The XXIIe Biennale des Antiquaires, Sept. 14-28, 2004, at the Carrousel du Louvre, Rue de Rivoli, Paris, France.
Trumpeted as the most stylish barometer of the international art market, the 22nd Biennale des Antiquaires got off to a roaring start this week at Pariss Carrousel du Louvre. Madame Chirac made an appearance, as did couturier Karl Lagerfeld and a slew of designers from Jacques Grange, who is fine-tuning the interiors for the Cesar Pelli tower in Manhattan. American curators, accompanied by their museums heavyweight trustees and donors, were also on hand. And well-heeled art mag owner Louise MacBain was spotted at the fairs €600-a-plate dinner on Sept. 13.
Of course, the Biennale -- the only art fair that boasts an attendance of 100,000-plus -- has special significance for the French. "The Biennale is our way of claiming our rightful spot as the premier art capital globally," says Jacques Perrin, Syndicat National des Antiquaires chairman of the fair committee. This year, to capture even bigger crowds, the Biennale has extended its run by four days.
Some 7,000 objects ranging chronologically from antiquity to 1950 are on display, with an estimated value far surpassing $1 billion. A full third of the 103 participating dealers focus solely on French art, so there are reams of Renoir pastels, Vuillard oil interiors and Fragonard drawings, not to mention cabinetry encrusted with ormolu and inlaid with rare woods by France's leading ébenistes, from the glories of Boulle in the 18th century straight through to the Art Deco splendor of Armand Albert Rateau.
Although the fairs presentation this year is more ravishing than ever, grim shadows lurk. The weak dollar, the impending U.S. elections, global terrorism and our chilly relationship with the French were on the minds of many dealers and visitors. One Paris dealer spoke of "sheer anxiety" over the prospect of sales.
The fair is not inexpensive for its participants. In fact, the dealers -- there are 15 new ones this year -- paid what may be the world's highest fees. A large stand commands $100,000 -- that's three times the cost of showing at any other French fair. But the French don't scrimp, and no other fair matches the Biennales tantalizing presentation.
Luckily for the dealers, there's a new crew of collectors on board, namely the very wealthy Russians. Francois Léage reported selling a pair of Russian commodes from his Right Bank gallery on Wednesday to a Russian collector. "They like to mix Russian examples with 18th century French furnishings," says Léage from his boiserie-bedecked stand.
To tempt fans of 18th century French material, Léage is touting a Jean Henri Riesener writing table, c. 1780, that once graced the palace of Versailles. It's highly restrained in gleaming mahogany with tapering legs. Considering that Riesener also supplied furniture to such royal residences as Fontainbleu, Trianon and Marly, the museum-quality tables €640,000 price tag seems reasonable.
Despite such major examples of FFF (Fine French Furniture), a remarkable difference in this years fair is the degree to which 20th century furniture now claims major league status. Specialty dealers like L'Arc en Seine and Patrick Sequin have booths near the entrance, and their wares, taken together with the gallery exhibitions on the Left Bank, demonstrate that Paris now reigns as the capital for tiptop 20th century furniture. So its goodbye New York, hello Paris.
The Downtown Gallery brought merely two examples to the fair, but they are both knockouts. Charlotte Perriand's bookcase and table, designed and crafted in Rio de Janeiro in 1961, are appropriately spotlighted on the stand. She made them for herself while living in Brazil with her husband, then an Air France executive. Both are crafted from jacaranda wood (Brazil wood), and the bookcase is punctuated with blocks of caning. The cost: a staggering €1 million. The table, with its sensual ovoid shape, makes Nakashima look pedestrian; it sold to a New Yorker on opening night.
Stepping into Paris dealer Christian de Boutonnet's L'Arc en Seine stand, designed by Jacques Grange, is a bit like setting foot in an elegant Jean Michel Frank room. Especially captivating is one of the Art Deco designer's table lamps. It's a rock crystal chunk lit from within and dating to 1930. "The lamp is a sculptural artwork," says de Boutonnet.
Paris dealer Pierre Passebon of Galerie du Passage, whose stand is also by the talented Grange, is showing a small cupboard by Alexandre Noll. Made of ebony, the piece is so organically shaped, it's practically huggable. Both Nolls cupboard and an iron, wheel-shaped table by Jean Royère sold from Passebons stand immediately, snapped up during the first hour of the vernissage.
Bob and Cheska Vallois pulled off another coup with an entire stand of furniture made by Rateau for his patron and muse, couturier Jeanne Lanvin. Many of these iconic pieces are carved with daisies referring to the name of Lanvins daughter, Marguerite. To obtain the collection, Vallois negotiated for years with the Lanvin family. Some of the family furnishings, including a drop-dead bathroom, went to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.
More than 90 percent of the Rateau material was reserved by the second day of the fair -- proof of just how coveted his work is by collectors. The overwhelming majority of buyers were les Americains.
In addition to such important 20th century antiques, 19th century decorative arts are supreme like never before at the Biennale. Some of the best can be seen at Fabius Frères. This Paris dealers stand features a collection of ceramic vessels by the Alsace ceramist Theodor Deck. In deep purplish aubergine and set ablaze with sinuous turquoise snakes, lizards and vines, the vessels are priced at €480,000 for the set.
Waring Hopkins is displaying a spectacular Calder mobile, Snow Flurry (ca. 1948). More than 10 feet wide and eight feet high, it costs $3.5 million. Hopkins also has a very painterly still life of peaches by Henri Fantin-Latour; it happens to be one of the artist's more exceptional paintings.
Nearby, the Paris dealer Canesso is sporting Baccio del Bianco's 1630 oil painting Portrait of a Greyhound, in which a dead hare lies at the feet of a sleek greyhound wearing a mournful expression. Its €580,000 price tag shows how steeply demand has risen in the past few years for this period of paintings. While hardly a household name in the States, Bianco is celebrated in Europe for the frescoes he painted for Michelangelo's residence in Rome.
It takes several days to see the entire Biennale, but there are two more stands not to miss. One is Ariane Dandois. This Paris dealer has created a room that bespeaks the new level of glamour for interiors. It is trimmed up with a late George III gilt mirror, an homage to Diana the huntress; it features gorgeous nymph heads, hares and swags as well as a pair of towering 19th century mirrors. Displayed amongst continental and Chinese furnishings are a set of Hungarian chairs and a canapé that are a nod to Surrealism, 1800-style. In painted and gilded wood, the seating arrangements are decked out with fan-shaped splats edged with borders of rosettes.
Also ratcheting up the importance of the 19th century, Jacques Perrin's stand features a blue and white-tented room that looks like it came straight from one of Napoleon's battlefields. It's the height of chic. A steel Directoire bed, absolutely de rigueur for those 19th century military campaigns, can be found in the stylishly tailored room with its corners marked by mahogany lances. "The bed sold in the first three seconds," says Patrick Perrin, "and I could have sold it ten times."
That sale speaks of the power of the Biennale, the sophistication of the shoppers and the new quest for the best of the 19th century.
BROOK S. MASON writes on the fine and decorative arts.