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DECORATIVE ARTS DIARY
by Brook S. Mason
 
Just when the six-week-long student protests spawning near riots across France sputtered to a close, the chestnut trees edged into bloom, and the Paris art market headed for an upswing with a bevy of exceedingly important material on the market and significant sales as well.

Perhaps the most visible sign of the spirited resurgence is the transformation of the Grand Palais, a monumental exhibition space marked by sheer grandeur situated just steps away from the Champs-Elysées. Designed by Charles Girault to house the 1900 Universal Exhibition, the structure exemplifies cast iron gone Art Nouveau interspliced with glass. So think Belle Epoque greenhouse topped by Récipon’s gleaming gilt bronze winged horses towing chariots at its four rooftop corners.

Now, the Grand Palais is being returned to its former splendor with a renovation priced at over €100 million. While the Palais currently houses "La Force de l’Art," a contemporary show, if anything the building, when completely finished by September, will touch off a revival of all things Belle Epoque. The 23rd Paris Biennale des Antiquaires opens there, Sept. 15-24, 2006.

Interestingly, French dix-huitème siècle furnishings, favored by the likes of the titled Rothschilds and Metropolitan Museum of Art patron Jane Engelhard, still command center stage with a clutch of dealers on the Right Bank. Most noteworthy are a bevy of sales made in this area.

At Aveline, the antiques gallery founded in 1956 by Jean-Marie Rossi, a Louis XV diminutive desk in mother-of-pearl and silver by Johann-Auguste Nahl just sold for in the range of €1 million. Dating from 1750, the desk is edged in gilt ormolu.

"Now, new clients come from Hong Kong, mainland China, and India," says Marella Rossi Mosseri, who heads up the firm.

And yes, the oil rich Uzbekistanis shop at Aveline. "We really only sell to Russians who have houses in France and England," says Rossi. She categorizes this new band of Russians as "ones who have adapted to the European way of life" and say they prefer antiques from the Empire period -- which is really the last reign of the Czars.

Such Russians have a penchant for vast gilt bronze mounted vases. Very imperial, to say the least.

Nearby, Galerie Patrice Bellanger deals in French sculpture and has a number of 18th-century terracottas. "There’s been a period of adjustment and the Americans have gotten used to the euro," says Bellanger. But le gôut Rothschild with legions of ormolu encrusted bureau plats appears a tad shaky in these minimalist times. The latest sign of the trade for that taste weakening is the closing of Segoura.

Maurice Segoura tended a bevy of 18th-century French furniture fanciers, including Arab sheiks from the vast Hôtel de Clermon-Tonnerre. Now the owner of Segoura’s gallery premises -- none other than Christie’s honcho François Pinault -- wants the facility back. So Segoura is shutting his doors and his inventory will be on the block at Christie’s. The sale, which boasts an $8-million-plus estimate, takes place in New York on Oct. 19, 2006. Why Manhattan? More than 50 percent of the respected antiquaire’s clients are in the U.S.

Taste changes. There was a time when the 18th-century look commanded serious attention. For instance, the couturier Hubert de Givenchy -- he dressed Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy, among others -- plucked up bureau plats encrusted with gleaming gilt ormolu with abandon. Today, with fashion heading towards both the funky and frilly, not to say totally bizarre, designers of note are steeping themselves in iconic 20th-century design. Both Azzedine Alaia and Marc Jacobs are Prouvé fans.

Right now, late-20th-century design is ascending on the Paris scene and Roger Prigent, the former French Vogue photographer turned Manhattan dealer, aptly defines its status. "For 20th-century design, Paris is the capital," says Prigent from his Upper East Side apartment. He should know: his clientele is choice and includes Jacques Grange, Thierry Despont and Robert Couturier.

Top of the tree is Bob Vallois on the Rue de Seine. What’s new? Well, Art Deco still reigns but now the sometimes Brutalist iron and wood furniture of Pierre Chareau is considered the height of French semi-industrial chic. Vallois is touting a small Chareau stool from 1927 and it’s priced at €38,000.

Down the street is Galerie Downtown, which has really become furniture central for Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand. Owner François Laffanour boasts all the archival material relating to those designers. That means scads of documentation -- drawings and order books.

One index to how fast-paced prices are for this material is the price for Prouvé’s 1951 La Table Eclairante (Library table) with a fluorescent light overhead, which goes for a cool €1.5 million, or close to $2 million. Though a rarity, the table is by no means one of a kind. Seven were made for the Paris University. "Most of them are in museums," says Laffanour. Skip back to the last Paris Biennale and Manhattan architect Lee Mindel paid $1 million for a Charlotte Perriand table, which was unique.

Nearby, L’Arc en Seine (which has locations in both Paris and New York City) is touting the requisite Diego Giacometti furniture of cast iron, which even long-time French 18th-century furniture fan Lily Safra collects. But owner Christian de Boutonnet also has an enormous amount of material, including both mirrors and jewelry by Line Vautrin, the sculptor and jeweler who was dubbed the "poetess of metal" by Vogue magazine back in 1948.

Five years ago, Vautrin’s quixotic mirrors -- really roundels edged in sleek and sometimes crinkly mirrored spikes -- were barely known and the most expensive ones went for $500 for a pair. "Now a single simple one is €30,000 or more," says Boutonnet. Among those owning Vautrin’s work are Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs and Lee Radziwill.

When Vautrin’s mirrors are packed with a powerful provenance, the price skyrockets. At the Christie’s sale of the trailblazing collection of Hollywood producer Scott Rudin (think Stepford Wives and First Wives Club) on Dec. 7, 2005, a Vautrin mirror leaped over its $40,000-$60,000 estimate and flew to $168,000. Prices like that have yet to mark Vautrin’s small gilt boxes, compacts and jewelry -- meaning this could be a good time to pick one up.

But dealers and collectors alike here are gearing up for a spectacular sale of a private Art Deco collection at Christie’s here in Paris on June 8, 2006. It’s filled with all the textbook names from Chareau to Ruhlmann and carries an overall estimate of €15 million. Expect prices to be steep.

On the block will be Rateau’s armchair aux poisons, which was created for the New York Blumenthal family’s poolroom. The seat is made up of a mesh of stylized bronze fish. When one of those chairs sold at Christie’s Doris Duke auction on June 15, 2004, it made $970,700 and remains the record price for a chair.

There’s also a pair of Rateau chased and gilt bronze jardinières with an openwork design of daisies. The estimate is €700,000-900,000 and Christie’s is even shipping them to Dubai to tempt the wealthy.

With price points like that expected, clearly the Paris market is in a resurgence mode.


BROOK S. MASON is chief correspondent for Art & Antiques.