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“Paris had everything, lost it, and is trying hard to get it back and seize its chances.”
So said the Salzburg, Paris and London dealer Thaddaeus Ropac at this year’s Art Business Conference, during a discussion about the impact of Brexit on Europe’s art market.
He had a point. In the 1950s, France was — according to Artprice — the art market’s “uncontested world leader”, but suffered from the ascendancy of New York and London, and the French city’s own reluctance to modernise. Rigorous regulations meant that, for example, auction houses weren’t able to conduct private sales or offer guarantees until 2011.
Without its market, Paris also lost some of its wider cultural pizzazz. “Paris was always very important to artists, but it’s fair to say that the city went through a quiet period. Even the museums lost a bit of energy,” says the New York and London dealer Dominique Lévy, co-founder of Lévy Gorvy gallery.
Recently, though, things have begun to shift in Paris — and it is no coincidence that this has coincided with the prolonged and inhibiting Brexit process in the UK. When the mega gallerist David Zwirner revealed to the Financial Times that he was opening in the French capital, he made the correlation abundantly clear. “Brexit changes the game,” he said at the time, emphasising the importance of having a gallery “in Europe”. The commitment stands even in the event of no Brexit, he says. “Maybe fate will mean I’ll have two galleries in Europe, but either way, they will strengthen each other,” he adds. Zwirner opens at 108 rue Vieille du Temple on October 16 with a show of the American artist Raymond Pettibon.
Other major players are moving in. White Cube will open an office and viewing rooms in the city before the end of the year, though it did not comment on whether this relates to Brexit. Hauser & Wirth’s team is rumoured to have been looking at the French capital for the past two years, while Pace gallery is also said to be searching for a spot in town (neither would comment).
“We just have no idea of what is going on in the UK, or what will happen; whereas in Paris we know, more or less,” says Samia Saouma, a partner at Germany’s Max Hetzler gallery, which opened in Paris in 2014 and in London in 2018. Its London gallery has nonetheless carved out a successful niche in the city, she emphasises, though there’s a sense that Paris offers a more appealing market opportunity to newcomers. “There is more room for galleries there, unlike in London, which is pretty full,” Saouma says.
A dramatic change in Paris this year comes via the international auction houses — underscored by the fact that both Sotheby’s and Christie’s are now under private French ownership. Material for public sales in London has been slimmer since the Brexit vote in 2016 and while the advantage has mostly been to New York, Paris shares some of the spoils this season. Highlights include a bumper avant-garde art sale at Christie’s on October 17, dominated by Nicolas de Staël’s “Parc des Princes” (1952, est €18m-€25m) and a two-day sale of the collection of the artists Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne (Sotheby’s, October 23-24, total estimate €16m-€23m).
Meanwhile Fiac, the country’s leading art fair which opens this week, has gradually decoupled itself from following straight on from Frieze, moving its dates later in the month as the London fair has inched earlier. Standing alone has been to the French fair’s benefit as it rapidly sheds its second-best status. This year, Dominique Lévy skipped showing at Frieze Masters, where she has exhibited since 2013, and shows for the first time at Fiac. “It’s more relevant to our programme,” she says. Her booth will be dominated by a large (200cm x 580cm) moveable panel piece by Martial Raysse from 1966 that comes from the collection of the Princess Catherine Aga-Khan.
Museums too have been pulling out all the stops and shows during Fiac, include the critically acclaimed Bacon: Books and Paintings (Centre Pompidou, to January 20), while the Louvre’s hugely anticipated Leonardo da Vinci retrospective is just around the corner (October 24-February 24, 2020). Private collectors are increasingly boosting the exhibition choice. Bernard Arnault opened his Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton in 2014 and, outside the capital, the Fondation Carmignac has opened on the Île de Porquerolles, off the coast of the South of France. Early next year, François Pinault — Arnault’s rival in business and art — opens his collection at the new Bourse de Commerce, near the Louvre.
Fiac also works well with the city’s prestigious museums and glorious outdoor spaces. Its Hors les Murs programme fills the Jardin des Tuileries with sculpture while institutional tie-ups include a Glenn Brown show of mostly new works among the Romantic paintings at the Louvre’s Musée National Eugène Delacroix (to December 9, through Max Hetzler gallery).
Paris is still a long way behind London in terms of the power of its market, and no one thinks it can replicate the critical mass that the UK capital commands overnight. “This is the third fair we’ve done in the so-called shadow of Brexit,” noted Frieze director Victoria Siddall ahead of her London fairs this year. But there’s a wider sense that the Brexit waiting game has been detrimental to London — and the story of Paris is a reminder of fortune’s fickle wheel. Many of those involved in the international art market, who by a huge proportion were against Britain leaving the EU, are now just after resolution.
“It’s the uncertainty that is creating the doomsday predictions; please, just make a decision!” Lévy begs from New York.
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