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  letter from paris
by Adrian Darmon  

Logo of the Paris Biennale

Oak cabinetry,
ca. 1710-15
at Steinitz

Aquamanile (water jug)
in the form of a lion,
ca. 1170
at Guy Ladriere

The Doge's Palace and Mole
viewed from Saint Mark's lagoon
at Colnaghi

Photo Theo Tobit
Deja-vu at Paris Biennale
The 19th Paris Antique Dealers Biennial Fair, widely considered to be the most beautiful gathering of works of art in the world, opened on Sept. 18, 1998 (to Oct. 4), with an air of déjà vu.

There are indeed some marvelous items, notably 18th-century works of art and furniture, some old masters and modern paintings, a few stunning medieval pieces and manuscripts, and some Roman and Greek objects that should wet the appetite of amateurs. But overall the Biennale this year was not of the best vintage.

Many exhibitiors -- like Bernard Steinitz, once called the "prince of antique dealers" -- made what seemed to be a only a formal appearance. Steinitz's booth was one of the smallest, though it was exquisitely decorated in the style of a 12th-century cabinet-room with marbled and lacquered walls.

Once rich with Medieval and Renaissance pieces, recently the Biennale has seemed to be on a diet in this category. The exception is some gorgeous Books of Hours exhibited by Les Enluminures from the Louvre des Antiquaires (they also have a branch in Chicago) and a set of 13th-century bronze aquamaniles at Guy Ladriere.

Confined in the narrow compound of the Carrousel du Louvre, the Biennial seems overloaded with works of art which in the end appear to lose their aura. As a result, visitors have to turn round and round to train their eyes in order to spot treasures such as a Virgin and Child by Siennese painter Sano di Pietro at Giovanni Sarti and a rare 2nd-century cameo from the Royal Saint-Denis Abbey at Ladriere.

A marvelous Louis XV table is a standout at Maurice Segoura and four 18th-century gilt-wood armchairs that belonged to Prince Marcantonio Borghese is on view at Ariane Dandois. At Colnaghi is a Canaletto painting that has so far been little seen, and elsewhere there are a score of good but not exceptional Old Master works.

A stunning painting by Balthus showing a young naked girl sleeping by a guitar at Galerie Hopkins-Thomas is the talk of the fair for those interested in modern art. A rare Nabi work by Pierre Bonnard, a portrait of his sister, is at Galerie Cazeau-La Béraudière.

Visitors might have felt somewhat uneased seeing modern and avant-garde works of art being exhibited in the favorite haunt of antique dealers. This is probably the most disputed issue regarding the Biennale since some of the modern and contemporary pieces shown here had nothing to do with antiques. Still, it's not so bad if visitors stick to the word "Biennale" and forget the rest ("des Antiquaires").

Finally, with its 120 exhibitors, the Biennial might seem disappointing for those who visited the Maastricht Fair last spring. The Dutch had more to offer in terms of quality and rarity, perhaps because they make business their speciality. The French tend to show off, and then lament too much once they have sold a great piece, as if they had lost something irreplaceable!

Balthus in Poland
Count Jean Balthazar Balthus Klossowski de Rola, known as Balthus, is exhibiting his paintings in Poland, the home country of his parents, for the first time in his career. Balthus, now 90, agreed to participate in the 33rd Wratislava Cantans Festival, which began, Sept. 17, 1998, in Wroclaw, the town where his parents Erich and Balladine first met.

Most of the paintings come from the artist's own residence in Switzerland. Balthus is attending the exhibition accompanied by his family and his Chinese doctor.

Francisco Goya
La Maja Desnuda

Regis Boyer
as Toulouse-Lautrec
Two Goya Paintings for St. Petersburg
Two of Francisco Goya's masterpieces, the Maja Desnuda and the Maja Vestida, will be loaned by the Prado Museum to the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg for 70 days beginning this coming November. This unprecedented new loan follows the 1991 exhibition of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio from the Hermitage in Madrid. The Russian museum only owns one painting by Goya.

