Getting your fingers burnt --French style

Trust the French to add a touch of panache and je ne sais quoi to the drab business of buying property at auction. You would have thought the only essential piece of equipment was a good sturdy gavel, its bang audible at the back of the room. But the French are far more romantic. They use candles.

There are so many flickering flames at a Parisian vente a` la bougie, or sale by candle, you will think you have called into midnight mass at Notre Dame by mistake. 

The tradition dates back to medieval auction rooms, when business was far more leisurely. Buyers and sellers had time to watch a candle burn while they considered their options. There was no need to snap up lots in seconds or risk being gazumped by a telephone bidder from New York. Sober reflection was not only possible, it was encouraged. After all, buying property was a serious business. 

There is no great hocus pocus about the proceedings. It is just a normal property auction, with the highest bidder winning. Interested parties leave a deposit cheque (usually approximately 20 per cent of the starting price) and get a numbered badge which authorises them to bid by raising their hand. The lighting and extinguishing of candles not only adds a touch of drama, but invests proceedings with the gravity of an earlier age. 

What happens, in simple terms, is the details of each property are brought up on a screen, a candle is lit. Bidding proceeds, conducted by an auctioneer, then when there are no further bids, a second candle is lit. This is “le dernier feu” or “last fire”. Only when the candle has gone out, and the auctioneer announces “eteint” or “extinguished”, is the sale complete. 

Nine times out of 10, there is no further bidding. But if someone bids while le dernier feu is still alight, the whole bidding process starts again. This gives a significantly longer period than the gap between “Going!” and Gone!” The burning of the candles offers a modicum of thinking time for ditherers and inhibits impulse buyers. 

Bidding at any auction is a tricky business and we wonder just how many buyers got their “fingers burnt” in the city of love.