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At the Paris Biennale, Buyers Want Antiques. Just Not Too Many.

“It’s not that international any more. It’s too French,” said Nikolas Barta, an Austrian collector based in Vienna, who has been a regular visitor to the Paris biennale, as well as Art Basel, Tefaf and Frieze. Mr. Barta, 62, buys artworks from the 18th to 21st centuries. “And it’s a bit quiet,” he added during a somnolent Tuesday afternoon at the fair, when there were fewer than 200 visitors browsing under the cast iron and glass roof of the Grand Palais. By this stage, most dealers had typically made just one or two sales.

Photo

Strasbourg faience commedia dell’arte figures were the star attraction at a pop-up show at the Galerie Vandermeersch.

Credit
Jérémie Beylard/Agence Phar

This was a far cry from September 1996, when Melinda Gates, the philanthropist and wife of the Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, was wowed at the Paris event by a set of four 17th-century Gobelins gold-thread tapestries on the booth of the Paris dealer Galerie Chevalier. The tapestries had been made for Louis XIV’s minister of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert.

“Melinda said to her decorator, ‘If you find a place for them. I’ll take them,’ ” recalled the gallery’s founder, Dominique Chevalier. Mrs. Gates’s decorator, the New York-based Thierry Despont, duly found a place and they were sold for a price that Mr. Chevalier declined to divulge.

The tapestries have since been bought back by Galerie Chevalier, and were on its booth at this year’s biennale, priced at €4 million, or about $4.7 million.

Interior decorators like Mr. Despont were key drivers of sales at the major antiques fairs in the 80s and 90s. Dealers would stock their booths thinking of influential tastemakers like Alberto Pinto (who died in 2012 and whose private collection was being auctioned at Christie’s in Paris during the biennale this month), Jacques Grange, Roberto Peregalli and Jacques Garcia.

“They weren’t just decorators,” said Camille Leprince, a former Paris biennale exhibitor. “They turned clients into collectors. It was great for dealers.”

Mr. Grange, Mr. Peregalli and Mr. Garcia were all spotted at the V.I.P. previews of this year’s biennale, but with the wealthy increasingly living in contemporary interiors, buyers of antiques are being more selective.

“Many clients today ask us for classic contemporary design and at the biennale some of these clients are looking for a grandiose piece to embellish their décors,” said Linda Pinto, the decorator’s sister, who is now director of his Paris-based company.

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A 2008 gilt-bronze “Bureau Croco” by the French designer Claude Lalanne fetched more than four times its estimate in a sale at Christie’s.

Credit
via Christie’s

Mr. Leprince said that this year, he preferred to hold a pop-up show of mid-18th-century Strasbourg-factory faience at the Galerie Vandermeersch in Paris, rather than commit to the Grand Palais. “We’d rather keep our expenses low and hold a small, academic exhibition,” said Mr. Leprince, who estimated the cost of his gallery show and catalog at about €10,000, compared with €150,000 for a booth at the fair. “But you do lose some customers,” he added.

Mr. Leprince is participating the 10th annual “Parcours de la Ceramique et des Arts du Feu” gallery trail of specialist dealer exhibitions, mainly in the Carré Rive Gauche district of Paris. Dealers of tribal art have their own “Parcours des Mondes” event running concurrently nearby in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

The star attraction at Galerie Vandermeersch was the only known set of four white Strasbourg faience commedia dell’arte figures inspired by the artist Jean-Antoine Watteau made under the supervision of the notable ceramist Paul-Antoine Hannong. On consignment from a French collector, who had reunited the figures after buying them as two pairs at separate Tefaf fairs, Mr. Leprince gave the price as between €200,000 and €250,000.

Meanwhile, the value of such rarities was put into perspective by some of the prices being paid at Christie’s for the decorative objects once owned by Mr. Pinto. On Tuesday evening, five telephone bidders battled over a 2008 gilt-bronze “Bureau Croco” by the French designer Claude Lalanne, which featured a top molded in the shape of a crocodile skin. This soared to €847,500, more than four times the estimate. This price made some kind of sense, given the current fashionability of designs by Mrs. Lalanne and her late husband, François-Xavier Lalanne.

But then 20 lots later, an amusing if hardly museum-quality pair of late 18th-century Chinese Export porcelain tureens shaped as ducks sold for €187,500 against a low estimate of €15,000.

This result was a telling reminder that:

• Auction house prices can only go up, while dealer prices can only go down, and

• European 18th-century objects look seriously underpriced compared with their Chinese equivalents.

Perhaps if more people were aware of that, more would visit the Paris biennale and its satellite dealer shows.

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