The Dealer: Fighting the mob in Paris

This week esteemed antiques dealer Ian Butchoff finds himself in Paris, up against 1000 other dealers

The Eiffel Tower

Last week I found myself on the 5.30am Eurostar to Paris.

There was a very good collection of 19th century furniture and objects coming up for sale in the Drouot, the official government building allocated to conduct auctions.

For those of you who have never been there it is very Gallic. A totally mad system that takes some getting used to.

The building is in the Rue Drouot to the north of Paris. The monopolistic French laws governing auctions were only relaxed in 2000 and it now has to compete with the likes of Christies, Sothebys et al. Before then it was the only place where goods could be sold at auction. It now houses 70 or so independent auction firms.

The metal portcullis over the front door is raised at 11am precisely, by which time up to 1000 dealers, collectors and private buyers are waiting outside. It is always nice waiting and catching up with old friends in the sun, less so in the cold and wet.

Once the doors are opened a thousand people all try to force their way in at once. Reminiscent I think of the first day of the Harrods sale.

After being jostled and pushed you make your way up or down the escalator, depending on your whim and fight your way into one of the rooms. There are 16 halls altogether and usually things are piled around the perimeter walls and in the middle. This necessitates navigating the room in an anti clockwise direction, being carried along by the crowd.

It is almost impossible to stop and examine and object, if you did you would be run over in the rush. There are up to 16 auctions in any one day to be viewed, so time is of the essence as one hour later, at noon precisely, everyone is evicted from the building for lunch, only for the it to open again at 2pm for the actual auctions.

All the rooms are relatively small, and as a result there is a great crush to get in and get a seat or risk being left standing for up to five hours.

One particular auction caught my eye and there were some very rare and wonderful things estimated modestly. Over lunch I was musing with some of the other dealers who had also come over from England for the auction about what our chances were of picking up a bargain.

Ever hopeful and lifted by a nice glass of Burgundy or two we fought our way back into the auction room.

In their imitable way the auctioneers took forever to sell each lot and I have to admit, with the heat in the room and after those couple of glasses of wine, it was difficult to stay awake.

Eventually the lots of interest came under the hammer and things really heated up. Russian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, French and English bidders all vying against each other, until the inevitable happened and things became too expensive, making up to 15 times their estimates, with any potential profit going out of the proverbial window.

Five hours later we emerged into the now enveloping dusk in search of an elusive taxi to get us back to the Gare de Nord in time for the London train.

In the end, all I had to show for a very long day were an expensive train ticket, an auction catalogue, a good lunch and a number of small bruises from the mob.

Next time I get the masochistic urge to get up and go to Paris at 5.30am maybe I should resist the temptation and go back to sleep. Vive la France!

Ian Butchoff is the founder and owner of Butchoff Antiques, located on Kensington Church Street. He entered the trade aged 11 and is today recognised as a leading authority on 19th century furniture. He is a co-founder and board member of the dealers’ association, LAPADA, and writes a regular column for


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