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The catalogue

Balthasar van der Ast
Study of Flowers and Insects
17th century
at Noortman

François Boucher
The Apotheosis of Areneas
at Richard L. Feigen & Co.

George II black lacquer bureau cabinet
ca. 1735
at Pelham Galleries/Etienne Lévy

Louis Dominique Mathet
Reveil du Printemps
ca. 1900
at Robert Bowman

George III cut glass six light chandelier
at Mallett

Fabergé rococo bowenite and silver lamp
late 19th century
at A La Vieille Russie

Pair of antique George III silver vegetable dishes
at Marks Antiques

Berthe Morisot
Lucie León au Piano
at Noortman
Palm Beach Taste
by Brook S. Mason

Changes in the art world have always been quick, and the latest seismic shift can be found in Palm Beach, now a major capital on the global art circuit. The proof is quite simply David Lester's Palm Beach International Art & Antique Fair, which opened on Feb. 1 and runs through next Sunday, Feb. 11, 2001.

Although only a scant five years old, this 77-dealer fair now outshines a number of New York shows. Boasting top tier international dealers like Robert Noortman, Axel Vervoordt and Speelman, who all participate in the Maastricht fair in the Netherlands, the Florida fair is held in an unlikely spot, a vast but elegant 55,000-square-foot tent pitched in West Palm Beach.

Even the dealers, the most demanding of art-market critics, are praising the ten-day event. "It's a step up from the New York shows and more like Maastricht in quality, " says Noortman, the Old Master dealer who was a founding member of the European Fine Art Fair at Maastricht.

Why the sudden shift to Palm Beach, the storied capital of sheer luxe? The demographics of this 12-mile-long, four-block wide island say it all. Its residential tax rolls total more than $6 billion, says Ken Wong of the Palm Beach County Appraisers Office. And the residences are hardly the common $1 million or $2 million variety. Topping the tax register is the Norman Peltz home; it's rated at $42 million plus.

Money has always attracted money and Palm Beach is certainly on a real roll. But it's also the traffic through this posh playground during the high season, January to March, that makes this town a major capital of consumption. While counting fewer than 10,000 year-round residents, the island is packed in the winter with snowbirds from New York, Texas, Europe and Latin America.

In terms of tourism, Palm Beach makes the Statue of Liberty practically pale in comparison. A stunning 1.5 million people cruise through Palm Beach county during peak season, according to the Palm Beach County Economic Development Office.

So the Palm Beach show, like a money magnet, pulls in the big spenders. Trolling the aisles at the vernissage last Thursday night were Charles Bronfman and the Leonard Lauders, and even Alfred Taubman, the now defrocked Sotheby's chairman, showed up with his wife Judy.

By 6 o'clock, New York dealer Richard Feigen had written up three paintings to a single client: a brilliant and unusually large landscape by Henri-Joseph Harpignes plus two Edouard Vuillard panels painted for the home of Misia Sert. Then London dealer Michael Goedhuis sold eight contemporary Chinese paintings to a pair of buyers and seven early Chinese bronzes to other clients.

Furniture was also moving quickly. Sold by Alan Rubin of Pelham Galleries were a set of eight Chinese wallpaper panels for a reported $50,000 figure; an 18th century Italian harpsichord in bureau plat form trimmed with swags of fruit; a Regency music stand; and George II black lacquer bureau cabinet for $660,000. He also quickly dispensed with a pair of mid-18th century German paintings of a hunting festival.

Nearby, Axel Verwoordt offered a Roman micro mosaic table with Grand Tour scenes for $75,000.

Yes, dealers like Vervoordt and Pelham bring their best but they also select wares appropriate for this locale. Consider London dealer Robert Bowman, who sold 15 pieces of sculpture at the fair last year. He always totes bronzes, animalier and assorted nudes and equestrian figures to Maastricht and New York. But Palm Beach is different.

"The people here have large light filled houses, so marble is more appropriate," says Bowman. "They want something signed and significant, but remember the sculpture is for a second or third home, so they don't want to spend a six figure amount." By Sunday, Bowman had sold four works.

A survey of the floor reveals a certain Palm Beach taste: in part defined by the glitter of '80s excess but coupled with a millennium-ravishing appetite for the arts. There's a renewed emphasis on chinoiserie. Whereas once the taste for this rendition of the East interpreted through western eyes was mostly focused on lacquered secretaries, long a decorating focal point beginning with Eleanor McMillen back in the '30s, now the taste for a la chinoise is broader.

Further signs are the profusion of cloisonné as on Earle D. Vanderkar's stand and a pair of Chinese balusters priced at $175,000 at A. & J. Speelman Ltd. In fact, such balusters can be spotted at Cohen & Cohen and elsewhere. In addition, Ming porcelain garden seats are at many a dealer stand, further accents for the Palm Beach look.

Crystal is big, too. Mallett's stand features a pair of 19th century crystal chandeliers made by Perry & Co., who supplied Buckingham Palace. They cost $250,000.

Other style signposts are Faberge objets d'art, from enameled and diamond studded frames at Wartski to a cut crystal bowl with silver mounts for $150,000 at A La Vieille Russie. That New York jeweler, who has served a bevy of royal families, is also featuring a doll's sterling dinner service of plates and platters, tureens and cutlery dating from 1845 in St. Petersburg for the adult price of $52,000.

If anything, there's considerably more silver on the floor and it's the very serious kind. Shrubsole is featuring an Elizabeth I standing cup with cover. In silver gilt with engraved foliage, the vessel is a cool $650,000. "It's the only one of its kind on the market today, "says 89-year-old Eric Shrubsole. He also has perhaps the most magnificent pair of candelabra on the floor: from 1820 and richly incised for $560,000.

Silver gilt is incredibly apparent here. Marks Antiques has a late 19th century service of 181 pieces from tureens and delicate platters for $395,000. This London dealer already sold a pair of 18th century candelabra, says Clive Toberman. "Candelabra and wine coolers are in demand," adds Toberman. Epergnes are also in profusion.

But it's not a fair simply stocked with formality and frivolity. Bruce Ferrini has medieval manuscripts for soulful contemplation. A 13th-century illuminated manuscript from the Diocese of Soissons is $1 million. Lesser fare includes a Gutenberg copy of the Book of Joel -- that's the first edition of the Bible -- for $220,000.

"Some of the clients here know more than I do about the manuscripts," says Ferrini, while mentioning a buyer who revealed a greater precision in dating a piece.

In painting, it's definitely the 19th century that's the style du jour. And the figurative is predominant. There is no cutting edge art, no videos nor any installations. Even an Old Master expert like Noortman is touting Impressionists, notably a Berthe Morisot Lucie León au piano (1892) in a palette of sublime blues and aquamarines.

Still, Picasso is always popular. Acquavella is showing 1949 portrait of Francoise Gilot for $4.2 million.

Clearly, this fair will set not only pricing benchmarks (as with the Picasso) but also confirm more strongly style trends. It's all part of the Palm Beach capital spectacle.

BROOK S. MASON writes on the fine and decorative arts.

Sponsored by AXA Nordstern Art Insurance.