Grandeur and Luxury at Paris Biennale

When the French want to put on a good show, all they have to do is be themselves. Two years ago, the Biennale des Antiquaires returned to a newly restored Grand Palais after 14 years in the wilderness — by which I mean its temporary home at the Carrousel de Louvre. That 2006 edition had a dreary decor that pleased almost no one. But this year, quel difference! Grandeur and luxury reigned, which is only natural, since they are, of course, what France is all about.

The 2008 edition, which opened September 11 and runs through the 21st, is the first in my memory to make use of the architecture of the Grand Palais. While past designers have either ignored or disguised the glass-and-iron Belle Epoque structure, this edition's, Patrick Bazanan, has created a series of themed gardens under the building’s huge glass dome. The booths are set up around a series of courtyards, and the spaces are airy and filled with light.

The biennale is an important date on the Paris social calendar. A black-tie preview evening and gala dinner on September 9 at €1,000 ($1,419) a pop brought out 1,400 guests, including government ministers, private-sector CEOs, and important collectors. It was a splendid evening, with the women dressed in the latest fall fashions and adorned with jewelry that might have graced the stands of exhibitors Harry Winston or Cartier. The vernissage the following night drew out Paris for an evening of art and food so superb that one exhibitor worried that he missed potential sales because he kept leaving his stand to get more foie gras.

The 2008 edition is smaller than the last biennale — 94 dealers versus 111 — and dropouts include Belgian dealer Axel Vervoordt (who instead held his own exhibition in the chapel of the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts) and New York dealer Anthony Blumka. The reason for the decrease differs, depending on whom you ask: Dealers cited both the desire for larger exhibition spaces and a disinclination to work with Christian Deydier, the irascible president of the Syndicat des Antiquaires, which produces the show.

The overwhelming majority of exhibitors are French, and French art and antiques dominate the show. Such dealers as Didier Aaron, Aveline, Bernard Steinitz, Kraemer, and Perrin Antiquaires have made the biennale the place to see French 18th-century furniture, but modern furniture has also become more important than ever. Vallois has a stand that was filled with the best such pieces the gallery has sold over the past 25 years when ARTINFO visited, including pieces by Jean-Michel Frank and Armand-Albert Rateau; none was for sale, but there is plenty available at their gallery on the Rue de Seine. Viennese dealer Wolfgang Bauer of Bel Etage was showing Wiener Werkstätte furniture, including an elephant trunk table by Frederich Otto Schmidt and two rare table lamps by Josef Hoffmann.

By the show’s third day, dealers were reporting strong sales. Paris-based dealer Antoine Laurentin had sold so many paintings by Cubist Youla Chapoval (1919–51) that he had run out of red dots. Among the sales was a large 1950 oil entitled La Polaire, which went to a Russian buyer for €500,000. "The Russians like him," said Laurentin, "and so do the Americans."

Brussels-based dealer Gisèle Croës, who sells Asian art, said that this has been her most successful biennale since 1988. She reported selling a silver-inlaid bronze monkey dating from the early Han dynasty to an American collector for "more than €1 million."

Another impressive Chinese piece was at the booth of Christian Deydier. The bronze buffalo from the Warring States period (5th to 3rd century B.C.) came from the Idemitsu Museum of Arts in Tokyo and was priced at €550,000. One of a pair, its mate is owned by the Belgian collector Dora Janssen.

Phoenix Ancient Art of New York and Geneva centered its spectacular booth around a Roman mosaic. The work was being competed for by two collectors, an American and a Belgian, according to Hicham Aboutaam, co-owner, with his brother Ali, of the gallery. Phoenix sold a marble head of Emperor Caracella to a European collector for more than €1 million. ¨The most expensive works are selling,¨said Hicham Aboutaam. In a room filled with gold jewelry, the gallery offered an unusual double-portrait Roman brooch from the 1st century A.D. depicting Caligula and his grandmother Antonia the Younger. They also had a number of very wearable pieces, including a Hellenistic gold-and-garnet necklace-and-ring set priced at €105,000.

The star of London dealer Sam Foggs booth was an alabaster Virgin and Child made in Burgos, Spain, in the 1480s. The Virgin sits on a carved throne whose back is decorated with quatrefoil tracery. The piece was made by Gil de Siloé, who was hired by Isabella of Castille to undertake projects in and around Burgos; according to Fogg, you can see the image of the queen depicted in the face of the Virgin. The dealer reported that the sculpture has been reserved by an undisclosed institution for an undisclosed price.

The consensus among exhibitors is that the 2008 biennale has been well-attended and that the potential exists for a really strong fair. Visitors so far have typically been in good moods and stayed for longer periods of time than they did in 2006. The cheerful setting has obviously made a difference.