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Photo of Druout auction house by Jean Charles Dicharr
Going, going, gone! Fast and furious French drops like confetti as auction bargains are snapped up with the fall of a hammer. Shoppers in the know cut out the middleman and buy direct from the source: Paris auction house Drouot. Since its doors opened in 1852 tout Paris has gone gaga over its antiques, furniture, jewelry, art, and more.
If you’ve ever visited the Marché aux Puces St–Ouen you’re already partially armored for the Paris auction house experience. Just like visiting St-Ouen requires you to exit the metro and walk through the smelly armpit of Paris, Drouot’s main location in the Paris 9th is located in another slightly seedy neighborhood, though admittedly not nearly as seedy as that of the famed marché.
The name Hôtel Drouot may conjure romantic images, but alas looks nothing like Hôtel Carnavalet. Instead, it’s a steel and glass contraption falling short of modern chic, with an exterior that appears dated and in need of renovation. Carpets are stained and the other shoppers… well, let’s just say they too are looking for a bargain and that’s where the fun begins.
Stepping into Drouot is like stepping into a vaudeville show where you get to play a part. You’re greeted by a cavernous red hall with a central stairway. Be bold: go up those stairs and start wandering from room to room. Act like you know where you’re going and trust me, no one will stop you. But before ascending les escaliers, detour to the info desk in the centre of the room and pick up les catalogues. Though these usually cost a few euro they are indispensable for following a particular sale, containing photos and estimates of the inventory.
If you’re on top of things, you will have already purchased a copy of the Gazette de l’Hôtel Drouot, a weekly magazine giving details on upcoming sales. Better yet, peruse the Drouot website with its “franglais” descriptions and multitude of instruction videos explaining the process before your visit.
Once upstairs, red rooms stretch on either side of the central hall, filled like Ali Baba’s cave with loot for the bidding. Glass cabinets protect the jewels and other small pieces that could walk off, but find a harried assistant dressed in black and red to “ouvrir la vitrine, SVP.” Then fondle, touch and have a seriously euphoric moment. Welcome to l’exposition—the viewings take place the day before each sale (from 11am to 6pm) and the day of the sale (11am to noon).
Mark the items you’re interested in purchasing in your catalog, confirming that the estimates fall within your price range before going hog wild. Coincidentally, should you get so caught up in the bidding that you give a “folle enchère” (a crazy bid), there is actually a process in place to help you recoup costs. Tell the criers—those men and women scurrying about the room giving purchase slips—that you were so bedazzled by shopping euphoria that you bid higher than intended and the auctioneer will re-auction the lot after frowning in your direction. That said, it is important to note that if the item you purchased doesn’t reach the same price you paid in a second bidding, then you’re responsible for paying the difference.
It’s best to go into the salle des ventes prepared to avoid said problems. First visit an actual sale but not one in which you intend to bid. Watch a few sales to get the lay of the land before participating. Occasionally you’ll find a civilized hall with chairs and patrons patiently waving their paddle, but more often than not, you’ll be crowded, shoulder to shoulder with the lot. Razor-sharp elbows will allow you to push your way to the front of the room to see the action. You need to know your French numbers—at least the numbers you intend to spend (25, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, etc.) and then you need either a keen grasp of math or a budget that allows flexibility for mathematical error.
The price you pay when the hammer drops at auction is only the beginning. Though the rules vary in each sale, the buyer’s premiums range from 9% to 20% plus VAT up to 19.6%. In short, the price you pay at auction gets a whole lot higher once the house gets done with you.
That might be disconcerting; however, it’s important to note that even with these fees you can still score a bargain at Drouot. Most of the shoppers at this Paris auction house are dealers looking to resell their lots. They need room in their purchase price to pad a profit, which means you as a consumer have more buying power than they as in order to score a bargain you only need to buy the product at a lower price than they would sell it to you.
The process of bidding at auction in a foreign language can seem downright daunting, but there is a loophole in the process. Drouot offers absentee bids called an Ordre d’Achat whereby you leave a bid, an enchère, with the house indicating your maximum price. The house then bids on your behalf, free of charge. You can then attend the auction, sit back and enjoy the atmosphere whilst never worrying if your French will lead you into making a costly mistake. Best of all, after the paiement is done, the auction house has on-site transportation services located on the ground floor to help arrange your local or international delivery for an additional charge. And as we’re living in a modern age, there are also online auctions that you can participate in from afar.
Here’s a video by Drouot to give you an idea of the experience in store for you:
At Drouot, the process of bidding at auction is confusing and takes tenacity as well as an ability to do mathematical calculations in a single bound while speaking and understanding at least minimal French, but it’s a one-stop shop with literally every resource you need on hand for a successful sale!
Drouot auction house (Hôtel Drouot)
9, rue Drouot, Paris 9th
Métro: lines 8 or 9, stop: Richelieu – Drouot
Open Monday through Saturday, 11am—7pm
Other locations noted at website
Photos and video courtesy of Hôtel Drouot publicity materials.