Laure de Beauvau, the former head of Sotheby’s France, was one of the outstanding personalities of the international art market. Laure was the epitome of a great French lady, a marvellous ambassador both for her country and Sotheby’s, and held in universal respect and affection. For the last 31 years, her high intelligence, shrewdness, charm and humour made her loved not only by her French colleagues but across the company, and throughout the salons of Paris and beyond.
LAURE DE BEAUVAU, IN AN OFFICIAL PORTRAIT DURING HER TENURE AS HEAD OF SOTHEBY’S FRANCE © GETTY IMAGES
She was born Laure de Temple de Rougemont, the daughter of an army general who was appointed military attaché in London, and had an international childhood (complete with a Scottish nanny whom she adored). Laure married Prince Marc de Beauvau-Craon, whose family owned one of the great houses of France, the Château de Haroué, a few miles south of Nancy in the Duchy of Lorraine, but was widowed at age 40. Three years later, in 1986, the offer by Alfred Taubman of a position at Sotheby’s came as a godsend to one of such talents.
Sotheby’s Paris office at that time had a small but talented band of specialists with whom Laure formed a warm rapport: Marc Blondeau (Impressionism), Etienne Breton (Old Masters) and Alexandre Pradère (French furniture), whom she would often take on her visits to great collectors. She realised that at Sotheby’s the most important activity was getting experts in front of works of art, and manifested a gift for bringing the two together. Laure also grasped the importance of making appraisals which would earn client loyalty. Her first success came with the collection of antiquities, works of art and manuscripts belonging to Countess Behague that was sold at Sotheby’s Monte Carlo saleroom in 1986. It soon became obvious to all that Laure had the perfect touch with both clients and experts alike, and in 1991, Michael Ainslie, then Sotheby’s CEO, appointed her as head of Sotheby’s France. It was an inspired choice.
The French art market in those days was subject to an ancient system, the ‘commissaires-priseurs’ (established in 1556), which did not allow foreign competition, although Sotheby’s found a way around this by selling in Monaco. However, the French system itself was now in breach of European Commission laws of competition. Laure and Sir Nicholas Henderson, a former British Ambassador to France who served on the Sotheby’s Board, negotiated the successful triangular diplomacy with Brussels that was eventually to open up the French market and enable Sotheby’s to hold auctions in Paris. Under pressure from the European Union, the French government yielded in 1997, but initially nothing changed. Therefore it was Laure de Beauvau who challenged the old order when Sotheby’s held the spectacular house sale of the Beistegui collection at the Château de Groussay in 1999. The sale, conducted in association with local auctioneers Poulain Le Fur, was a landmark, and its success augured well for the future of Sotheby’s in Paris.
THE FIRST AUCTION TO BE HELD IN THE SOTHEBY’S PARIS SALESROOM, IN 2001
Given her ancien regime social position, the Princess Laure de Beauvau-Craon was a surprising individual to take on the French establishment, yet she did so with courage, determination and strategic intelligence, as well as good humour - a winning combination, especially when applied to arguments with the State. The revolution that she so successfully led resulted in her being rightly acclaimed by no less than Figaro and by the State itself as a leading figure in the worlds of both the arts and business. In recognition of her actions, in 2001 Sotheby’s France was given the first available registration number, N. 2001-002 (Christie’s France have 2001-003), by the Conseil des Ventes Volontaires. And to emphasise her central role, part of the legislation was named Lex Beauvau. She was very proud of both these things. The first auction held at Sotheby’s Paris saleroom, the Galerie Charpentier on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, was in 2001, the Hayoit sale. Many great sales followed, notably that of her friend the Baron de Redé, and most recently that of another close friend, Robert de Balkany.
Laure managed Sotheby’s France from its Paris office as a benign 18th-century chatelaine might run a great chateau. Certainly, nobody ever ran a more elegant establishment. Her staff adored her, and without children of her own, Laure found in Sotheby’s something of a family. She operated with charm, diplomacy and a great sense of fun. She was always the wisest of colleagues. It is difficult to think of anybody more loved and respected than Laure.