Unbridled luxury with ancien régime-like flourishes is everywhere at the 23rd Biennale des Antiquaires, currently on view in the Grand Palais in Paris’ VIIIe arrondissement, Sept. 15-24, 2006. On hand are more than 110 dealers purveying an estimated 7,000 objects valued at a reported $1.3 billion, ranging from archéologie and art décoratif to tableaux modernes and contemporains.
The Art Nouveau exhibition hall -- a storied setting of glass and iron that was originally built in 1900 and newly shined up with a $100-million renovation -- plays no small part in the extravagant effect.
First off, the Grand Palais entrance doors alone are of regal scale. More than 20 feet high, they’re topped by carved marble cherubs plucking fruit from a garland and surmounted by a half moon of glittering gold mosaics and a balustrade. Inside, the sage green cast-iron structure towers above, topping off at a soaring 110 feet.
The ultra-glittering stature of the fair is matched by the show’s cost, a staggering $30-million-plus, making the event the highest priced of its kind. Assorted expenses swelled the budget: security of the muzzled Doberman Pinscher kind; marketing that included junkets for a trove of German journalists; and thousands of hors d’oeuvres like miniature blini topped with caviar. Big price tags extend to the biennale restaurant, where lunch -- from a menu crafted by a name chef -- sets one back €250 or more. That’s without wine.
Americans, long awarded black belts for shopping, turned out in droves to ogle the ormolu-encrusted bureau plats and Sèvres porcelain fit for kings, along with major bling like blazing diamond necklaces and teardrop earrings at Cartier and Chanel.
Remember $1 million price tags? They’re passé. Paris dealer Christian Deydier, president of the Syndicat National des Antiquaires, which is responsible for mounting this show of shows, is touting Chinese antiquities: bronze animals inlaid with silver and gold and costing €5-million-€10 million a pair, about the price of an Upper East Side townhouse.
"I’ve got $300 million in art on my stand," says the Montreal dealer Robert Landau. Zeroing in on his offerings, which include Henry Moore’s 1977 Reclined Figure: Curved for $11 million, at the opening night gala on Sept. 13, 2006, were couturier Givenchy, who dressed the late Audrey Hepburn to perfection, and LVMH honcho Bernard Arnault.
Paris dealer Bob Vallois sold out his entire stand in that single evening. Snapped up were Jean Michel Frank furniture and Diego Giacometti lamps in, well, the blink of an eye. In fact, 20th-century furniture was more in demand than ever. Galerie Downtown sold a Serge Mouille 1953 lighting fixture for over $125,000.
With so much desirable 20th-century furniture already locked up in private collections, dealers have turned to previously overlooked material. Paris dealer Patrick Sequin focused on Chandigarh, the Punjab city designed by Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. That tactic proved successful. With his stand’s plasterboard partitions mimicking the oblique shutters of a Chandigarh building, Sequin was able to exhibit his 1956 Jeanneret teak furniture as if on site. Sold were a lighting table priced at a whopping $150,000 as well as two easy chairs, eight conference chairs and eight stools. Fifty percent of those furnishings are bound for the states. "Many of my collectors own contemporary art and they see 20th-century French design as visually compatible," says Sequin. Another asset to the chunky furniture: it’s a rising market and still relatively modest in price vis à vis pieces by Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand.
Even once-gauche plastic furnishings made an appearance, with dealer Pierre Passebon boasting several Verner Panton hanging lamps, including a "Fireball" in blue and two examples of the Space Age "UFO," at his Paris Galerie du Passage booth. They were sold opening night and the fact that plastic can tend to be, shall we say, "condition challenged," was no impediment. Plastic changes in color as it ages and its shape too can be altered.
Palazzo-style furniture is in keen demand. Ariane Dandois, a dealer long favored by buyout king Henry Kravis, attracted no less than three interested parties for her gigantic 100-light Italian chandelier. Plus, provenance draws attention. A pair of 1735 oak hall benches in the manner of William Kent, with his signature scrolling acanthus volutes, strapwork and hoof feet, once graced the Suffolk estate of Rushbrooke Hall. "They will go to America," says Dandois.
Vintage jewelry was hardly overlooked. In two days alone, Brussels dealer Veronique Bamps wrote up a bevy of Art Deco earrings twinkling with diamonds by Van Cleef, a Napoleon I necklace made up of carnelian and agate intaglios as well as a Cartier gold choker. Her total? Twelve sales in 48 hours.
