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by Brook S. Mason
Signaling une nouvelle belle époque in terms of art-fair cachet and global elegance, the 25th Biennale des Antiquaires debuted in Paris, Sept. 15-22, 2010, in the vast 19th-century cast iron and glass Grand Palais. The fair is orchestrated this year by the redoubtable Hervé Aaron, who heads up the Syndicat National des Antiquaires, the prestigious French dealer organization (and who also operates Didier Aaron galleries, founded by his father, in both London and New York).

Overall this year, the biennale saw a pronounced optimism amidst early buying, a marked contrast to the 2008 edition of the fair, which corresponded with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and left dealers chagrined, sales cancelled and aisles frequently empty.

"We aim to reaffirm the position of Paris as the center of the art market and make the Biennale rival TEFAF," says Aaron. While his ambitions are to be admired, this Paris show is substantially different from the annual Maastricht-based event, which has expanded beyond its Old Masters beginnings to now include an international roster of dealers with a strong contingent of modern and contemporary art and design. At the biennale, 80 percent of the dealers are French and the mise en scène is the epitome of Gallic chic with the fair itself designed by Paris architect Patrick Bazanan.

Still, this biennale is a 180-degree flip from editions of yesteryear. This time round, the number of dealers has dropped from more than 90 participants to 80 galleries along with seven jewelers, including new participant Louis Vuitton. Also new to the fair are Marlborough Gallery and Asian specialist J.J. Lally & Co. from the U.S., Manhattan ceramics specialist Jason Jacques and design dealers Dansk Møbelkunst and Galerie Félix Marcilhac.  

Dealers have long contended that the biennale is the priciest fair in the world. Jason Jacques said he spent over $500,000 on his stand, from its design to shipping and hotels. Insiders say the biennale has lost north of $1 million due to dealer defections in these times of austerity. But then all traditional fairs have witnessed dwindling dealer rosters. Back in its glory days of 2004, the Paris Biennale counted 103 participants.  

This year, a number of former biennale participants, including Aveline, Galerie du Passage and Galerie Jean-Jacques Dutko, opted to put on their own special exhibitions instead. The Fifth Avenue antiquaire A La Vieille Russie skipped the biennale and took up roost in the Didier Aaron gallery on the Rue Faubourg St. Honore, installing a show on its own early history.

But this slimmer, trimmer biennale, one less laced with ancien régime trappings of gilt furniture, Ming porcelain wrapped in gleaming ormolu and sugary Rococo paintings, now considered so passé even by the newly rich, still outshines by far any traditional American or London fair.

Another dose of difference under Aaron’s aegis is the elimination of cumbersome datelines for paintings and sculpture. In prior editions, fine art made after 1970 was banned. "If we kept to that rule, one half of the L&M Arts stand would have had to be eliminated," says Aaron, referring to the Manhattan gallery’s offerings of works by the boundary-bending Paul McCarthy and Takashi Murakami, currently feted with an exhibition at Versailles. The 1970 dateline remains fixed for decorative arts, though exceptions are made. Such changes ratchet the fair to one right in sync with contemporary art collectors.

Even the fair design is more contemporary in feel, including long, lean pools of water edged in white seating under the Grand Palais dome, which add a sense of calm reflection. Visitors, too, embody contemporary chic, including Saudi princesses, the Aga Khan, fashion designer Azzedine Alaia, Delphine Arnault, Jacques Chirac, assorted European royalty, Elle Macpherson, Mme François Pinault, former Louvre director Pierre Rosenberg and New York architect Lee Mindel, who was escorting Laurie Tisch.

In years past, the audience for the biennale was largely European and American, with the occasional Latin. This time around, visitors seemed to hail from around the globe, including Chinese, Egyptians, Russians and Turks, some of whom now do their collecting from sumptuous flats in Paris.

Overall, the biennale demonstrated several shifts in the global art market. Some examples:

1. Mega-pricing in a volatile global economy: Marlborough is featuring a Francis Bacon triptych from 1970, Three Studies of the Human Body, for $50 million. Also on the gallery stand are blue and white porcelain vessels from 1970 by Chu Teh-Chun. The 90-year-old Chinese artist, who has spent most of his artistic career in Paris, worked in the Limoges factory and was feted with a ceramics exhibition at the Musée Guimet last year. His vases go for over $100,000 each. Deciding to participate in the Paris Biennale was a slum dunk, reports Marlborough director Tara Reddi. "Eli Broad thinks it important enough to be here," she says.

