Paris: Buzz, Bubbles, Beauté
As any gambler, businessperson, picked-on-kid-in-the-school-yard, equities-trading Wall Street criminal, or sentient human over age 12 knows, when the tide starts to turn fight or flight kicks in. Either you turn tail and run, or you hold you’re ground. If it’s the latter, the stylish, often sage strategy is to double down. Half measures are often viewed as calibrated tests toward success; more often they’re small steps off the plank. Advice might be proffered in a paraphrase of Louis XV, Après nous le déluge. Or for the Thelma and Louise generation: If you’re going to drive off the cliff, do it with pedal-to-the-metal style.
The high stakes, big money, haute design world of international fine and decorative art fairs is no different. Turf is staked out, jealously guarded and defended, and reputations and buzz of the fair and its dealers are key in attracting coveted high-flying collectors and building bridges for new byers and markets. As dealers across the categorical gamut—contemporary art to ancient sculpture—have seen increasingly over the last ten years, more and more of their revenue and new clientele is generated at fairs. That makes these jet-set Happenings important like never before.
Which is why this year’s Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris was such a Napoleonic big deal. The fair, which ended last Sunday after a ten-day run in the glass-domed Grand Palais just off the Champs Elysées, marked its 26th edition.
Founded in 1956 and launched in its present form in 1962—with 78 dealers, steered to the Grand Palais by none other than André Malraux, the celebrated intellectual, novelist and theorist who was also France’s first Minister for Cultural Affairs—the Biennale set the pace for international fairs for well over the following three decades. On display were not only boldfaced pieces, the majority of which were French 18th century, but boldfaced people. There were luminaries of screen, stage and screen; leading artists; kings of countries and bourses. Tout le monde, café society, and the curators from the West’s most important museums, all drawn to the Biennale, which grew to become an encyclopedic fair offering vetted antiques and fine art from the ancient to the contemporary. At the fair’s heart were of course its unique objects, but it was as much the platform of Paris that arguably made it peerless.
A shock, then, that over the last decade the crown for Best Fine and Decorative Arts Fair in the World has been worn—with increasingly confidence and security—by another fair, the European Fine Art Fair, or TEFAF, an annual encyclopedic fair held in the dreary month of March in Maastricht. How a Dutch fair dating to the mid 1970s, which began as a small venue specializing in Old Master paintings and continues to be held in a small town in southeastern Holland, managed to become the world’s preeminent art and antiques fair, is a fascinating story of long-range planning and determination. How the Biennale stumbled is an equally interesting story, and continues to be the subject of conjecture (much of it conjuring 18th-century Versailles in its complexity and penchant for intrigue).
Regardless, this was the Biennale bounced back, and it did so by doubling down. The number of exhibitors surged from a relatively anemic 87 dealers in 2010 to a robust 122 this year. The Syndicat National des Antiquaires (SNA), the antique dealers union that organizers the fair, also undertook a 13-city promotional tour leading up to the fair, with whistle stops in standards such as New York, Milan and Berlin, but also in Hong Kong, Kiev, Moscow, Beijing, Taiwan, Shanghai and Istanbul.
Broadening the numbers, in terms of exhibitors as well as well-heeled collectors, was vital. But Christian Deydier, the noted Asian-art dealer who is also president of the 400-member SNA, cleverly chose to emphasize not what makes the fair international, but what makes it most uniquely and distinctly French. Because while other fairs might have more exhibitors and greater range, the Biennale remains unsurpassed in sheer uncontestable glamour.
Toward that end, Deydier secured Karl Lagerfeld as the fair’s scenographer, and Lagerfeld, acting in coordination with museum exhibition designer Rene Bouchara, delivered a turn-of-the-20th-century fantasy that conjured the Belle Epoque, the era in which French taste and influence over the arts was unchallenged, and which was, not coincidentally, a reminder of when and why the Grand Palais was built (for the Universal Exhibition of 1900).
Nor were holds barred to achieve the stunning effect: booths had uniform facades, white-framed light gray storefronts with enormous mullioned windows punctuated by faux street lanterns, stand-to-stand carpet with an abstract pattern evoking cobblestones, and, in the center under the great glass dome, an enormous striped balloon that the brothers Montgolfier would have envied. Deydier, an accomplished chef, also engineered a roster of Michel-starred top toques to cook at the fair’s gastronomic restaurant, with three-star chef Michel Guerard overseeing the fair’s opening night charity dinner gala benefiting the Fondation Hôpitaux de Paris- Hôpitaux de France, whose longstanding patroness is Bernadette Chirac, former first lady of France.
