When the shops on the Rive Gauche appear quiet and ungodly expensive, you’ll know it’s time to head to the auction house, Drouot, situated on the right bank where so many trophies are bought and sold. Hôtel Drouot, founded in 1857, is the world’s oldest auction house.
This place is vibrant and crowded and, as with any auction house, full of potential deals. Here, women in vintage Chanel get into bidding wars with women in vintage Dior over the portraits of late dukes that they’ll one day claim as ancestors. Everywhere old French men appear, some in double-breasted suits, others in tweed, and others more humbly dressed hunting for a bargain. While the Rodin sculpture might be lot 76, lot 81 is a landscape with a faint signature that someone whispers could be a Brueghel, and lot 113 is an unframed, unsigned, acrylic depicting two cows in a field. In short, something for everyone.
Drouot isn’t so much an auction house as it is a collective for some 75 small, privately owned auction houses each with its own commissaire-priseur, or auctioneer, backed by a battery of experts whose knowledge extends to every kind of collectible: stamps, jewelry, designer clothing, art, tapestries, furniture, posters, you name it.
The prices fluctuate wildly both within and between the many salles. The auctioneers have their own pitch and timbre and style. At first it’s overwhelming, but you consult the catalogs and roam between the rooms (perhaps seven of them simultaneously in action, 16 total over three floors), vying for a painting or a sculpture or a beautiful antique musical or scientific instrument. You hope to stay within your budget; then you raise an index finger once… twice… then shake your head to indicate that the price has gone too high.
So you change rooms and stay patient. And, eventually, you raise your hand with confidence, and keep it raised so casually, until the room is aware of your conviction. The auctioneer turns to the men and women seated on either side who take bids over the phone and internet. One whispers into a receiver, then quickly shakes his head. The gavel falls.