FRANCE HAS BRUSH WITH EU COMMISSION OVER OPENING OF LUCRATIVE ART MARKET

FRANCE HAS BRUSH WITH EU COMMISSION OVER OPENING OF LUCRATIVE ART MARKET

France's lucrative and closed art market is the object of the latest backroom battle between the French government and the European Commission, which is intent on opening it.

Through its highly regulated and unique art auction system, France has managed to exclude foreign art auction houses from operating in its domestic market in spite of European common market rules.But the days may now be numbered for some French dealers as the government finds itself under increasing pressure from the European

commission, the European Union's executive agency, to ease existing restrictions so British companies such as Sotheby's and Christie's can organize auctions in France. For the moment, foreign houses can buy art or antiques in France but must export them to auction abroad.

The European Commission began looking into the French system following a complaint by Sotheby's. Last March the commission threatened to drag France before the European Court if the country's auction market was not liberalized.

According to a commission official, discussions are ongoing with France but no solution has yet been found. Sotheby's in Paris refused to comment on the issue. A French official said last week that the government is preparing its response to the commission's complaint but would not give details.

Under the French system, which dates back hundreds of years, auctioneers are "officers" of the Ministry of Justice. Candidates must have two degrees in art and law before they can take an entrance exam for further studies and professional training.

At the end of this two-year period candidates take an aptitude exam to earn a state diploma. They can then buy shares in an existing officially- recognized business, inherit them or, on rare occasions, assume a position newly created by the government.

''The profession is not commercial but rather it serves as a legal intermediary between buyers and sellers," said a spokeswoman for the Paris- based National Chamber of Auctioneers. She pointed out that French auctioneers provide buyers a 30-year guarantee on the authenticity of an art object or antique.

France has nine auction companies and some 460 auctioneers across the country with about one quarter based in Paris. Last year total sales were 8 billion francs ($1.6 billion).

Bertrand du Vignaud, vice president of Christie's France, said the current conflict is about whether auction houses should be commercial or legal entities.

''The art market in France has suffered a great deal from the system," he said. "Some of the most important objects are sold abroad."

He said that for this reason Paris has lost a lot of its prestige to New York, London and Geneva, cities which attract the big art buyers.

According to Mr. du Vignaud this trend could be reversed with a more open market. Recently Christie's went to nearby Monaco to auction items from the personal collection of French fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy.

"Paris is missing out on indirect benefits from big sales like this which is really too bad," he said.