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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 11 OCTOBER 2016 — The 28th Biennale des Antiquaires, offering art lovers and collectors the finest in rare antique paintings, jewelry, furniture and porcelain, took place as in every other year since 2006, under the elegant glass roof of the Grand Palais in Paris.

The last of its present kind, for next year it will become an annual event, the star attraction was   Modigliani’s 1915 masterpiece, Bride and Groom.  On sale at 25 million dollars, it was the most expensive painting in the exhibition. Acquired from MoMa 60 years ago, it currently forms part of the collection of art dealer, Robert Landau, based in Montreal, Canada. It hung alongside Raoul Dufy’s Les Regates à Trouville, Chagall’s Mariés à l’ange rouge, Van Dongen’s 1906 work, La Femme au Collier Vert  and Miro’s 1944  Personnage et oiseau dans la nuit.

Amadeo Modigliani: 1884 - 1920
Les Mariés (Bride and Groom), 1915-1916
Oil on canvas, signed lower right
55 cm x 46 cm

However, the chic but spectacular and surprising scenography devised by designer Nathalie Crinière was as much at the centre of events as the precious artworks it showcased. Rarely had the Grand Palais, a magical place of immense proportions, been seen to better advantage than at the opening of this unique exhibition of everything that is beautiful, with the sunlight streaming down from the roof, illuminating the stands, hallways, and the soft grey fitted carpets with a golden light.

The sobre, elegant décor with natural light filtering down, allowed visitors to take in the setting and see the Biennale as a complete ensemble. The wide circular passageways were flanked by galleries on either side with two majestic curving staircases leading to a ‘Salon d’honneur’ up top.

2016 Biennale des Antiquaires, Paris 
Photographer: Kelly Taub/

Here, the State Hermitage Museum of St Petersburg, the largest museum in the world by number of objects on display, presented A Century of French Elegance, a non-selling exhibition of 34 sumptuous artworks that had never been seen outside St Petersburg before.

The 18th century was profoundly marked by a "French Elegance" in fashion as much as in furniture, and the Russian monarchs regularly imported precious silver, bronze, and porcelain objects from Paris, receiving in turn orders supplemented by exceptional masterpieces offered as diplomatic gifts. Thus one could admire one of the most beautiful collections of French decorative art in the world.

There was for example, a stunning large, silver centerpiece in Regency style, one of the oldest examples of table decoration of its kind. The central vase would be filled with fruit, sweetmeats, and so on, while small dishes for oil and vinegar were placed round the centerpiece with shells for oysters in the corners. There was a coin cabinet, a piece of furniture of rare beauty which was designed to hold coins and medallions, and which was decorated with tortoiseshell and copper in the Boulle technique.

Centerpiece, silversmith Claude II Ballin
Paris, 1723-1724.
48 x 72 x 63 cm
© Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, 2016

One gazed in amazement at a most unusual Medici vase from Sevres, decorated with flags and military details, the only known specimen of its kind. This "Military" vase dating back to 1780 was on view outside Russia for the first time since the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was also hard to tear one’s eyes away from a second impressive vase also from Sevres. Fashioned in the 1780’s out of soft-paste porcelain with enamels applied in relief on a dark blue background, this large "pendule" vase had a fascinating watch mechanism around the neck,  a perfect example of the Louis XIV style.

Fine watchmaking has always enjoyed an inseparable relationship with art and visitors were thus drawn into The Mastery of Time, a unique exhibition of over 100 artifacts within a richly documented setting. There were historical timekeeping pieces, the presence of engravers, stone setters and enamellers together with virtual reality headsets enabling one to discover the advances and secrets of the world of watchmaking. Objects on view included a one-handed octagonal pocket watch from the first half of the 17th century, an early 18th century sundial as well as a more recent rubidium atomic clock dating back to 1995.

But returning to the exhibitions of paintings, one could have spent the entire afternoon in the Boon Gallery gazing at Van Dongen’s poetic Femme allongée à Deauville, a work on sale at one million and 400 thousand dollars. The gallery, founded in 1985, specializes in European painting from the 19th and 20th centuries, and alongside the sublime Van Dongen, were works by Magritte, Delvaux, Monet, Miro and Chagall.

Kees Van Dongen (Rotterdam 1877 - Monte-Carlo 1968) 
Femme allongée à Deauville
Signed lower middle, Circa 1924 
Oil on canvas
73.5 x 92 cm / 29 x 36.2 in
Certificate of authenticity by Wildenstein Gallery, Paris, 1996

Works by Chagall were also on display in the Taménaga Gallery, founded in Tokyo in 1969, now with branches in Osaka and Paris.  Specialising in Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art, paintings by Degas, Vlaminck, and Dufy decorated the walls of this elegant stand. The gallery also possesses paintings by contemporary artists such as Kyosuke Tchinai and Takehiko Sugawara.

But it was the Paris based Steinitz Gallery specializing in 17th, 18th and 19th century furniture and art which attracted the most attention. One felt one had walked into some prestigious European palace.  Several workers had spent 4 days erecting an imposing structure, where the walls were covered from top to bottom with exceptional painted woodwork. The panels were those of the Folie Beaujon in Paris. (In 1781, the rich banker offered himself a property with ornate, richly decorated panels on the walls,  panels which the later owners, the Rothschilds, shared out amongst their family and which have been attributed to Pierre-Adrien Paris, responsible for the décor of the Hotel Crillon in Paris).

2016 Biennale des Antiquaires, Paris 
Photographer: Kelly Taub/

It was possibly less glittering and glamour than in the past, with predominantly European exhibitors and fewer jewellers. With the two exceptions of the Maison Gérard and Adam Williams Fine Art Ltd, both from New York, one could only regret the notable absence of Americans, deterred no doubt by the recent terrorist attacks. But now, with the extremely high security, not only for the Biennale, but for all the museums and theatres in Paris, they risked less in the French capital than in their gun-happy homeland, where statistically, they stood a far, far higher risk of becoming a target for a crazed gunman. For her part, Gisele Croes, specialist of the extreme Orient based in Brussels, lamented the absence of Chinese buyers. She had come with a magnificent laquered boudda weighing just under one kilo, and worth 500,000 euros. Unfortunately for the Croes Gallery, the date of the Biennale coincided with the anniversary of the death of Mao.*

The relaxed atmosphere and general warmth of the people, together with the fact that Paris has recently been named one of the friendliest cities in the world, all added up to a feeling of lightness and well-being surrounded also as one was, by so many fabulous works of art.

*Important people were not allowed to travel during this time

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque.

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