Sotheby April 2024 evening sale

Art Fairs and Auctions to Explore in Paris

If you are thinking of collecting art, much thought should go into your choices before purchasing. First, you need to know what you like, what moves you. Visit galleries, go to art exhibitions and fairs. Discuss art with friends; define your tastes. Then you can follow artists that interest you. 

Trade Fairs

Fairs are a concentrated marketplace for art. The visitor can see much of what is currently occurring internationally within a given time and place. 

Paris hosts a number of art trade fairs during the year where booths are set up for galleries to display their wares.  The major fairs typically occupy the Grand Palais during their short tenure, although between 2021 and April 2024, while the Grand Palais underwent massive renovations, they relocated to the Grand Palais Ephémère. Other regular fair sites include the Carreau du Temple and the Carrousel du Louvre

As a rule, many fairs will take place at the same time, organized as satellites around a renowned central fair, thus creating an “art week” with its overwhelming offer of fairs, exhibitions, and events throughout the city. If you are lucky enough to find a way to beg, borrow, or steal a VIP pass to the main fair, you will also be invited to free museum entrances, private visits to artists’ studios, museum exhibitions, and various openings. Even without the coveted pass, art weeks can become quite an overwhelming whirlwind of art with all that is happening during the same short week.

There are two major art weeks in Paris: the first built around Paris+ by Art Basel which takes place in October, and the second around ArtParis which occurs at the beginning of April. 

Of the two, Paris+ is THE major art fair in France with the world’s most high-flying galleries participating. While this very exclusive fair is particularly parsimonious with its invitations (even a reporter friend was not let in free of charge), there are enough satellite events to keep the most hyperactive of art lovers sufficiently busy.

For example, in 2023 satellite fairs (some of which are free) included Moderne Art Fair, AsiaNow (at the Monnaie museum), Paris Internationale (free), AKAA (Also Known as Africa), Offscreen (free — mainly showing video art and situated interestingly in a garage with the advantage of having no stairs but ramps up to the various floors of the “showroom”), and Art Shopping (free with invitation on its internet site). Traditionally during the Paris+ art week Palais d’Iena (free) offers an exhibition of renowned artists, the Tuilleries (free, outdoor) is turned into a contemporary sculpture park and galleries show off the best of their blue-chip artists.

Art fairs covering specific art media are Salon du Dessin and ParisPhoto, each with their satellite exhibitions, some free some for a fee. Salon de Dessin is the central exhibition with Drawing Now as the secondary one. During drawing week (La semaine du dessin), free visits are offered for the general public in various museums and institutions if you sign up quickly enough after they are announced. Orbiting around ParisPhoto is the gallery fair, Photo St. Germain where many galleries give their space over to photo exhibitions. Another is the Urban Art Fair, with no satellites (to my knowledge) although many galleries will give themselves over to urban art at the time of the fair.

The historical Salon de Paris and the Salon des Independants seem to have receded into a more general contemporary art fair known as Art Capital, which is subdivided into four constituent art fairs. For the most part at each of these fairs’ works are arranged according to various themes, and only a few pieces of any given artist will be found. Such an agglomeration of so many little-related artists can be quite mind-boggling.

While most fairs are more often than not an aggregate of galleries, the atmosphere at a fair is generally more hard-sell than at the galleries’ premises. Prices are rarely posted, but there is always a sheet nearby with a price list or the gallery’s representatives have a crib sheet of prices on hand. And whether you are a purchaser or not, it is a great pleasure to see all the art concentrated in a single, limited space. Of all the thousands of works on view, see what styles, palettes, strokes, forms, lines, and movements grab you — and which do not. They are a great place to clarify your personal taste.


Auctions are the number crunchers of the art world. They are the reference point of the value of an artist’s work which is calculated according to the latest prices paid for pieces created by that artist. Auctions are the kings of the secondary art market, i.e. when works are not sold directly by an artist or their gallery, but by previous owners of the work in question whether they had bought it at a gallery or through auction.

Visit a pre-exhibition of an auction and the plate describing the work will typically offer an estimation of its value in the form of a price bracket. This valuation is typically set on the suggestion of the auction house’s expert as compared to other works by the same artist previously sold at auction.  Bidders, then, are the final decision-makers concerning the value of an artwork.

