By Janet Guyon

(FORTUNE Magazine) – AFTER YEARS OF PLAYING second fiddle to the art markets in London and New York City, the French, with the help of a Romanian American, are fighting back. Rodica Seward, a former investment banker with Smith Barney and Wasserstein Perella, last December bought Tajan, Paris's leading auction house, from luxury conglomerate LVMH and vows to bring the art market back to its roots.

She's already scored a coup, snatching a major surrealist collection from Sotheby's and Christie's. The art, collected by New York City dealer Julien Levy, who brought the works of artists such as Max Ernst, Arshile Gorky, and Marcel Duchamp to American collectors in the 1930s and '40s, goes on the block in Paris on Oct. 5, 6, and 7. Tajan believes the 900-piece collection will fetch at least $10 million, but that seems low, since some Gorky pieces are valued at $1 million each.

Seward says that the Levy sale is the beginning of her attempt to overthrow the interlopers--Sotheby's and Christie's--as auction leaders on the Continent. She plans to go after other major collections, both contemporary and modern, because these days that's where the money is. "A lot of important collections come from France and continental Europe, and the dealers here have to buy them back from London and New York," says Seward. "It's crazy. I want to restore Paris as the capital of the arts."

Now, if she could just do something about those freedom fries ... -- Janet Guyon