For four years, Alice Jossaume has been managing the venerable firm Portier & Associés with calm and serenity while taking a modern, dynamic look at the Asian market.
This year, Portier & Associés is celebrating its 110th anniversary, making it one of France’s oldest expertise firms. Alice Jossaume, who joined the company 15 years ago to support Thierry, the founder's grandson, is now alone at the helm, heading a 100% female team. During Drouot’s Asia Week, we interviewed her about how the market has changed since the turn of the century.
Isn’t being a woman, and a young woman at that, a handicap in this field?
I’ve never had any problems in Asia. This may come as a surprise to you, but it's harder here in France! I studied the Chinese language and civilisation. I think that’s an asset in our relationships and a sign of respect.
You’re now the head of a century-old firm. How do you manage that?
I was raised at the "Portier School" of caution and continue in the same direction. This is essential because a lot of money is at stake in our field. I manage about 10,000 items a year. That's huge, not to mention the dozens of emails we receive daily. That's what has changed our business the most. Even if I’m asked to reply immediately, I don’t, and as soon as I have a doubt, I ask for better quality pictures. This new way of selling things must be treated with the utmost care. The blue and white porcelain vase from the Yongle period that sold in 2005 at Tajan (editor's note: sold for €3.8 M on 21 November 2005) was bought just on the basis of sending a picture.
How has the market changed since you started in 2004?
The early 2000s were exceptional. Since 2010, there’s been a readjustment: increase, decrease and correction since 2013. Paradoxically, while the market is growing by 6% a year, fewer and fewer items are available and the prices of average-quality pieces have stagnated. The striking phenomenon of recent years is the emergence of new collectors in China, who all want to create their own museums. This has led to a high demand for high-quality objects. But the market is very volatile. Once the coveted object has been acquired, buyers move on to another search.
How is demand distributed?
There are two kinds of items. Those made in China and intended for export, such as the pink families and India Companies. The Chinese don’t look for these pieces. They remain in the West. All the others return to China, I would say 80%. Nevertheless, Chinese buyers are very careful about what they choose and provenance is an essential requirement for them. Buyers always ask about it. It's a huge added value.
How does China's political and economic situation affect the market?
After Xi Jinping’s election in 2012, a major anti-corruption campaign led to a major clean-up. The market was immediately affected and there was a period of instability before a recovery in 2013. Since 2016, another blow came when restrictions on taking money out of the country were tightened: only $50,000 per year per person, and documentation must be provided! New economic restrictions have been announced. So, yes, the impact is huge. Today, the market is holding its breath.
How do you explain the gap between estimates and results, which, of course, doesn’t only concern your speciality?
Expertise is not an exact science. As I said, I was taught to be cautious. When I don't believe in an object, I don't guarantee it. Buyers are free to go it alone. This is an essential point for me. And then, once again, the market is very volatile. All it takes is for a collector to absolutely want a piece for his museum for its value to rise. A few months later, an equivalent offer will fall flat. It must also be said that the Chinese love to gamble. If an estimate is too high, it slows them down. They want to be able to come home and say, "Look, I made a find and bought a lot of money for it."
We’ve talked a lot about China. What about other civilisations?
My basic training is really Chinese civilisation, but I opened up, especially in Japan. When I arrived, Thierry Portier asked me to take an interest in Japanese prints. Unfortunately, we see very few beautiful ones. I didn’t have any that were equivalent to those in the Portier collection sold in June 2016. Japan, at the top in the 1970s to 1990s, suffered from the rise of its large neighbour, which has much greater financial resources. The second reason is the scarcity of beautiful pieces, such as Kakiemon porcelain. It’s been at least six or seven years since I’ve had a significant Mishima.
Among the items you’ve expertised, which have impressed you the most?
My passion is objects owned by scholars and porcelain. Recently, I enjoyed appraising the set of photographs sold by Tessier-Sarrou in December 2018. Sent to Beijing as Embassy Secretary, Robert de Semallé took pictures of today's most popular tourist sites! These prints are of essential historical interest. For example, you can still see Louis XIV crystal objects and a chasuble embroidered by Marie-Antoinette in Beijing Cathedral. It shouldn’t be forgotten that in the 18th century, there was a great deal of trade between the European courts and, first, the Kangxi court, then the Qianlong court. Each liked the other's products. Otherwise, it’s obviously the beige soapstone seal of Qianlong sold at Pierre Bergé & Associés in December 2016 (editor’s note: sold at Drouot for €21,093,100 on 14 December 2016). An emperor's seal is an incredible discovery. It's a bit like touching history.