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The litany of cancelled and postponed events in Europe gets ever longer, with France, Germany and Spain particularly badly hit. This is not so much in terms of numbers of Covid victims, but because of the bumpy start to vaccine roll-out and the consequent uncertainty.

TEFAF Maastricht had already moved forward to May; now they are planning for September. The Salon du Dessin and Drawing Art Fair are optimistically going for June, as is the off-site simultaneous works on paper event, Drawing Week, due to take place in a number of premises, including museums. Any reopening will be a bonus for museums, closed now for a while and suffering accordingly, though – as reported earlier – many have increased their digital presence, which is good news for all of us unable to travel. Staff at the Louvre, the world’s biggest and busiest museum, are making the most of the opportunity to do some serious stock-taking, examining the immense reserves with a view to future shows. They are also busy renewing plasterwork and revamping displays, including re-hanging huge iconic works such as Delacroix’s Raft of the Medusa and Liberty Leading the People. Interviewed on French radio, a curator vividly described the precision teamwork involved in such a perilous exercise, before musing ironically on the comparative health risks posed by gazing at Liberty (not allowed) and shopping for a designer handbag in the sales (encouraged)…

Re-openings are scheduled for Easter in France and there are some treats in store. The ‘father of street art’, Ernest Pignon-Ernest, has been expressing his political, social and economic opinions on walls and pavements all over the world for half a century. By definition ephemeral, his works have nonetheless been preserved in the series of engravings of each that he made and kept. A retrospective of all these treasures is hanging in the Atelier Grognard at Rueil-Malmaison, just west of Paris. An appropriate venue, as the former factory made copper plates for etchings…

A crowd-funding operation has resulted in sufficient funds to restore its 40,000-strong textile collection, one of a number devoted to local crafts. —  2001 Lille City of Culture celebrations

A presentation and virtual tour (in French) is available on YouTube. Elsewhere, literature is in the limelight. La Fontaine is celebrated at Vaux-le-Vicomte and the life and times of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary at the Rouen Opera, complete with decors from the Martainville museum of Norman art and traditions. Flaubert and Victor Hugo both star in the latter’s museum at Villequier. Plans are afoot at Roubaix’s fabulous Art Deco swimming pool, transformed into a museum for the 2001 Lille City of Culture celebrations and still going strong. A crowd-funding operation has resulted in sufficient funds to restore its 40,000-strong textile collection, one of a number devoted to local crafts.

The most moving and shaking has been on the auction scene, where online trade has more or less seamlessly stepped into the live breach. As for Brexit and its tariffs, international and European outfits are much less concerned than their UK counterparts, although Christie’s are moving all their multi-vendor Asian sales to Hong Kong and Paris. As for Sotheby’s, a spokesperson told ACPP: “As a truly global company, we have all the systems and capabilities in place to navigate these regulatory changes, and we do not envisage any large-scale changes to our European business activities as a result of Brexit… For buyers and sellers based in Europe, transacting with Sotheby’s London will now simply work in the same way as if they were buying and selling in any other salerooms outside the EU, such as New York and Geneva. Every transaction needs to be examined on a case-by-case basis, but in several instances, changes from a VAT perspective are minimal, or might even be beneficial. As for shipping, we are yet to hear of any significant delays at the ports.”
Sotheby’s Paris are certainly not standing still; in 2023 they will move to a new site with increased exhibition space, the Galerie Bernheim Jeune premises on the rue du Faubourg Sant-Honoré. In December 2020 they scored a high for a painting by Eugène le Poittevin, Sea Bathing at Etretat, which tripled mid-estimate at €180,000. Shown at the Paris Salon in 1865, it was bought by Napoleon and long considered lost after his fall. In the same sale, a panel attributed to Rubens went for eight times low estimate at €160,000.

Artcurial, Paris, saw Christophe Person join the team as Head of Contemporary African Art from the department he piloted at Piasa. In the saleroom, Artcurial had a multi-estimate sale in December, at €240,000 for a painting by Carpeaux of one of his own sculptures, Why Born A Slave. Clearly resonating with current preoccupations, the original marble was shown at the 1869 Salon, two decades after slavery was abolished for the second time in France. But that result was eclipsed the next month with an all-time record for a Tintin cover by Hergé. His original artwork for The Blue Lotus was rejected by the printer as too complicated, with too many different colours. Hergé promptly gave it to the man’s young son, who shrewdly requested a signature. In mid-January, it made €2.6 million on the hammer, a cool premium-inclusive €3.2 million. Not only a record for Hergé, but for any auction sale for an original comic strip.

Germany and Ireland also made auction headlines recently. Lempertz, Cologne, sold a stunning late 16th century pietra dura view of Florence in November 2020. A patient fisherman sits by the Arno, with the city rendered in jasper, chalcedony and agate with a sophisticated perspective. The goldsmithing skills of its creator, Cosimo Castrucci, give it a jewel-like clarity. Mid-estimate €35,000, it raced away at €230,000. This rarity now joins the Liechtenstein Princely Collection. The last quarter saw the usual buoyant sales of Asian art, but not only in European capitals. Sheppards, at Durrow in County Laois, sold a rare celadon ‘double dragon’ vase in early December for €1.2 million. Not the first good result for the firm – this one went to an established Taiwanese buyer – but a definite house record.
Europe has seen some storms and some dark days in all senses in 2020, a year most were glad to see end. Cautious optimism has to be the mood for 2021, with maybe – just maybe – a return to trading in person at fairs and markets once again. On verra…

Judith Dunn