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I was a painter before I was a diplomat

Nathalie Beras - 19 février 2016

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When I started at Sotheby’s in 2010 in the Russian Art Department, I discovered a world where passion for art and record prices for the works of most sought-after artists were combined through the magic of the auction.

I was immediately astounded by the close relationship between experts and masterpieces, for you have to touch a piece or a frame, and scrutinize works on paper through a magnifying glass to judge its authenticity. Like everyone else, I was used to looking at paintings in museums from a safe distance, as if they were sacred artefacts. But the first time my colleague from the antique paintings department thrust a Fra Angelico into my hands, I understood immediately that I was in a whole new world.

Another surprise awaited me, for which my career as a civil servant had ill prepared me : that of excitable auctions where paintings fly off the shelves for millions of dollars in a few minutes through telephone bids, where the world’s greatest museums compete with private buyers the purchase of the finest pieces. Nothing predestined me for this dive into the life of an American multinational which has auction houses and offices around the world, whose marketing strategy is global, and which sells the works entrusted to it to buyers anywhere in the world. Yet it was my knowledge of Russian and regional knowledge that encouraged Sotheby’s to recruit me, and which brought me this unique chance for an original working experience. It is true that, the year before, I had completed a Master’s degree in the art market to familiarize me with these trades, but it is also my diplomatic experience and negotiating skills that interested Sotheby’s. But I was a bag of nerves when, during my first week, my first customer came to ask if the Russian art expert – me ! – could authenticate in his presence a painting by Marie Vassilieff and give a valuation... I suddenly felt quite alone and understood what a long way I had to go to become a recognized expert !

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What does it mean when a painting like Modigliani’s Portrait of Doctor Paul Alexandre goes for €13 million at Sotheby’s in Paris in 2014 ? It means that our attractiveness is also in play on the art market. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, we promote tourism, gastronomy, innovative businesses and leading-edge research. But our influence also draws on our ability to attract major collectors and connoisseurs to the Paris market. France’s art market is dynamic as it is founded on a very important art heritage, but it is increasingly dependent on international customers. The Drouot auction house provides us with a historic umbrella brand that brings together 70 independent auctioneers with major names like Tajan. Yet we lack a national champion, whose size would allow the organization in France of major international sales, even if Artcurial is making regular progress behind the Sotheby’s-Christie’s duopoly. Our French players, including auction houses, galleries and even museums, need to adapt to the changes on the art market in the last decade, whereby buyers come from the United States and Europe, but also – increasingly – from Asia, the Middle East and Russia. More museums were created between 2000 and 2015 than during the 19ᵗʰ and 20ᵗʰ centuries, and we have a clear role to play at a time when we talk of the museum industry and museum tourism.

Where did my desire for such an atypical career experience come from ? I have long loved art, but my passion has grown over the years to the extent that this choice was clear. I was a painter before I was a diplomat, but my long immersion in a world of artists, collectors and art experts at Sotheby’s decided me to affirm my commitment to art. As I examined others’ paintings, I wanted to claim myself the identity of the painter. Like many, I started out in the figurative style, but I have gradually shifted towards abstraction since 2002.

From 22 October to 5 November 2015, I exhibited for the first time in Paris 20 paintings illustrating the many influences of my work : those of Gerhard Richter but also those of my diplomatic career around the world. The square canvas is the obvious receptacle for the empirical visions that mark my culture which draws on Russia and Central Asia, with golden yellow stained glass, the rich palette of Uzbek ikat, and the ceramics of the mosques of Turkestan. It was a pleasure to share this journey through contemporary art and the colours of faraway countries with my guests during the vernissage on Thursday, 22 October from 18:00 to 21:00.

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