Interview with François Tajan, Deputy Chairman of Artcurial

Founded in 2002, Artcurial is leading French auction house, with over 25 areas of expertise, selling everything from artworks to luxury items including jewellery, watches, vintage cars and designer handbags. As an auction house they are known for generating world records and excitement around their sales, this year selling a Van Gogh landscape for more than 7 million euros (the highest price paid for a work of modern art sold in France in 2018.) François Tajan is from a dynasty of auctioneers and joined Artcurial in 2015. He has been particularly active in the firm’s international development. Here, we speak to François himself, who sheds some light on the inner workings of an internationally recognised auction house.

Hi François, thank you for agreeing to talk to us today – can you start by telling us a bit about your background and how you came to Artcurial?

I have been an auctioneer for the last 28 years; however, it was not my first job. I started out studying law and then worked in film production for around 5 years. It was then a natural progression that I joined the family auction house Tajan, founded by my father, whilst here I specialized in Art Déco. I undertook further studies in History of Art to complete my educational background and pass the French auctioneer exam to progress in my chosen career path.

François Tajan, deputy chairman, Artcurial, photo credit: Flavien Prioreau
François Tajan, deputy chairman, Artcurial, photo credit: Flavien Prioreau

I worked at the Family auction house Tajan for 13 years. In favor of its sale to the LVMH group and later for its resale to the actual shareholder, I decided, almost 14 years ago, to join Artcurial and took an active part in its development. For me, the adventure seemed too promising and ambitious to pass up on. I was sure that with a solid shareholder, (the Dassault Family), passionate and experienced associates, and a prestigious location on the Champs-Elysées, Artcurial would become one of the leading international auction houses.


You sell a wide range of luxury items at Artcurial. Is there any way of being able to tell what will sell best at auction, or are you often left surprised? What is fashionable to buy at the moment?

The market has evolved considerably over the past few years and there is now a much higher demand for luxury items than there was 15-20 years ago when the market was much more niche. Over the past 10 years, we have noticed a strong development in wine, watches, jewellery and Vintage Hermes and Artcurial has been pioneering in dedicating auctions to these specialties. Luxury has been globalized in its preference/taste and the impact of the leading luxury houses in Jewellery, Watches etc… results in collectors seeking these products all over the world. We chose to establish all our luxury item’s sales in Monaco in order to address this luxury market.

In terms of works of art, we cover the entire spectrum of specialties on the market – from ancient arts (archeology) to modern and contemporary arts (up to street art). This year Artcurial set the record for a modern artwork sold at auction in France with a Van Gogh landscape that fetched more than 7 M€.

It is in our DNA to be specialized in all these departments and our ambition is to always be ready to discover emerging markets and new clients (who generally seem to be most interested in 20th and 21st century art.)

In terms of what will sell best, there is always a bit of surprise which is what makes this profession so stimulating, we only know the price once the hammer has fallen.  As the auction house we are here to give indications and figure estimates, but there are also surprises. For instance, last April, we organized the auction of the furniture of the famous Ritz Hotel in Paris: a desk and a chair from the Mademoiselle C. suite fetched 188 500 € (original estimate: 600 – 800 €).


What advice would you give to someone attending one of your auctions for the first time?

To enjoy themselves and to make purchases with their heart and the eyes, and not with their ears. Very often we notice a standardization of taste, some works of art are trendy and some less so. Artcurial’s strength is to offer lots in a wide range of domains, we believe it should never be discriminative. Each domain deserves to be appreciated, known and studied. Books & Manuscripts for example – you are able to acquire works with great literary value that carry emotion and history for relatively affordable prices. My advice is to open your eyes, enjoy and don’t just follow trends. Trends are important in the sense that they create a certain dynamic of creation and renewal, but they change too regularly to base your decision solely on them.


In 2017 Artcurial announced the acquisition of John Taylor Group, a luxury real estate firm. What developments have happened since?

Artcurial was very happy to announce the acquisition of John Taylor. Our profession is about the contents of buildings – therefore the advantage of being linked to a prestigious luxury real estate firm that generates a great number of high-end transactions of villas, apartments, and buildings, creates great opportunities.

It is beneficial for both parties. For instance, if someone wishes to sell a property they may too want to get rid of certain objects that fill it and vice versa, someone who is buying a house may wish to fill it. The synergy between a building and what it holds is important and I am convinced that it will increase sales revenue of both parties involved.

Vincent VAN GOGH, Raccommodeuses de filets dans les dunes – 1882, Oil on paper mounted on board Sold 4th June 2018, 7 065 000 € / 8 266 050 $, World record auction price for a Landscape from the artist’s Dutch period highest auction price for impressionist and modern art in France in 2018, Photo credit: Artcurial


Can you tell us some of your highlights from 2018?

There were many highlights.  We organize more than a 100 sales per year in every domain. One of the most important highlights was definitely the sale of the Van Gogh painting by my associate Francis Briest. This painting is still the highest sold modern painting in Paris for Modern Art in 2018 and got a lot of media coverage.

