The Art Market: French polish

The 25th Biennale des Antiquaires opened in Paris last week with a riot of fireworks under the glass dome of the Grand Palais, a sumptuous new design, some top-class works of art – and a question mark hanging over its future.

This Parisian institution has always epitomised French luxury, chic and style, and the latest edition is no exception: dealers such as Steinitz, Aaron, Perrin and Gismondi have opulent stands laden with lacquer and ormolu and lined with elaborate wood panelling. In the fields of Asian art, antiquities or 20th-century decorative arts, exhibitors are showing some magnificent examples, such as a 16th-century Japanese dragon-mask chamfrein (armour for horse’s head, Charbonnier) or an equestrian statue of Alexander the Great from the 2nd or 3rd century BC (Phoenix Ancient Art). You can even buy a huge portrait of Louis XV by Van Loo (€800,000, Steinitz).

But changing tastes mean that the organisers (the SNA, the French antique dealers’ association) have included modern and contemporary art. This year, half the exhibitors are in this field, including newcomers L&M Arts (showing Takashi Murakami, who is very much in the French news with his controversial exhibition at Versailles) and Tornabuoni (showing Alighiero Boetti and Lucio Fontana). Even the traditional dealers put contemporary art in their stands: for example, a Rothko hangs over the mantelpiece in Kraemer’s reimagining of the Oval Office decorated with French furniture.

Producing these extravagant stands costs the exhibitors a small fortune: newcomer Jason Jacques spent more than $500,000 on his recreation of the Georges Hoentschel pavilion at the 1900 Universal Exposition. This is where the Biennale’s future comes in. Some SNA members want the fair to be an annual event: but how many dealers could afford it at those prices? Or should it be bigger – in which case it would have to move as the Grand Palais can’t take many more stands. The SNA will make a decision by the end of this year.

Even if the Biennale is smaller this year – with 87 dealers, as against 95 in 2008 – there is a swathe of excellent “off” shows of the decorative arts in Parisian galleries. Aveline, generally a stalwart of the fair, is celebrating its 10th anniversary in the Place Beauvau with a striking display of furniture and art objects, held in conjunction with the German dealer Neuse. Amid some lavish decor of plants and flowers (and 500 butterflies that fluttered around guests at the opening) are 16th-century silver-gilt cups, 18th-century Savonnerie screens and even a Meissen king condor by the great modeller Kändler, made for Augustus the Strong (€2m).

The Kugel brothers, who no longer do the Biennale, are showing at Anticomania, exploring their passion for Greek and Roman art from the Renaissance onwards; the show includes Primaticcio’s double-headed bronze that sold last year at the Yves Saint Laurent auction. And there is more sculpture at the Bailly Gallery on the Rive Gauche with three dealers including the Leeds-based Tomasso Brothers, which has brought a Giambologna, “Prometheus Bringing Fire to Mankind”.

For more decorative art, Sotheby’s Paris is holding a Patiño estate sale on Wednesday and Thursday, with a mixed bag of modern and antique furniture, ornate objects and silver. Estimates are moderate (€200 for a pair of 19th-century Chinese gouaches) but the Patiño provenance might well put a shine on the results.

Drouot, the central Paris saleroom, has sacked its famous cols rouges – porters who wear a distinctive black uniform with a red collar, hence the name – and appointed a new transport company. André Chenue, the long-established logistics company, will now be responsible for handling the 800,000 or more objects that, on average, pass through the saleroom every year. For the past 150 years, the cols rouges have had a monopoly on handling all the goods in Drouot; they were all recruited from the mountain département of Savoie, and their posts often passed from father to son. While their unorthodox practices were long tolerated by the 73 smaller Parisian auctioneers who operate in the Drouot building, the omertà was finally broken six months ago.

After an extensive police investigation, a dozen people, mainly porters, were arrested and some jailed, accused of organised theft and handling stolen goods. The Ministry of Justice, which oversees auctioneering in France, then ordered a report. While this has not yet been published, some elements were revealed in French newspaper Les Echos, and seem pretty damning. In it, the authors accuse Drouot of “minimalist governance”, “lack of a legal framework”, “irresponsible porters” and “archaic work practices”.

After much hand-wringing, the Drouot board finally decided this week to sack the porters – including those who were not accused of wrongdoing – and to start again with Chenue. The auction house reopens next Tuesday, and the new porters will be at work, in uniform – but without the red collars.

The organisers of the Pavilion of Art and Design fairs (held in London and Paris) have scrapped plans to extend the brand to Singapore. They were hoping to unveil a 120-dealer-strong Singapore version of the fair in October next year, to coincide with the Formula One grand prix. But co-founder Stéphane Custot said: “It’s just too early for this. Singapore as an art market may be ready in three or four years, but not now, and I didn’t want to disappoint our exhibitors.”

However, another fair, Art Stage Singapore, founded by former Art Basel director Lorenzo Rudolf and scheduled for January 12-16, is going ahead. Rudolf recently said that Singapore had fewer art market events than Hong Kong but that local museum exhibitions would compensate. The fact that two French fair companies have shown interest in Singapore is no coincidence. Last year France and Singapore signed a cultural co-operation agreement that includes sharing collections between museums in France and Singapore.

Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

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