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Amazing things under the Louvre at Biennale des Antiquaires

Barges on the Seine, a Liao gold mask and spooky pre-Colombian tomb figures at the smartest decorative arts fair in the world

Paris

Le monde et son cousin, as the French say, were in town on 18 September for the glamorous dinner that opened this year’s Biennale des Antiquaires. Mme Chirac, Bernard Arnault, Veronica Hearst, Akram Ojjeh, Gloria Thurn und Taxis and Henry Kravis were just some of those who had jet-setted in to what is undoubtedly the world’s greatest decorative arts fair.

And yet all had not gone well in the run-up. In order to shake the event out of its insularity and tease it up-market, the organisers, the French Syndicat des Antiquaires had shown some long-term exhibitors the door while shoeing in more international heavyweights. The resulting bad blood has led to three excluded French dealers taking legal action for loss of earnings. There was the inevitable vetting squabble. Universal scorn was heaped on an attempt to improve the lighting of the dire bunker under the Louvre where the fair is held, and the new layout was equally decried. The “mezzanine”, where there are some smaller stands, is still a difficult area for exhibitors and visitors.

But none of this mattered once you were actually in the booths. There, away from the pulsing yellow and blue lights which made visitors look bilious or cardiac in turns, was an accumulation of marvels.

While decorative art remains the great strength of the Biennale, the 19 new recruits have beefed up sectors such as Modern painting (with Robert Landau, Krugier Dietsheim) or tribal art (Entwistle, Monbrison, Ratton-Houdré and Guimot). Art Deco, which was very present at the last edition, has been pruned and London contributed its hard-hitters, Pelham and Partridge, on a splendid (and the largest) stand, to the 18th-century furniture display.

Pre-fair concerns that the all-important American buyers would not turn up were dispelled as decorators, curators and private collectors flowed in. The vernissage attracted 7,000 souls (2,000 more than last time), and entries were 15% up at mid-fair, when this issue went to press.

As for sales, the picture was mixed, with some dealers selling well, others less so. Paintings were doing better than the decorative arts, and buyers seemed to be holding off taking rapid decisions: an “if I miss this, too bad” reaction was reported by a number of dealers. Alan Rubin of Pelham Galleries, with a number of sales under his belt and others pending, said he was “very pleased, considering the general climate.”

Any review of the fair and its 113 exhibitors must necessarily omit much, but here is my line-up of some of the amazing things to be seen at the Biennale last month.

Deydier’s gold mask

The market has recently been seeing more pieces from the Liao culture (from an area north of Beijing) and the current president of the S.N.A., Christian Deydier, unveiled an extraordinary and extremely rare funerary group dating from the 10th century, comprising a sold gold mask, coif and jewellery, including a rock crystal necklace. It was priced at about $1.5 million and, as often with Mr Deydier, was sold immediately to Philippe Whal of the Walros Foundation.

Sarti’s surprise

The exterior of the cabinet is austere and black but its doors open to reveal an exuberant interior of carved ivory adorned with 17 pietra dura plaques made in Florence about 1625. This masterpiece, made in Augsburg about 1650 by Melchior Baumgartner, was for sale at c3.2 million on the stand of the early gold-ground specialist Sarti.

Vallois’s peep-show

The Art Deco Überfrau Cheska Vallois had asked “Mr Purple”, the decorator François-Joseph Graf, to imagine a suitable decor for her collection of Art Deco objects. It was like stepping into a velvet-lined jewel case, with light-boxes showing admirably grouped pieces. Ivory, shagreen, mother-of-pearl, ebony or ceramic, each object was a little marvel in itself.

Nabi heaven

Hopkins-Custot’s stand, hung with taupe, grouped a number of Nabi paintings including Bernard’s “Bretonnes entrant à l’eglise” and Serusier’s “Jeunes Bretonnes au bord de la mer”, as well as two intimiste cabinets with charming Bonnards and and Vuillards. With eight sales in the first weekend, their stand was a commercial success as well.

Chevalier’s grotesques

A brilliantly detailed, fresh pair of tapestries, made by the royal workshop in Beauvais about 1690, dominated the tapestry dealer Chevalier’s stand. A “major American museum” has, apparently, expressed interest...

Steinitz’s best ever

Bernard Steinitz has accustomed us to spectacular stands, but this year’s was, for many, his best ever. Three rooms, lined comme il se doit with panelling, led into an airy intter sanctum of lacy boiseries, once a gazebo in a Rothschild 18th-century chateau, so fine that each element had been backed with metal. The central room, lit by two immense Dutch chandeliers, was hung with beaded, 18th-century embroideries and even the bookcases were backed with 17th-century carpets.

Pre-Colombian spooks

In the back of the Mermoz Gallery was a tiny alcove: you stepped in to be completely surrounded by glaring Mexican figures, their arms crossed, from Chontal Guerrero and dating from 350-100 BC.

Axel Vervoort’s barge

Moored right beside the Musée d’Orsay was a giant industrial barge which the Dutch magician of the unexpected had floated into Paris. Bobbing alongside was a “hospitality barge”, both serving as an overspill and display area from the rather small stand at the fair. The giant barge, with its rusty sides looking like russet velvet gave Vervoort the volume to do what he does best: work on a large scale. A separate room of the barge, however, was draped in immaculate white, where one of the dealer’s signature immense sofas enabled visitors to admire an Anish Kapoor white sculpture and an all-white painting by the Groupe Zero artist Jef Verheyen. Elsewhere a huge George II bureau-bookcase was married with a Roman gargoyle and a Cuyp painting of two jaguars asking $750,000. With 15 sales over the first weekend, including van Oost the Elder’s huge “Figures in a Renaissance courtyard” for well over half a million Euros, Mr Vervoort was delighted. And his idea is likely to be copied; how many barges will there be along the banks of the Seine next time around?