Since the 1950s, the French auction market has been an authorized monopoly; under French law, 460 French public notaries have the exclusive right to conduct auctions. But following European Commission initiatives to break down trade barriers among member countries, the French government introduced legislation to lift its restrictions. According to a report in the London Times, a lack of parliamentary time forced the postponement of the legislation, and the French Justice Ministry said that "the bill may come back in 1999."
Major international auction houses have been eager to get into the French market. "As soon as the bill is cleared, yes, we will go there," said Christopher Burr, head of Christie's wine department in London, who for nearly a decade has conducted auctions in Bordeaux in conjunction with a French firm during the annual VinExpo trade fair. "I am not sure how big a market Paris will be, but I am sure it will be very interesting, as it is such a cosmopolitan place. There are many young cellars to source. ... Up until now, it has been restaurants and not private buyers or auction houses that have been sourcing cellars in France."
Paris remains the center for wine auctions in France; however, the sales are often poorly organized and difficult for foreigners to understand. Wines for sale are often in bad condition, there are often no descriptions of older wines, and the delivery service for sold lots can be inefficient. "There are lots of wine auctions in France, but they are very badly run," said Stephen Browett, an owner of fine wine merchant Farr Vintners in London and one of the biggest buyers in wine auctions around the world. "London is the fine wine auction capital, with New York on its tail, but Paris has never been a serious place for wine auctions. It is amateurish."
For that reason, Browett and many other key auction buyers are looking forward to worldwide firms such as Christie's and Sotheby's establishing themselves in France. Moreover, these buyers say, another serious source of fine wines is always a good thing. "There is an enormous amount of wine in France that just sits there in the cellars," said Paul Bowker, a former director of Christie's London and now a wine merchant with Wilkinson Vintners in London. "People will be more inclined to see what they have. It will liven up the market and will bring France down to more realistic prices."
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