Academic porcelain also appeared on shopping lists. At John Whitehead Works of Art from London, a 1779 Sèvres tea set complete with tray painted by Armand L’Aine, who is considered the greatest bird painter of his period, was reserved by an institution.
What’s it all mean? We’re going through a very Marie Antoinette moment, with shopping splurges that show total oblivion in terms of cost. The French queen had starving countrymen as her chorus. Today we have the Iraq War and a pathetic minimum wage. Marie turned to clothing for marking her exalted rank. These days, art is the cherished currency of status, sophistication and wealth.
One sign of Marie Antoinette-like shopping could be found at Van Cleef. Its sales have more than doubled in the past six years. A new flower brooch in diamonds and rubies costs in excess of $2 million.
A historic link to the queen herself was apparent in a number of sales. An early, richly carved Louis XVI chair by Mattheu Beauve, who worked on Marie Antoinette’s theater at Versailles, was snapped up at Boulevard St. Honoree dealer François Leage.
"The 18th century is always à la mode," says Leage. Of the Sofia Coppola biopic Marie Antoinette, which the French adored and which opens in U.S. theaters in October, the courtly dealer says, "The movie will reinforce the taste for the dix-huitième siècle, especially among new collectors."
If the movie is not enough to reinforce super gilt taste in the states, a flurry of museum exhibitions on the schedule are certain to cement the vogue for Vive la France. Down in Atlanta, the High Museum is hosting "Kings as Collectors," Oct. 14, 2006-Sept. 2, 2007, a special loan exhibition from the Louvre that features painting and sculpture acquired by the Sun King as well as by Marie Antoinette’s husband, Louis XVI, the last King of France. "The Bizarre and the Beautiful: Silks of the Eighteenth Century" opened this summer for an extended run at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, while "Fragonard and the French Tradition" debuts at the Morgan Library, Oct. 13, 2006-Jan. 7, 2007.
But back at the biennale, another story is one of dealers devising innovative approaches to cultivate shoppers with huge pocketbooks. Someone to watch in this regard is Paris gallerist Eric Touchaleaume of Galerie 54. He’s restored the Prouvé 1950 maison tropicale to perfection and will erect the celebrated "maision a vivre," which counts among the first prefabs ever built, alongside the Petit Palais, Oct. 27-Dec. 31, 2006. What better way to raise the visibility of Prouvé? "Next, I want to put it on a pier in Chelsea," says Touchaleaume. Buyers of Prouvé prototypes from his biennale stand must agree to exhibit their purchases. So far, no one has flinched from that request.
Speaking of new ways to attract flush contemporary art collectors, Munich dealer Georg Laue of Kunstkammer Georg Laue has a perfect entry. Artist Sigmar Polke asked Laue to participate in Polke’s next exhibition at Michael Werner Gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. So expect 15th-century cutlery and naturalia amid the Polke canvases.
Over on the Left Bank, Nicholas Kugel joined hands with Dutch dealer Axel Vervoordt to host a show titled "Hommage à Nicholas Landau," on view at Galerie J. Kugel, Sept. 13-Nov. 10, 2006. Talk about successful sales. In two days, the dealers rang up 200 receipts for works that had been owned by Landau, who was affectionately dubbed "Prince des antiquaries" by his fans. Objects included Roman statuettes marble hands and feet, 17th-century German tankards of etched and monogrammed glass, tiny Egyptian amulets, reeded porphyry urns from the 3rd century BC, a pair of 17th-century carved ivory Mughal fly whisk handles, a pair of 17th-century Flemish marble reliefs, one of a drowsy angel and the other of an angel blowing bubbles, priced at a hefty €500,000. A number of objects were displayed in groupings set in vitrines lined in raspberry velvet, with each arrangement being sold together as a single purchase. Thus, buyers can get a sense that they are acquiring a personal collection. Some of the objects were, well, marginal. Of Roman ivory needles, Vervoordt cooed, "They’re like a Giacometti." Pointing to a tiny bronze archaic figure, Vervoordt says, "The curve of the spine is akin to a de Chirico."
"Clients are buying the taste of a refined connoisseur," says Vervoordt, while adding that a high proportion of sales were to other dealers for their own private collections. Clearly, the clever packaging of Landau’s collection helped the material move, just as the grandeur of the biennale was pivotal in successfully wooing shoppers.
BROOK S. MASON is chief correspondent for Art & Antiques.