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Art Market in the Eighteenth Century France

Art Market in the Eighteenth Century France

The Industrial Revolution and Colonialism in the eighteenth century made the Europeans rich enough to buy expensive art. It was a consequence of the Industrial Revolution that people had more money to spend on luxury items, such as art and other collectables. The art market was emerging in France and England in the early eighteenth century. In the Age of Enlightenment (1668-1830), sometimes called the long eighteenth century, there was a rise of collectable items and collectors. As a result, it was a necessity of time to understand art. By this time, the french word 'connoisseurship' grew over time. In this time, the first auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's were established in London. The expansion of literacy was another consequence of the Industrial Revolution, and the growing literacy rate flourished the art market in Europe. We will discuss here about the art market in France, including the collectors, early connoisseurship, and the displaying method of artworks.

Joseph Wright, Experiment with the Air Pump, c. 1768
Oil on canvas, 183 x 244 cm, National Gallery, London

There was a strong relationship between the art market and the Industrial Revolution. The invention of steam engine started the Industrial Revolution. This revolution made England wealthier than anytime of history. It was clearly distinct from the earlier labour market and the ancient slave market. The main source of revenue of the country was the people worked in the industry. In 1705, Thomas Newcomen invented the simple steam engine to drain water from the coal mines. James Watt improved the design in 1765 opened a new door to the English people. One single machine could do more than dozens of people did before. This invention was used to gather enormous of wealth and wealth was always related to art directly. The Experiment with the Air Pump of Jeseph Wright (left) explains the relationship between the Industrial Revolution and the art.

Art Dealers and Collectors in France

During the eighteenth century, there were some influential art dealers in the Parisian art market. They sold artwork and other collectables in public auctions. Art dealers were not simple businessman who made money only buying and selling artworks. They influenced the art market with their enthusiasm and entrepreneurship. They were knowledgeable about art and collectables. Some of them had shown a new way of displaying art and collectables. Their influence affected the art market not only in business, but also the methods of displaying art and early connoisseurship.


Edme-Francois Gersaint was one of the prominent art dealers during the first half of eighteenth century. He had dominated the Parisian art market before death in 1750. Gersaint was responsible for making shell collecting as a Rococo aesthetic. He had influenced the art market in two ways. Firstly, Gersaint set a guideline about how to sell art in the modern market. Secondly, he made the art of catalogue printing as a genre.

After the death of Garsaint, Pierre Remy was one of the key players in the Parisian art market during the second half of the eighteenth century. He was a favoulous art auctioneer. So favoulous that between 1755 and 1791, Remy sold 130 auctions. Among three of these was the biggest in the whole century. These three were Blondel de Gagny (1776), Randon de Boisset (1777), and the Prince of Conti, Luis -Francois de Bourbon(1777). These three art auctions were the biggest not only in Paris but also entire Europe. He also auctioned the Count of Caylus (June, 1773), who was the most renowned antiquarians of his time. Pierre Remy also sold lately deceased Antoine-Joseph Dezallier’s cabinet collection in 1766. He printed a catalog and advertised the belongings of d’Argenville. Remy did not sell only the d’Argenville’s collection, he had also printed a catalogue. The catalogue described about Dezallier d’Argenville’s professional life, information about his collectables, and how valuable the auction objects were.

Dezallier d’Argenville’s
Dezallier d’Argenville

Dezallier d’Argenville was a prominent print and shell collector in Paris. He was an author of a couple of books on shell classification and gardening. His La Theorie et la pratique du jardinage (Paris, 1747) was a popular book on gardening. The second one was a widely welcomed book on shell classification, L’Histoire naturally ecaaircie dans deus de sesames parties principles, la lithologic et la conchyliologie (Paris, 1742). His main concern was shell classification and their method of display. Dezallier d'Argenville wrote two books about collection of shells and a treatise on gardening. He was more concerned about method and classification. He explained how to display shells in the cabinet in a systematic way. He suggested to place the objects and texts in tandem, so that, the naturalists and collectors can read and study the plates, examine the objects and compare among the images and objects in the same time. It trained their eyes also, looking to the images, reading to the texts, examining the objects and handling them in an appropriate way. The whole process can be called as a reader/viewer/handler method. He was also a well-known print collector and a connoisseurship theorist. He wrote another multivolume book named Abrege de la vie des plus famous peintres (Paris, 1745-52), which is still a reference for art historians about seventeenth and eighteenth century artist biographies. Dezallier was an open minded person. He welcomed everyone to see his cabinet.


Rise of Collectors, Collectables and Dealers in Paris

During the eighteenth century, the collectors and the number of dealers increased significantly. The same was true for public auctions and the publishing catalogues. In the first half of the century, there were only 564 “arts and curiosities” published in catalogue. During the second half, it increased near about ten times, 5849. It suggested the growing demand of artworks. The average number of public auctions also increased in the century. During 1750s, the public art auctions were only five, and during the 1760s, it was increased threefold, fifteen. In the next decade, it was more than eightfold (more than 40 auctions in 1773). The scenario continued until 1780. The following table will describe the picture more easily.


No. of Public Auctions


No. of Collectors


No of Collectables

No of Auction Houses in Europe


>= 5






        >= 15







        >= 30


         >= 40


<= 40


Table 1: A comparison among Auctions, Collectors, Collectables and Dealers

The Sale Catalogue

One important impact in increasing collectables, collectors and public auctions was the development of catalogue printing as a genre. This catalogue contained more information about the sale. Some catalogues were very simple and printed only the list of the items. The other catalogues were printed valuable information about the collection, the collector and possibly include images. It added much value about the collectables, the history of the collection, and possibly collecting advice for the curious minds. Piere Remy’s catalogue was an example of this. He used the catalogue for artistic connoisseurship. During the Enlightenment period, the catalogue also got a high value, as it reviewed in journals and sent to the libraries. Garsaint played the main role catalogue as a genre. He was interested business with a combination of visual aesthetics.


1. Robert Lacey, Sotheby’s: Bidding for Class, (London: Little Brown and Company, 1998), 18-21.

2. Daniela Bleichmar. "Learning to Look: Visual Expertise across Art and Science in Eighteenth-Century France," Eighteenth-Century Studies 46:1 (2012): 96.

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Viewer’s Comments 1

Mustafa Ahmed Khan 10Mar 2021

Useful post.