2. Clinching deals for contemporary art in the first 36 hours: Dominique Levy of L&M Arts brilliantly curated their stand to huge early success. Sold by day two were an untitled Anish Kapoor fiberglass sculpture made just this year, along with works by Liza Lou, Murakami and Kiki Smith. In a new departure for the gallery, Levy featured decorative arts: massive Venetian glass vessels by Ritsue Mishima, and they sold immediately. "I wanted to make our stand like a salon," says Levy, who had sold ten items from her booth in the first day and a half.

3. New pricing for Asian material: Former Syndicat president Christian Deydier is touting a monumental Tang terracotta horse dripping with green, ecru and tobacco brown glazes and sporting a green saddle. The price is a whopping $10 million.

Even with the Chinese flush with cash, Europeans have not lost ground as buyers. At Galerie Deydier, Swiss clients took home a 12th-century archaic bronze fangjia and an 11th-century gilt bronze seated Buddha from the Angor Wat school, while Chinese collectors snapped up two archaic bronzes from their homeland.

4. The Oval Office as style center: The 135-year-old Paris dealer Kraemer & Cie recreated a version of the Oval Office from the days of Thomas Jefferson and General Lafayette, when furnishings with a French accent were favored in presidential quarters. The stand even boasts windows with (photographic) views onto the White House gardens. An 18th-century chandelier in the shape of a celestial sphere ringed by gilt candleholders, similar to one at the Getty in Los Angeles, is particularly captivating. The cost is a rather outer-orbit $250,000.

"Half of our clients are Americans," says Mikael Kraemer, who recently sold a Louis XV desk to a San Francisco museum. As to the expense of installing the Oval Office replica, reportedly in excess of $125,000, he says. "It’s our gift to the public."

5. Newest kid on the block: Oscar Graf, only 23, and already with formidable skills for sourcing Edward William Godwin furnishings as well as W.A.S. Benson lighting. He is showing such antiques on the stand of Jason Jacques. Graf sold a pair of Benson 1898 wall light brackets in copper and brass for close to $65,000 to an American buyer. "While Benson is underappreciated in Britain, he is highly sought in the States," says Graf, who is the son of the interior designer François-Joseph Graf, whose clients include Henry Kravis and who trimmed up the stands of Galerie Vallois, Cartier and Jason Jacques.

6. Korean collectors lighting the way: Buyers from Korea snapped up 20th-century design at both Brussels dealer Yves Macaux and Paris Galerie Down Town. "The Korean economy is poised to take over from Japan," says Yves Macaux. Lighting has always played second fiddle in dealers’ orchestrations of period material -- that is up until now. Both dealers showcased lighting, with François Laffanour of Down Town selling a Lalanne 1991 pelican lamp with its belly illuminated for €80,000 and a Serge Mouille 1960 lighting design for over €100,000.

7. Boiserie in revival: French period paneling has had its boom and bust periods, so it’s a bit of a surprise that in these austere times, Féau & Cie is hard at work on a stunning 80 rooms, with most of them going for $250,000 a clip, and far higher. "Clients are Chinese, Russians and Americans," says Guillaume Féau. On offer is rare early 19th-century Pompeian red room with Etruscan motifs attributed to Charles Percier (1764-1838) and Pierre Fontaine (1762-1838), official architects to Napoleon. Still bearing its original paint, the bosierie costs €1.9 million. A 1755 silvered boiserie, attributed to Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806), with robed Grecian models and medallions representing the four continents in high relief, is priced at €4.8 million. Already, a single museum is considering acquiring both sets of boiserie.
8. Feverish sales for Cartier diamonds: "Of the 115 examples we brought, including diamond tiaras, 75 percent sold by day one," says Bernard Fornas, Cartier president. "Clients were from all seven continents," he says. Even glittering jewels in the €3 million range sold immediately. The stand of Van Cleef & Arpels, arrayed by set designer Alfredo Arias with a surreal rocket, submarine and fantasy figures, was so brilliant that many said it should be preserved as an art object itself. VC&A also reaped huge sales.

9. Younger dealers make a statement: Aaron enlisted 25 new dealers to display a single work, in a bit of an outreach designed as a "tremplin" (springboard) for their later participation. The biennale paid their costs. "We’re breaking with tradition and demonstrating that our future is grooming them," says Aaron.

While the new dealers are unfortunately sequestered on a balcony just under the Grand Palais dome, Aaron’s gesture of inclusiveness is much needed. Not to be missed is Fabio de Sanctis 1931 Surrealistic chair in bent and welded iron, edition of 12, at the booth of dealer Marie-Alexandrine Yvernault.

The 25th Biennale des Antiquaires demonstrates the continued importance of Paris as a global style leader. And to further this goal, Aaron has announced plans to position a new fair in the alternate years of the biennale. "Fairs cement our placement on the global circuit," says Aaron. Details of this latest venture, however, have not yet been finalized.

BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times and other publications.