Biennale des Antiquaires de Monaco, Aug. 1-15, 2001, at Sporting d'Hiver, Place du Casino, Monte Carlo.
Monte Carlo, home to the world's longest ruling monarchy, the Grimaldis, also reigns as the epicenter of the art and antiques trade. Right now, the 14th Biennale des Antiquaires de Monaco is in full splendor and in many respects makes other fairs pale in comparison.
Yes, this fair's has but 30 dealers, which is tiny by international fair standards. After all, the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht boasts some 190 dealers. But packing the aisles in the Art Deco Sporting d'Hiver over here on the Cote d'Azur are more than 30,000 visitors taking in all manner of bibelots and Old Masters paintings. Attendance-wise that's a hefty number, considering that the Haughton International shows at the Park Avenue Seventh Regiment Armory only lure a meager 14,000 attendees.
That visiting base here is even more surprising in light of the fact that the principality covers less than a single square mile -- half the size of our Central Park.
The crowds come for the depth of quality, which is quite frankly breathtaking. "It's a very important fair," says no less than Dominique Chevalier, who heads up the prestigious Syndicate Nationale des Antiquaires, sponsors of the tony Paris Biennale.
And this visiting base can only be termed super-rich. Clearly, they match the wealth of this town named after Prince Charles III, who opened the first casino in 1865 to save himself from bankruptcy. Talk about a good idea. Five years later, gambling receipts allowed him to abolish taxation and since then taxes have been notably absent. So while this ranks as the world's smallest sovereign state, it boasts the world's highest per capita income. Residents like tennis star Bjorn Borg, fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld and film celeb Joan Collins are drawn here because it is a tax-free haven.
Yet even with multimillionaire kind of money, there is hardly any of our Las Vegas splash and excess mirrored in this Biennale.
In fact, a peek in this fair says volumes about a particular brand of European-based taste. It's haute luxe, the 18th-century version.
But then this fair was created by Florence dealer Mario Bellini as well as Paris dealers Maurice Segoura and Jacques Perrin. "We wanted to present a show to an international audience that could only be found in Monte Carlo," says Perrin, who with Segoura is considered one of the world's leading dealers of 18th-century furniture.
A glance at the yachts in the harbor confirms exactly the kind of audience he is referring to. The boats are likely to be the 100-foot-plus variety and one, "Lady Moura," even sports a helicopter on deck. And they hail from such prestigious ports as Southampton, England and Deauville.
As to the town, the shops alone with haute jewelers like Chaumet and Carter practically on every block and a bevy of international art galleries such as the powerhouse Marlborough make Palm Beach's Worth Avenue look, well, pedestrian. One further distinguishing characteristic is that all of Monte is under electronic surveillance. Talk about security, it's got it in spades.
Even the Biennale stands here make American fairs look totally down market. Perrin has a suite of three entire rooms; Segoura, two. Then Monaco dealer Pastor-Gismondi has had the walls of its booth covered in crimson velvet that is the height of elegance.
Yet with a fast gathering mood of financial gloom falling over the U.S., there is not a hint of recession here amidst such regal surroundings. Moments before the vernissage, Jacques Perrin completed three sales of mirrors, from an 18th-century French gilded version to one roundel of naturalistically carved flowers in a dark wood by Jean Demontreuil.
On view at Perrin is a spectacular demonstration of Louis XIV parquetry by Thomas Hache. It's a double-doored armoire with trumpeting angels flanking a vase in which the flowers all picked out in dazzling detail. There is columbine, carnations and lilies.
Segoura is promoting a Louis XV marquetry commode by Adrien DeLorme with a first rate provenance. It had been owned by Baron Lionel de Rothschild (1809-79). The ormolu mounts are superb, as is the $1 million price. Also on hand are a pair of stunning chenets (commonly known as firedogs) that match a pair in the Getty. In gleaming gilt bronze, these chenets consist of dragons surmounted by Romans in full battle dress. The casting is especially crisp. The price? Just over $300,000.
There is no question that the 18th century is supreme here. What is fueling the taste for the ancienne régime? "Decorators from Francois Graf and Peter Marino to Robert Couturier and Jacques Grange," replies Patrick Segoura. Last year, he picked up three new clients. Two of them had never owned a single piece of 18th-century furniture beforehand. "For some, it's a matter of total redecorating," explains Segoura. Now, he counts a total of ten clients who are spending $500,000 in a single year, while five years ago his client base in that spending range was less than half.
