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|Decorative Arts Diary
by Brook S. Mason
|The XXe Biennale des Antiquaires, Sept. 15-Oct. 1, 2000, at the Carrousel du Louvre, Rue de Rivoli, Paris, France.
The latest style trend at the XXe Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris is -- surprise, surprise -- 20th-century furnishings. A total of eight 20th-century decorative arts dealers are on the floor, ranging from Philippe Denys of Brussels to the Parisian Galerie du Passage. By day three of the fair, they were ringing up record sales.
"For 200 years, 18th-century furniture has been in vogue, now modernity is finally on a roll," says Denys. What's astonishing about his wares at the Biennale and those of some other 20th-century dealers is the prevalence of entire rooms, not just mere furniture. Clearly, the dealers are taking a tip from 18th-century colleagues like Bernard Steinitz, the undisputed king of boiserie, and featuring designer rooms -- the walls, that is. Call it the new total room look. It's the latest luxury currency.
Denys wrote up a stunning room with wainscoting by Eugene Printz (1889-1948). In grainy palmwood, the room cost 3,710,000 FF, or $530,000. But then with its 10 foot high ceiling, this massive piece of designer carpentry, articulated horizontally with bronze trim and boasting space for the placement of art objects, is the kunstkammer of its day.
The room is destined for an American. Plus, Denys racked up a stunning 20 sales, including a Dupré Lafon long table with a parchment top. Also sold were Jean Michel Frank chairs, 1950 Dan Johnson chairs, a small Dupré Lafon table, assorted Danish stoneware from the 1920's, and silver along with bronzes.
The Biennale always elevates a new artist or two and this time it's Paul Dupré Lafon, dubbed "decorateur des millionaires" for his work for such industry and banking heavyweights as the Citroen, Dreyfus and Dassault families. His pieces are architectonic. "Five years ago, his prices were but a fraction, one fourth, what they are today," says Denys.
Another entire room sale was sold by Pierre Passebon of the Galerie du Passage, who is new to the Biennale. On the first day of the fair, Passebon wrote up a chic 1935 smoking room designed by Jean-Michel Frank for the Guerlain (as in perfume) apartment in Paris to an American. With its walls crafted of Hermes leather (think money, lots of it) and its carved wooden doors from an 18th-century women's prison, the room was arranged by noted designer Jacques Grange. So Grange helped chose a stone table by Jean Royere along with pieces by Jean Dunand and a hysterical Giacometti hanging lamp, really a mammoth breast in plaster.
Also sold were Emilio Terry designs for a pair of torchere-like billiard pole holders for a hefty 1,400,000 FF ($200,000). Considering that they went for "only" 381,500 FF ($54,500) at Sotheby's Chateau de Groussay auction last June, Passebon's sale says how far clients will go to acquire distinctively quirky design. Practically all of his buyers were Americans.
"Normally, it would take me an entire year to sell this much," says Passebon, who only opened his gallery nine years ago. "At the Biennale, it all goes in a day."
Interestingly, the unsold items in Passebon's booth say strongly what no longer matters. Still for sale on Sunday were a pair of painted chests once belonging to the decadent Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Created for the Windsor's nuptial chambers in the Chateau de la Croe, Cap d'Antibes, the chests were really ordinary painted furniture. Decorated with flowers and butterflies, the chests are a product by Stephane Boudin, head of the House of Jansen. Emblazoned on one chest's drawers were the Windsor royal feathers. How was this common 20th-century painted furniture received? "Not even for the maid's rooms," sneered one tony decorator. So provenance just doesn't cut it these days, even when its royale. What matters are objects made by great designers.
Brisk sales were also observed at Galerie Yves Gastou. Once again, it was modern masters. This time furniture by Gilbert Poillerat, Rene Prou and Jacques Quinet were favored.
Quinet is on a high just like Dupré Lafon. At Galerie Olivier Watelot, all but two pieces with Quinet's signature gilded bronze feet were sold. The prices for the neoclassical designs ran up to 500,000 FF ($71,428). Did the fact that Watelot's booth walls were lined with gold leaf squares, its floor laid in gleaming bronze panels help the sales?
"I think so," replies Watelot, obviously pleased with his receipts.
Then, Parisian Galerie Jean-Jacques Dutko is touting a dinning room table -- it's really a slab of black Belgian marble resting on a forged steel double scroll base designed by Jacques Emile Ruhlmann (1879-1933) and made by Raymond Subes. So you really get two art deco maitres rolled into one piece of furniture. The price? A stunning 4.2 million FF, or $600,000. Back in the old days, you could buy an apartment on Park Avenue for that and a big one, too.
Dutko also has a Jean Dunand lacquered interior in elegant gray. The walls are engraved with Cubist designs.
Oh, here's the latest dealer trend. It's called "not for sale." You want it desperately but you can't buy it. Why? The examples in question are already owned by somebody else -- and it's not the dealer.
You get to covet -- that's part and parcel of the style du jour. Bob Vallois is showing 15 choice furnishings by French art deco doyenne Eileen Gray, and all but two are owned by a single British client. The collection includes Gray's personal black lacquered screen of 28 rectangular pieces.
These Grey pieces are nestled in a room of 1926 rosewood mahogany paneling by Ruhlmann with truly gorgeous gilt bronze hardware. The doorknob surrounded by a 33-inch plate rimmed in gadroon (beaded) molding alone is drop-dead splendid.
There's an ebony desk with just about the most elegant drawer pulls ever designed in the 20th century. Of ivory, the pulls are emblematic of the entire art deco period -- elegantly architectonic in concept luxuriously produced in exotic material.
Also not to be missed is Gray's piroque sofa (it's shaped like a piroque -- a middle European pastry), which Cheska Vallois admits to paying only 2,500 FF (around $500) for in 1972. It's belonged to only four people. Just imagine the markup on each sale.
Most of the pieces bear an important provenance, like the 1913 vermilion screen with three mythical creatures in blue, which had been owned by fashion designer Jacques Doucet.
The entire chambre ensemble was arranged by Francois-Joseph Graf. Call him decorator to the titans. He has francophile and le roi raideur Henry Kravis under his wing.
Vallois is to be congratulated for preparing such an impressive collection. It's doubtful if any museum in the world could rustle up such comprehensive Gray holdings.
If you're aching for a pivotal Eileen Gray example, consider checking out Galerie L'Arc-en-Seine, where Christian de Boutonnet will show you a larger version of her "Blocs," made up of 43 rotating plates. But it's on reserve. Since a similar example sold for $1.2 million at Sotheby's last June, the Anglo-Irish Grey, who is hardly a household name, is now one of the reigning art-market stars.
Boutonnet sold a number of pieces of sleek furniture by Jean Michel Frank, another deco superstar. With a parchment commode by Frank going for $350,000, the prices for 20th-century masters are fast approaching those for 18th-century goods.
Why such a pronounced emphasis on the somewhat austere and restrained designs of 20th century?
Perhaps it's a moralistic reaction against the gilt excesses of the go-go '80s, when many a Wall Street trader was snapping up oh-so-imperial French Empire pieces created under the super aggressive Napoleon. Other collectors were buying the often exceedingly flashy but somewhat geriatric 18th-century furniture.
At least this time, consumers have tailored their taste more discretely. So, if there is an ethical standard inherent in taste, we just might be on the mark this time with art deco and later furnishings. Because the 20th-century pieces are graceful and elegant, they haven't a trace of haughty pretension.
So, vive la France, the 20th-century version.
BROOK S. MASON writes on art and antiques.