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.


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

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…

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