The Ritz auction was also a key event because it represented the prestige associated with French luxury. The auction saw us collaborate with Vincent Darré who created the scenography with the entrusted lots. It was a five-day auction and exhibition attended by thousands of people. The results were also impressive as we ended up with a total sale of more than 7 million euros, premium included.


How did Artcurial perform in 2018?

Artcurial has yet again grown by 2% this year with a total of 195,3 million of sales revenue premium included. This slight increase rewards the directive scheme of our house – in 1 year we have held hundreds of auctions across a huge range of specialities (from classic car collections, books & manuscripts, art déco, design, jewellery etc…). We want to make it clear that we are not only interested in auctions which sell typically popular, trend-based items.

Variations of segments can be compensated depending socio-economical situations or trends which is why our numbers are always increasing. I believe our activities in Monaco have also contributed to our growth – and our offices in Brussels, Milan, Vienna, Munich and Monaco are also major factors in this.


You held the first five Online Only auctions in the second half of this year – was it a success and will this be something Artcurial continues? Did you see a change in the clientele the auction attracted?

We initiated these 5 online auctions in the last few months. We had intended to hold these auctions earlier, but due to some technical issues there was some delay, this resulted in them also not being advertised in the official auction calendar. However, we took advantage of this as it allowed us to start slowly and see what happens without being too loud about it – and then depending on the results we would promote our online sales more (or less).

Luckily, the results were very good, most notably for Fashion, Arts and Watches. These specialties function well with the operational procedures of the online auctions for their multiple characteristics. For example, if the descriptive and condition report of a Rolex is precise, detailed and provides enough pictures, there isn’t really a major necessity to come and examine the watch as everything is accounted for. The jewellery auction was slightly less successful, I believe this was because certain unique pieces of jewellery need to be seen in person, buyers will also want to try on the pieces. We sold almost 2/3 of the total lots entrusted to us – similar results to those we get at our regular auctions. Therefore, we will continue with online auctions in the future.

In terms clientele, there wasn’t a major change as it was mostly our regular clients who we spoke with about the sales. For 2019 we plan on publicizing the sales more through media in order to attract new clients that are accustomed to online auctions. Our 2018 sales were luxury oriented, however in 2019 we plan to expand. For example, one of our sales will include comic books to see how the market will react to lots that are more “collector” and “lifestyle” oriented. The objective is also to be more selective on the lots we propose for our regular auctions in the hope that our online auctions can serve as a platform for “smaller” lots.


We recently published a report on how auction houses can benefit from digital transformation, what are your views, do you think in time it will become a necessity for all auction houses?


Digitalization is undeniable in two ways: communication and diffusion of information and allowing us to present our catalogues to people who are not part of our regular client base. In our regular auctions, we notice that 1/3 of the buyers are unknown before the sale, this means they must have been aware of the lots and most likely viewed them online. A further 1/3 of the buyers received physical catalogues for the sale and the other 1/3 were often clients of other sectors. Our newsletter and social media play a valuable part in making our clients aware of our activities.

There is no denying that the art market has been revolutionized by the internet. However, I don’t think online auctions are the most important part of this digitalization – for me it is about making the auctions known to as many people as possible. The higher the participation, the better the results and therefore there is a higher potential to attract new clients and sellers.

We have also noticed an internationalization of our clients. When I started 30 years ago, 2/3 of our clients were from the most luxury residential areas of Paris. Today in comparison, I do not think these areas represent even 5% of our clients. A lot of our clients are French expats, and in general 75% of lots are acquired by international clients. I have also observed that the more expensive the item, the more common it is for it to be exported. The emerging countries also contribute to generating new clients and collectors of 20th century fine art and luxury items.


A recent post on your website mentions that you are looking to strengthen your international presence in 2019 – how do you intend to do this?

Marrakech has taken an important place in the market for us – one area we specialize in is African contemporary art and orientalist art and we attract a new clientele in Morroco and the Emirates. We held four auctions in December during the new Marrakech Art Week, initiated by Artcurial at the Es Saadi Palace. The auction allowed us to create links with new potential international clients who could be interested in many more of the domains that we offer. We were also exceptionally lucky to host the auction in the Es Saadi Palace, a stunning venue.

Beyond the development of our European offices we are looking to expand and invest outside of Paris in France. We already have representatives in Bordeaux, Toulouse and Montpellier and we plan to look further afield in the coming year.


Can you tell us about any upcoming sales or events you are looking forward to in 2019?

Our first sale will take place shortly in Monaco and will sell luxury items including; jewellery, fine watches and the Hermes winter collection. Aside from three weeks in August our auction calendar is filled up for all of the 11 months of the year.  After our Monaco sale we will have a Retromobile, which this year will have a wider selection, with thr total estimation price at an all-time high. Another auction we are excited about is our sculpture sale which will also take place in Monaco. We will present a selection of monumental sculptures which can adorn a garden or terrace, as well as smaller sculptures from the 20th century. Please keep an eye on our website for details of all of our sales.


How Auction Houses Can Benefit from Digital Transformation


Cover image: Idem for the view of the auction : Artcurial’s auction room in Paris, on the Champs-Elysées, Photo credit: Artcurial