Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams… Hôtel Drouot? It’s not a hotel, and in fact not even an auction house – but it might be the most exciting sale venue you’ve never heard of.
Having opened its doors on 1 June 1852, Drouot is the world’s oldest auction sale venue. Technically it’s not a single entity but rather an umbrella group of 75 independent Paris-based auction houses that conduct their sales in shared spaces around the city, the largest of which is Drouot-Richelieu on Rue Drouot in the 9th Arondissement. The venues hold an auction each day, six days a week, with viewings typically open for just one day before the sale (although they are viewable online either than that) – in contrast to the week-long viewings at some other houses. As a result of the scope of sales, Drouot welcomes around 5,000 visitors a day, to sales dealing with everything from fine art to furniture, claret to couture and diamonds to dinosaurs. Highlights are published in a weekly Gazette and these days around 30% of sales take place online, making Drouot an international sales destination.
The Hotel Drouot Gazette, Tuesday 10th February 1891
Sales at Drouot rely on a panel of around 200 independent experts to assess and value all of the lots offered. In France, a law known as the garantie trentenaire holds the auctioneer responsible for the accuracy of any attribution for a full 30 years, which means that attributions tend to err on the conservative side, to avoid the risk of claims – and thus treasures might potentially be overlooked. In France it is more common than in many other countries for families to uncover lost masterpieces and valuable items during probates or house clearances – the Rembrandt in the attic, so to speak – and, without an equivalent to Italy’s draconian ‘notification’ system that regularly prevents artworks from leaving the country, there is a much better chance that significant pieces can find new homes on the international market.
Among the recent discoveries to go under the hammer at Drouot was a version of Pieter Brughel the Younger’s popular composition The Village Lawyer, discovered during an appraisal at a home in Northern France. The family members, who had for generations assumed the piece (which hung behind a door) to be a copy after the popular composition, were astonished when they were told that it was in fact an original (there are around 90 versions known to exist) potentially worth hundreds of thousands of euros. The painting sold on 28 March 2023 for 780,000 euros.
Pieter Bruegel the Younger, The Village Lawyer, 1615 – 1617, sold at Hotel Drouot
As for what’s coming up… fancy a dinosaur? ‘Barry’ the camptosaurus, who lived in the late Jurassic period (some 150 million years ago) is expected to fetch up to 1.2 million euros on 20 October (a bargain compared to the £20 million price tag for ‘Chomper’ the baby T-Rex at this month’s Frieze Masters). Drouot was also responsible for selling ‘Big John’. the largest triceratops ever discovered, on 21 October 2021 for 6.6 million euros.
‘Barry’ the Camptosaurus, for sale at Hotel Drouot
Given the number of lots that pass through the Drouot salerooms on a weekly basis, it is inevitable that some things might be overlooked – or worse. Such was the case in 2016, when 35 porters were jailed for larceny and three auctioneers received suspended sentences for aiding the thieves. The porters, who were responsible for handling and transporting the artworks prior to sale, were found to be stealing valuable pieces – many of them from estate clearances, rather than from living owners, who would be more likely to notice and report an absence – and then consigning them for sale at a later date under their personal accounts. The auctioneers who had known of the practice but neglected to alert authorities were found to be receiving a cut of the profits.
Such underhandedness is, thankfully, relatively rare at Drouot and at other auction houses, although we can never stress enough the importance of due diligence when buying or selling at auction. So the next time you find yourself in Paris, perhaps with a couple of hours to spare between visits to the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, wander over to one of Drouot’s sale venues and bid for a bargain!