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Director of France’s national furniture collection defends plans to sell 100 items at auction to aid healthcare foundation

Move prompts fears that works from national museum collections could be sold off too

Hervé Lemoine, the director of France’s Mobilier National © Christophe Morin/ MCC (detail)

The director of France’s national furniture collection, Hervé Lemoine, has defended plans to sell off 100 items at auction this autumn in aid of French healthcare workers, stressing that “no major pieces of furniture” will be consigned for sale. 

The auction of pieces from the Mobilier National collection is expected to include furniture made during the Louis Philippe I period (1830-48) and is scheduled for 20 and 21 September. The sale profits will be donated to the Fondation Hôpitaux de Paris-Hôpitaux de France (Foundation for Paris Hospitals and French Hospitals), which is chaired by Brigitte Macron, the wife of the French president.

Didier Rykner, who edits the website La Tribune de l’Art, says: “These will not be master works [but] claiming to sell ‘treasures’ that clutter up the reserves will incite politicians to believe that selling [national] collections would be legitimate. If today we can sell national furniture [items], why not tomorrow the paintings and sculptures from the reserves of our museums, especially if the aim is to tackle the coronavirus crisis?”

More than 130,000 items are stored in the main depot of the Mobilier National, located in the Gobelins district (13th arrondissement), and in other warehouses on the outskirts of Paris. Objects from the collection are used to furnish the chateaux, palaces and embassies of France, along with state offices such as the presidential Élysée Palace. “The collection is in theory inalienable [cannot be disposed of], but furniture no longer having any use or heritage value can be sold if a relevant [sale] commission is proposed,” writes Sylvie Kerviel in Le Monde.

Lemoine told La Tribune de l’Art that “to use the terminology of the auctioneers, these [consigned works] are standard pieces… which have been used to furnish official buildings and some of our national palaces. But even in our national palaces, there are more common works and ordinary furniture. These are listed on inventory B of National Furniture so as to distinguish them from inventory A, which comprises important or interesting pieces.”

Classifying works divides “the wheat from the chaff”, Lemoine adds. “In our warehouses. we keep masterpieces and lopsided wardrobes in the same conditions. It is therefore necessary to identify the really important pieces so as to protect and identify them.”

High rental costs of the Mobilier National’s various storage spaces are also draining resources. “Today, almost 30% of our budget is eaten up by the cost of these spaces at the expense of restoring or acquiring remarkable pieces,” Lemoine says, pointing to new conservation premises for Mobilier National due to open in 2023 in Pantin, northereastern Paris, in partnership with the Centre National des Arts Plastiques (Cnap).

Rykner adds that “the Mobilier National keeps vast quantities of furniture which are no longer of use and would find no place in a museum. There are kilometres of stores which carry significant costs. But the way the sale has been marketed—in aid of the Brigitte Macron foundation—is wrong.”

Mobilier National is also setting up a €450,000 fund to help support artisans and craftsmen who make and conserve furniture. “Another [Mobilier National initiative] involves setting up a special acquisitions committee to which young designers and creators can suggest their ideas and projects, that we can buy and then [reproduce],” Lemoine says.