Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
    Decorative Arts Diary
by Brook S. Mason
Entrance to Bienniale created by Christophe Descarpentrie at a cost of close to $1 million
Didier Aaron stand
The décor alone cost $100,000 plus
Princess Caroline of Monaco with decorator Jacques Grange at Didier Aaron
Jacques Perrin
Louis XVI mahogany toutes faces writing desk
Francois Leage stand
with bureau plat by Pierre Garnier at right
Louis XIV coffer & marquetry
by André-Charles Boulle
at Gismondi
Bernard Baruch Steinitz stand at Biennale
Voyage of Capt. Cook
at Carolle Thibault-Pomerantz
French 18th century chairs
at Camille Burgi
French 18th century chairs
at Camille Burgi
The XXe Biennale des Antiquaires, Sept. 15-Oct. 1, 2000, at the Carrousel du Louvre, Rue de Rivoli, Paris, France.

If you're curious to see what the most spectacular art and antiques show on earth might look like, you would be well advised to head to the Paris Biennale des Antiquaires. Without question, this art fair boasts works of such outstanding provenance and condition that most of us can't even imagine it. In fact, the Biennale makes U.S. shows look painfully second tier. But then, the Biennale is so French, with a total of 84 dealers from the Republic.

This year's Biennale is the 20th version, with 116 dealers in all, and it strikes new pricing benchmarks while setting new standards for simply selling decorative arts. Never before has the decorator's trade played such a pivotal role in a fair. It works this way: the Syndicate National des Antiquaires, the show organizing body, recruited Belgian decorateur Christophe Descarpentrie to spruce up the cavernous space in the Carrousel du Louvre, directly beneath I.M. Pei's iconic pyramid, to the tune of $1 million. The decorating theme, "Paris: Crossroads of the Continents," very explicitly locates the center of the art world, at least in the eyes of the Syndicate National. There's a Chinese Pavilion, a Latin American patio and yes, a Jefferson Square in homage to the U.S. president.

Why such a costly endeavor? "The Biennale is our very best tool for promoting our profession and we find decorators help enhance our sales," says Claude Blaizot, president of both the syndicate and the biennale. He estimates that 35 percent of the dealers employed decorators like Decarpentrie, Jacques Grange and Francois-Joseph Graff.

Under, the tutelage of their decorateurs, some dealers spent a whooping $150,000 just trimming up their booth walls. Renting the bare space alone runs $5,544 to $114,500.

Call it the million-dollar fair. By the time dealers pay their booth rental, decorating and shipping fees as well as hotel costs, this show is the most expensive in the world. But it's also the longest, with a 17-day run.

To see how dealers can spend wildly, take in Didier Aaron, where the stand is a study in 18th-century splendor. Its walls are lined with 18th-century boiserie as well as custom-made reproduction paneling; the floor is 18th-century parquet de Versailles. The doorway frames and roundels are in the requisite green scagliola with the marbleized paint effects produced via computer giving a reproduction quality that bypasses trompe l'oeil and approaches real authenticity. This backdrop for Aaron's wares is the ultimate case study in department store merchandising -- designer rooms -- gone upscale.

He is by no means alone in pulling off a period room look. Perrin, Leage and Steinitz along with others are flaunting the total 18th century room.

One reason dealers don't scrimp on their stands is the traffic at the fair. Some 90,000 enter the Carrousel du Louvre, making the Biennale the most heavily trafficked of such events anywhere. In case you're wondering how that stacks up against a U.S. fair, Brian and Anna Haughton's International Fine Art & Antiques Show, which has the priciest fare in the U.S., only brings in a paltry 22,000 people.

Actually, it's the crowds on opening night, last Wednesday, and the following evening's vernissage that make the dealers positively drool. At the Wednesday private dinner for 800, chaired by Bernadette Chirac, wife of President Jacques Chirac of France, were Rothschilds and von Furstenbergs. Stateside, Ronald Lauder and Mrs. Randolph Hearst showed up. Even Richard Gere made an appearance. Then the vernissage drew 4,000 people.

Plus, the regular daytime crowds are filled with billionaires. Last Friday, Henry Kravis was spotted shopping for 18th-century furniture at Jacques Perrin. Kravis and his wife, Marie-Josee, who just purchased a Paris apartment, were hovering over a rare LouisXV/Louis XVI transitional toilette table. The small, three-drawer table is the height of exquisite marquetry, its top inlaid with a delicate design of music sheets, arrows, roses and a slender flute. A similar example is in London's Wallace Collection.

Jacques Perrin spoke of 20 sales ranging from 70,000 FF ($10,000) to 10.5 million FF ($1.5 million). "We've sold more this year than last," says Perrin, who also witnessed a flurry of clients buying up a storm at his gallery on the Rue Faubourg St. Honore. His clients for those sales -- French, Americans, Italians and Latin Americans -- say just how global these shoppers are.

They come for the museum quality wares like Perrin's toilette table and the other sterling examples that fill the floor. Take the Louis Seize bureau plat at Francois Leage. Made by ebeniste Pierre Garnier, who worked for such luminaries as the Marquise de Marigny, brother of Madame de Pompadour, this ebony piece is encrusted with ormolu. With trimming of Greek laurel leaves and lions' heads, this bureau plat evidences the first signs of the Neoclassical style. The price? A cool 53 million FF ($7,571,428). It's probably the best piece of 18th-century furniture in the entire fair. Third-generation dealer Leage already counts two buyers waiting in the wings. In addition, he has racked up five major sales, with one piece going to a French museum.

Other signs of antiques were being snatched up in record time include sales at the Paris and Antibes Galerie Gismondi. There, the French were buying back their heritage with a vengeance. Sold was an elaborate Louis XVI commode in marquetry by ebeniste Pierre Roussel and chairs by Nicholas Petit.

But why so much period boiserie on the floor? According to Paris dealer Bernard Steinitz, who has made a fortune selling period room paneling sometimes gilded, carved and lacquered and even grisailled from the oh so very long ago 16th, 17th 18th centuries, the answer is simple. Boiserie just may be the ultimate marketing tool for antiques. "A stunning 100 percent of my clients for boiserie also buy furniture from me," says Steinitz.

Still there is another total room look that is not boiserie. It's wallpaper. Carolle Thibaut-Pomerantz is featuring a rare and complete panorama, "Les Voyages du Capitaine Cook," from 1804. It's got that colonial theme: the white man with the savages. Seven feet in height and 34 feet long, the complete scenic, historical interpretation is 1.5 million FF ($214,285).

On a final note, if you should want to pick up a pair of Louis Seize chairs, two fauteuils (called armchairs by the common and ignorant) and two chaises a dossiers (straight chairs) for that boisere video room you're installing, head to Camille Burgi. That XVIII siecle specialist has just the right ones. They've got the kind of richly royal provenance certain Francophiles are wild about.

They were made for no less than the Comte d'Artois, brother of Louis XIV and king of France from 1824-1830. He was called Charles X then. Plus, to make things even more exciting, the chairs were separated and disappeared for two centuries.

With that kind of impressive provenance, even the august Metropolitan Museum of Art is looking at them. The price is a staggering 18 million FF ($2,571,4286).

One note of caution: you cannot sit in them at all. While the chairs do have the appropriate attenuated backs, legs and arms all in gilded walnut, they really only consist of the bare frames. Nothing to sit on. So surrealistic, and the ultimate Biennale purchase.

Tomorrow: 20th century furnishings at the Biennale.

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