Toulouse-Lautrec on Film
A new movie on the life of French master Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, directed by Roger Planchon, is out in French theaters. Starring Régis Boyer as the artist, Elza Zylberstein as his girlfriend Suzanne Valadon (the mother of Utrillo) and Anémone and Claude Rich as the artist's parents, the picture is pretty true to life.

After all, how could fiction improve on the drama of a dwarfed artist who haunted bars, cabarets and whorehouses before sinking into drunkenness and dying at age 36? Lautrec, who was a practical joker and quite naughty, would probably have fallen asleep if he had watched this rather insipid fresco about his life.

Jose Ferrer starred in the 1952 Hollywood version, directed by John Huston.

Pompidou refuses to hand over Braque
The Pompidou Museum in Paris has refused to return The Guitar Player (1914) by Georges Braque to the heirs of Alphonse Kann, who say it was stolen during the war from Kann's collection. The Kann heirs, led by his nephew Francis Warin, have been actively trying to recover some 60 major works taken by the Nazis and their collaborators.

Negotiations with the Pompidou over the Braque began earlier this year. Museum officials at first claimed that the work had been legally acquired, since records showed it in the possession of a dealer who had bought it some years before the outbreak of World War Two.

But now Warin has managed to prove that it was only a study that had been in possession of the dealer, while the Pompidou Braque had disappeared only after Kann had fled to London in 1940.

The Pompidou has already returned a work by Cubist Albert Gleizes to Warin. The museum's decision to hold on to the Braque was unexpected. Warin told ArtNet that his battle was not yet over.

Royal Commode at Christie's
An 18th-century French commode of royal provenance with a Versailles palace inventory number -- unnoticed for years -- will be sold at Christie's New York on Nov. 24, 1998. The commode was exhibited at Christie's in Paris on Monday, Sept. 21, and made most antique dealers here salivate with envy.

This black-lacquered piece of furniture with Japanese decor, produced by the famous maker BVRB in 1745, had been on the French market for quite some time without anyone noticing the 1343 number inscribed in india ink on its back. It's provenance, however, is clear. First made in 1745 for the room of King Louis XV's daughter at Versailles, the commode was next auctioned for 28,000 gold francs in May 1894 at Drouot. It was sold several years later to Paris antique dealer Jacques Perrin for 1.03 million francs (about $180,000).

The latter never discovered the magic Versailles inventory mark and tried during eight long years to find a buyer for the piece, which was then sold at Drouot in a sale conducted by Jacques Tajan during the 1970s. Once again, the expert for this sale, Jean-Pierre Dillée, did not see that marking.

This rare commode, estimated now between $6 million and $9 million, was finally bought by U.S dealer Martin Zimet, who then tried unsuccessfully to sell it back to the Getty Museum.

The question now baffling observers here is how the commode, which might fetch a world record price in New York, managed to cross the Atlantic without being inspected by French museum officials, who are normally called up by customs authorities to deliver export licenses for all objects of art worth over $50,000.

Apparently, no one spotted the commode when it transited through French customs. As a result of this mishap, France lost a rare treasure. The Versailles museum is eager to have the commode back in its original place, but doesn't have the means to acquire it.

Juan Gris
The Guitar
Gris in Marseilles
A retrospective exhibition of works by the Spanish Cubist Juan Gris (1887-1927), the first of its kind in 30 years in France, opened on Sept. 24, 1998, at the Musée Cantini in Marseilles.

Though Gris is not considered a pioneer -- he followed Picasso and Braque on the Cubist path in 1911, three years after they had started -- he is still considered one of the best Cubists of the 1911-1920 period. Gris was hailed by Kahnweiler, André Salmon, Apollinaire and Albert Einstein during his lifetime. Picasso, however, was critical of his work, once noting that he would need 1,000 years to achieve a masterpiece.

Gris carefully prepared his works with the help of elaborate studies. By 1918, he had mastered all the difficulties of Cubism. At ease with still-life, Gris had more trouble with the figure. His late works show the artist at something of a loss, trying to tame his compositions. In the end he seems a talented performer of Cubism dreaming to become a maestro.

ADRIAN DARMON writes on art from Paris.