What does this glittering playground crowd sprinkled with minor royals favor over, say the Parisians? "In Monte Carlo, clients demand perfection," says Flore de Brantes, who at 31 is the youngest dealer on the floor. In the French capital, her clients will snap up an unrestored commode in part for its "atmosphere." But here, only furnishings in triple-mint condition are taken home.
"Plus, the Monte Carlo clients know their 18th-century ebenistes," she continues. "They don't want an ordinary Regence commode or anything common."
For the porcelain fancier, de Brantes has the perfect option: a set of dessert dishes once belonging to Empress Josephine. They are rimmed in black with gold griffins and medallions for $70,000.
Even the silver on view is superlative. Brussels dealer Bernard de Leye is touting a dozen petite cassolettes with the crest of King Louis Phillipe and ebony handles priced at $70,000. Collectors of English pieces might prefer a George II gold inkwell for just under $200,000. Dating from 1740, it's richly ornate yet delicate.
What are the tchotchkes of the moment? It seems to be urns. Perrin has no less than five pairs on his stand. One pair in tole and ormolu are the 18th-century nod to aromatherapy. They are intended for potpourri and the price is $37,000.
In addition, there is a smashing seven-piece garniture from the famed Riahi collection. He's the Iranian-born and Paris-based businessman who ran his bill up at Christie's so high that he had to sell off his better pieces last spring.
But that garniture almost pales in comparison to a pair of Louis XVI ormolu-mounted Sevres vases in a rich taupe. Usually such urn-like vessels are Chinese porcelain, not Sevres, and that makes the price roar to $400,000. In terms of quality, they are worthy of Metropolitan Museum of Art benefactor and donor Jayne Wrightsman and the Getty rolled into one.
It's the paintings on view, which establish this fair and its accompanying shopping group as considerably more serious than their U.S. counterparts. While these consumers favor 18th-century French for furnishings, when it comes to pictures Renaissance and Old Masters are de rigueur. There are no feathery Corots or vapid, rosy-cheeked Renoir portraits.
Florentine dealer Fabrizio Moretti is sporting a rare Filippo Lippi meditative Madonna and child. It's the kind of devotional picture demanded in the 16th-century by sophisticated patrons. There's an astonishing range of color from pale mauve, salmon and slate blue. The price is a low $215,000, perhaps because there are patches of repainting. There's also a rather Uccello-like battle scene rich in detail with caparisoned horses by Apollonio de Giovanni (1415-65) for $500,000.
Then the Paris Galerie d'Art St. Honore is stocked with botanicals by Jan van Kessel the Elder, Jan Brueghel the Younger and Anthony Claesz II.
Over at the booth of Paris dealer Fabien Boulakia, Kees van Dongen is well represented with two portraits. One is of Mme Maurice Utrillo with talon-like nails from 1947 for $850,000.
"I'm here because the crowd is so international -- Italians, Swiss, Belgians, Spaniards and of course the Americans," says Boulakia. He finds them to be the perfect shoppers. "They return a number of times over several days." Another enticement for dealers like Boulakia is the low carrying charges of this fair. A stand is just under $15,000, which explains why this fair already has a considerable list of dealers waiting to join.
But back to pictures, there are examples not costing the earth. First-time participant Alexia Goethe has a wide range from a vibrant Dubuffet oil of flowers for $360,000 and a spirited nautical Dufy scene for $200,000 to a Modigliani drawing of a bearded gentleman for a mere $28,000.
The jewelers on the floor were all swamped, including Graf, which has just opened an outpost on Madison Avenue. Front and center with Graf is the largest, flawless step-cut diamond in the world. At 100.57 karats, this gemstone cut and polished by Graf will be on exhibit at New York's American Museum of Natural History in October. It's priced at a staggering $25 million.
Perhaps the perfect memento can be found at Mikaeloff. It is a pair of bronze figures, allegories of richness and poverty. Of course, one is clutching a jewel chest while le Pauvre is begging, perhaps a gentle reminder of how transient wealth can be.
BROOK S. MASON writes on the fine and decorative arts.