There are a number of auction houses in Paris. The big names include Sotheby’s, Cristie’s, Artcurial, Piasa, Tajan, Bonhams, and Aguttes. All of these have their own premises to exhibit and auction off art. These auction houses will announce the type of art they will be selling, e.g. Modern and Contemporary, Works on paper, Urban art, and 17th-19th-century art. Often a sale may consist of a given individual’s complete collection. Depending on your interests, these exhibits are well worth visiting for your viewing pleasure.

Of particular interest to everyone, whether a potential purchaser or not, there are times when an auction house hosts the sale of a single artist’s work. The exhibit before this type of sale can be especially enticing as it is equivalent to a museum’s temporary exhibition of the artist. I will never forget Artcurial’s sale of Utrillo — three floors of nothing but this artist’s works, none of which I could afford, but a wonderful exhibit all the same.

And just like for trade fairs, if you can get on to a big auction house’s VIP list, there are invitations to openings of a sale’s exhibit, whereby a pleasant visit of the works can be enjoyed, full champagne glass in hand. 

Hotel Drouot, often considered a monolithic auction house, is in fact a building consisting of 16 rooms where 70 independent auction firms affiliated with the Hotel Drouot exhibit and hold their auctions. They maintain offices elsewhere, for the most part, nearby. Thus there is a large turnover as to who will be occupying the various rooms in the building on any given day. One might pop in to see particular works that have been advertised, or just to take a look around at whatever might be on sale. I once went for just a look around and ended up bidding on and winning a beautiful Christian Lacroix set of dishes for twelve, which I set out every Thanksgiving and for other special occasions. 

Auctions are not the place to start collecting. Once you have an idea of those artists you would like to collect you can register on the Drouot site and ask to be alerted to sales of those artists. A myriad of auction houses throughout Europe have enrolled with Drouot and register their upcoming catalogs with them. The site scans all the artwork for sale and sends out alerts when the work of an artist or category of art you have subscribed to comes up for sale. 

Bidding at auction can be done in person, by phone, or online. Concerning auctions, it is recommended to see the work before it goes up for bidding. Check for flaws — ask to pick up a piece or to see the back of a work which will often have information about galleries from which it was sold, or even other auction sales. Think ahead on your ceiling price keeping in mind the added fees which will include tax and commission, typically 30% above the hammer price. During the auction, you will need to make up your mind very quickly, within seconds, as concerns the price — raise or drop out? It is hard to resist the temptation from within and from the auctioneer to go higher than the maximum you have set. On the other hand, I have mourned years for some works I have let get away.  

And of course, be careful. I have just heard from a friend who was watching an auction online at Christie’s, and it seems that just as he was cleaning his touch-screen, he found himself the top bidder for a work he did not particularly want. He is now figuring out what he wants to do with the work. Personally, I like it, and he got it (albeit unwillingly) under the low estimate. He might have made the right purchase for the wrong reason, but that waits to be seen.

Sometimes the lower estimate acts as the reserve price, the price below which the consignor will not sell. While sometimes the reserve is even less than this estimate, the reserve cannot, by law, be higher. 

One interesting possibility, on the other hand, is not to take part in the auction at all, but to wait to see if the work sells. If it does not reach its reserve price, it is considered unsold. In this case, you can contact the auction house and make an offer within a few days; this is called an after-sale offer. The auction house will contact the consignor to see if they accept. One reasonable offer is the low estimate commission included, which means 30% lower than if you’d taken part in the bidding war. A friend often offers 50% of the lower estimate, plus commission. It’s for you to decide on an acceptable price for you and for the consignor to accept or not.

When considering the secondary market, some ask, “Which is better, buying at auction or from galleries?” As a friend once said, “In an auction, the price only goes up; in galleries, you can negotiate down.” True, but… galleries sometimes put prices up higher than an auction estimate. On the other hand, galleries sometimes let you pay over time, or even trade from your collection to offset the price of a work. Also, you can take time to think. Auction houses demand full payment within a few weeks, as they need to pay the consignor. Obviously, this all depends on how much you want a work, and how much you can afford.

Investing in art is a bit like the stock market: works can go up or down in price. But contrary to cold numbers you get the pleasure of living with a work that speaks to you. 

And remember, too, should you be stirred by art (purchaser or not) and thirsty to learn more, art fairs and auctions, while they exist for selling, are also great places to see art that will soon be outside the public domain. Take advantage of these possibilities, and enjoy!

Photo taken at Sotheby’s April 2024 evening sale.

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