] Artcurial’s multiple French language bid-calling cacophony is disorienting and does nothing to involve non-French speaking bidders who, is should be recalled, have much of the buying power in today’s collector car market.
Hervé Poulain and his Artcurial cohorts might take notice.
[Note: My calculations couldn’t accommodate Artcurial’s buyer’s fee structure. Hammer bids on cars over €1.4 million are inaccurate due to Artcurial’s buyer’s fee structure: 16% of the hammer bid up to €600,000, 12% of the next €800,000 and 10% of the bid over €1,400,000, by far the most expensive venue to buy a collector car in the world. Buying a car at Artcurial’s Retromobile auction is an experience (mixed though it might be), but bidders will have to decide for themselves if it is worth the 16% buyer’s commission on even expensive (€600,000 equaled $816,840 hammer on the day of the sale) cars?]
[Note 2: The pandemonium of multiple French-speaking auction staffers is exacerbated by the hazards of translation. A good example stood outside the Retromobile hall, this truck.
Its owner no doubt though the chosen name expressed a positive image of a dedicated hauler barreling down highways through to dark to get precious cargo delivered in the nick of time. An American, reading the name, could be forgiven for declining to entrust cargo to a ‘Fly by Nite’ company.]