And in poured le beau monde, French, European and international. Included were the likes of Bernard Arnault, Henry Kravis, Francois-Henri Pinault and Salma Hayak, Pierre Bergé, Eugenie Niarchos, Charlotte Casiraghi, Yue Sai Kan, Sheikh Hassan bin Mohamed bin Ali Al Thani, Philippine de Rothschild, Prince and Princess Michael of Bourbon Parma, not to mention Mr. Mick Jagger and Ms. Danielle Steel. (To catch a bit of the fair’s buzz, watch the slide show, Impressions from the Opening, first video above.)
The sound, fury and river of champers were not for nothing. The artworks on view were dazzling, often literally if one sauntered into the stands of the great jewelry houses, numerous as never before and including first-time exhibitor Hong Kong-based Wallace Chan. All the Paris-based big guns were firing in force—from new players such as Dior and Chanel, to Cartier, Chaumet, Boucheron and Van Cleef & Arpels (which complemented a comprehensive exhibition currently on at Paris’ Museum of Decorative Arts).
Many of the houses featured pieces made exclusively for the Biennale, pieces that, so complex in intricacy and construction, took almost two years to complete. The unofficial spokesmodel for several of the houses, the late Elizabeth Taylor, made a ghostly through line at the fair, her photograph and examples of her famous collection (much auctioned at Christie’s earlier this year for enormous sums) on view at Bulgari, not far from the stand of New York and L.A.-based contemporary art dealer L&M Arts, which showed Andy Warhol’s yellow “Liz #1 (Early Colored Liz)”, perhaps the fair’s single most expensive piece with a rumored asking price of $40 million.
Central to the Biennale has always been a premier selection of FFF (fine French furniture). While there were slightly fewer specialists than in years past, the great Parisian antiquarians more than made up for this in quality. The big daddies were in attendance: Didier Aaron, Aveline, Francois Léage and Steinitz. But in terms of consistency paired with connoisseurship paired with complete unity, the prize went to Maison Kraemer. In 2010, this venerable, multi-generational company of antique dealers amused and awed visitors with a recreation of the Oval Office employing 18th-century French furniture exclusively (the illusion was down to to-scale photographs of the grounds mounted in the windows).
This year, Kraemer staged the first-ever monographic exhibition devoted to cabinet maker Jean-Henri Riesener, Marie-Antoinette’s preferred furniture source. Indeed, among the approximately 20 pieces was a coiffeuse, a lady’s dressing table with a complete kit (small, delicate, hand-painted porcelain containers for powders, rouge, etc.) that is identical to two at Versailles that belonged to the doomed queen. (There was also a small writing desk that was once part of the royal collection at Versailles, its delivery documented on December 31, 1779 by Riesener himself.)
The second slide show above shows off three of the pieces, starting with a commode owned by Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette’s sister-in-law, the Comtesse d’Artois, followed by an 18th-century backgammon table, and finally the small writing desk from various views. As Laurent Kraemer says with typical understatement, “Uniquely, furniture in 18th-century France was a major art.”
The same could be argued for 20th-century French furniture, especially that made between the world wars, much of which was made in the great 18th-century ébeniste tradition combining exemplary materials and craftsmanship to yield uniquely artful pieces. Examples of work by Jean-Michel Frank, Armand-Albert Rateau, Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann and Eileen Gray have for the last decade been darlings of collections, auction houses and galleries, and terrific examples were on stand at Galerie Vallois, along with a pair of matching cabinets in shagreen, ivory and mother-of-pearl by Clement Rousseau, who should be better known than he is.
Right Bank-dealer Alain Marcelpoil, a specialist in Art Deco furniture who wrote the book on Lyon-based furniture-maker André Sornay, showed a stand-full of Sornay’s work, among them a partner’s desk from 1929 that emerged from a console (when the leaves came out and clicked into place, concealed desk lights illuminated, as pictured above). First time exhibitor Galerie Mathivet showed pieces by André Groult as well as Rateau—evoking the dressing room of his great patron, couturier Jeanne Lanvin (one of her original dresses was even on display, all part of the ambiance.
In terms of post-war and contemporary, Yves Gastou showed a plexiglass backgammon/game table from 1970 by Jean-Claude Farhi. It made me think of Kraemer’s 18th-century Riesener, which in turn prepared my mind for Gastou’s surrealist table, “Expansion Valise,” from 1970 by César. And while it’s actually a desk, the fantastic bronze donkey by Francois-Xavier Lalanne at JGM Galerie (priced at $1 million) could in a pinch serve as a bar.
Why quibble when you might tipple?
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