PREVIEWING THE BIENNALE DES ANTIQUAIRES | September 6th 2008
Art.view explores the attractions at the most opulent antique fair in the world...
The Biennale des Antiquaires, launched in 1956, is the most opulent antique fair in the world. Its organiser, the Syndicat National des Antiquaires, is spending a whopping €32m ($46.5m) on staff, security and décor at the Grand Palais (including plants, shrubs and seven tonnes of earth to plant them in). The Syndicat provides deco-inspired shop fronts for each of the 95 invited exhibitors, but it does not insure their paintings, porcelain, furniture and jewels.
The dealers pay those premiums, as well as €1,300 per square metre for their stands (€40,000 is the minimum; double or even triple that is not rare) and tens of thousands more on décor--when you include wining, dining and the other costs of wooing prospective customers, a dealer's total bill can easily exceed €500,000.
Still, gilt and crystal are not mandatory: Van Cleef & Arpels, a jewellery firm, commissioned towers of white paper flowers to complement their diamonds, emeralds and rubies. Kraemer & Cie, antiques dealers showing for the first time, grasped that in this environment, simplicity can be riveting; their fine furniture is displayed in glass cubes.
To further distinguish the Biennale from other fairs (and thereby lure big spenders), this year's theme is "The Art of Living". The festivities begin before the fair, with a formal charity dinner under the Grand Palais's glass dome. All 1400 tickets, at €1,000 each, were sold by March, with a reported 600 hopefuls turned away. The fair itself features opulent (and expensive) restaurants, as well as patio gardens where attendees can sip tea and coffee and nibble on fruits and chocolate, while surrounded by the plants that produce them.
"Yes, the Biennale is an expensive venue," says Franck Prazan, whose Galerie Applicat-Prazan specialises in the Second School of Paris (pictures done between 1945 and 1965 by such artists as Riopelle, Soulages and Atlan). "But the only thing that matters when you do a fair is not how much it will cost you, but how much business you will generate. For us it has always been good." Mr Prazan estimates he does 70% of his year's business at fairs. His star attraction here is "La table de l'Artiste" a luminous oil by Nicolas de Staël.
Dealers pay the steep fees because most collectors buy at international fine-art and antiques fairs, not dealers' galleries. And, says Floris van der Ven of Vanderven and Vanderven Oriental Art, a Dutch art dealer, "the Biennale is the focus for the international art world in September. It attracts an international clientele."
Sandra Hindman's gallery, Les Enluminures, in the Louvre des Antiquaires is, like Mr Prazan's, within walking distance of the fair (though Ms Hindman herself hails from Chicago). Although the fair's 12-hour days (from 11am to 11pm) create staffing problems, she isn't complaining. "The French go to the Biennale like it's the cinema," she says.
In 2006 her biggest sales came at 10:30pm on three different nights. In 2008, Ms Hindman is featuring "The Olivetan Gradual," a richly illuminated late Gothic choir book by Fra Girolamo da Milano.
Still, there are 16 fewer exhibitors this year than last. Some gossips blame the economy: in tough times, value for money is critical, even at the top end of the market. TEFAF, held in March at Maastricht, is widely acknowledged to be the world's top art-and-antiques fair, and the dealer foundation that runs it charges the 220 exhibitors a fifth of what the Syndicat charges for the Biennale.
Money, however, has no role in rumours about the fair's most surprising absentee, Axel Vervoordt. A dealer and collector based in Antwerp, Mr Vervoordt made his international reputation at the 1982 Biennale and attended every one thereafter. The story is that this year he objected to his assigned space, and when the Syndicat wouldn't change it he decamped. He has found a splendid alternative home in the chapel of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts. "Academia," his exhibition of ancient and contemporary art that is part sale and part philosophical inquiry, opens the day before the Biennale.
Twelve years ago, Galerie J. Kugel, whose glamorous premises are within sight of the Grand Palais, set the precedent for staging important exhibitions elsewhere during the fair. This year they are showing the Prince of Liechtenstein's bronzes. If these Renaissance and Baroque statues inspire visitors to start collecting, the rest of the gallery is filled with sumptuous furniture, objets d'art and renaissance jewels--for sale. And the Biennale, bursting with more, is just across the Seine.
The Biennale des Antiquaires runs from September 11th to September 21st at the Grand Palais. Galerie J. Kugel is showing the Prince of Liechtenstein's bronzes from September 10th to November 7th. Axel Vervoordt's "Academia" runs from September 10th to November 23rd.
Picture credit: AFP