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Past perfect

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 April, 2012, 12:00am

The Paris Biennale des Antiquaires, one of the most prestigious displays of antiques, rare objects and artworks in the world, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

Hoping to make it one of the best yet, the Syndicat National des Antiquaires (SNA) has invited 150 carefully selected exhibitors and creators. Among them is Hong Kong-based fine jewellery designer and sculptor Wallace Chan - the first Asian dealer or artisan to take part.

Christian Deydier, president of the SNA, the French art dealers' association that oversees the fair, was in Hong Kong last week to provide a preview of the upcoming event, which will run at the Grand Palais in Paris from September 14 to 23.

With an eye on China's increasing number of collectors and rapid growth of its art and antique market, Deydier says he felt the time was right to invite a dealer or creator from this part of the world.

'Last time a lot of collectors from the mainland came to the fair. They are mostly interested in Chinese art, but some are starting to get curious about furniture,' he says. Organisers of the biennale are also looking to expand and hope to hold mini fairs in Hong Kong and Istanbul in the near future.

But Deydier is quick to point out that he also wanted Chan to take part in the fair because his work represents a fresh take on fine jewellery. 'The work of Wallace Chan is completely different. When he came to Paris in January he had a very small exhibition that was highly praised in the French press. The few collectors who saw it were very excited because it was something new. His is a new way of presenting jewellery, a new juxtaposition of the stones that has a very Chinese element to it,' says Deydier.

Chan believes his work represents a shift in Chinese jewellery design, which, aesthetically, has shown little evolution over the past 30 or so years. 'Regardless of the level of craftsmanship, a lot of recent Chinese jewellery hasn't been appreciated by the world. My work combines oriental philosophy with Western techniques, representing a new phase of Chinese jewellery,' he says.

Chan created a special collection for the biennale, which was unveiled at a cocktail reception at the Mandarin Oriental hotel last week. With a combined market value of about HK$400 million, the four pieces displayed were inspired by nature and based on the theme of Zen. Chan will display these and other new creations alongside a selection of past works at the fair.

'In the past, a European or Western influence was very important in fine or royal jewellery,' says George Huang, an art collector who will attend this year's biennale. 'Nowadays, it's very important to have an oriental sensibility, as more people are becoming interested in pieces with an Asian aesthetic.'

Huang explains that with traditional European fine jewellery, designs are often linear and focused on displaying stones according to shape and colour. Chan's work, on the other hand, takes a more sculptural approach that Huang says combines culture, new techniques and materials, as well as precious stones. He predicts collectors will start to become more interested in this new aesthetic.

It is always difficult to predict which pieces will pique the interest of collectors, says Deydier, but new and unique objects are always popular.

At the fair, there will be some of the world's top art and antiques dealers, whose exhibits collectively span several centuries and include furniture, paintings, sculpture, fine jewellery and ancient artefacts - some of which have never been on public display before.

Before being invited to exhibit, dealers and artisans must first pass before a committee made up of some of the country's top art experts. 'It's quite difficult to be selected,' Deydier explains. 'The committee selects dealers based on their reputation and the quality of their pieces. We inspect every piece at the fair - not only to see if it is genuine, but also to make sure it is of high quality.'

But the biennale is much more than a showcase of collectable items. A lavish celebration of French culture, the fair was first held in 1962 at the Grand Palais and has long been a draw for serious collectors, gallery directors, royalty, dignitaries and celebrities.

Andre Malraux, France's former first minister of cultural affairs, attended one of the earliest Biennale des Antiquaires in 1964. The prince and princess of Monaco visited the fair in 1972 and, more recently, former French president Jacques Chirac, Italian film star Monica Bellucci and fashion designer Valentino Garavani have been among those in attendance.

'It's not like any other fair in the world,' Deydier says. 'When you go to others, if they're for flowers or carpets, for example, all you see are the flowers or the carpets. But we show the way of life in France. Each fair has completely different scenery. We have decorations and jewellery made especially for the biennale - some of which have taken two years to prepare. It's really exceptional to look at,' he says.

This year Karl Lagerfeld is art director, responsible for designing the look and feel of the fair. Inspired by an idealised view of Paris' past and by the Grand Palais itself, Lagerfeld hopes to evoke a sense of the covered shopping arcades that lined the city in the late 19th century and early 20th century. 'I want to emphasise the immensity and splendour of the glass roof. For me, the Grand Palais is the very heart of Paris,' he says.

While the designer is tight-lipped about the particulars of his design, expectations are high. Lagerfeld joins a prestigious list of previous art directors, including French designer and architect Francois-Joseph Graf, who, for the 2006 fair, drew on a trompe-l'oeil theme which saw individual booths fitted out with dramatic, seven-metre neoclassical facades. In 2008 and 2010, designer Patrick Bazanan filled the Grand Palais with plants, pools, fountains and wooden structures. Pier Luigi Pizzi, Jean-Michel Wilmotte and Christian Lacroix have also helped design the settings of past biennales.

The fair kicks off with a gala dinner prepared by Michelin three-star chef Michel Guerard that will be attended by up to 1,500 guests. The restaurant at the fair will serve top-notch French cuisine and will be run by a different chef each day. Deydier says the chefs are some of the best in Paris, with their restaurants having two or three-month waiting lists.

'Being included in the biennale is recognition of the quality of a work,' says Chan. 'I have attended several biennales and every piece I saw was unique. I'm really looking forward to it.'

FINE specimens

While many of the most important pieces to be displayed at the fair will be kept under wraps until opening day, exhibitors have revealed some of the works they plan to show.

Bulgari

A 1969 platinum, diamond and sapphire necklace formerly from Elizabeth Taylor's collection is one of the star attractions of Bulgari's vintage collection.

Charlotte Perriand

A 1960 free-form table in stained black teak (below) by pioneer of modernist furniture Charlotte Perriand will be on display. Fair organiser Christian Deydier says although Chinese collectors prefer Chinese art, some are starting to develop a taste for European furniture.

Serge Poliakoff

Deydier says some important paintings will be on display, including a 1952 oil on canvas by Russian-born French modernist Poliakoff. Impressionist works are also a big draw at the fair, especially among American collectors.

Jean-Henri Riesener

Deydier says an 18th-century chest of drawers by French cabinet maker Jean-Henri Riesener going on show is an important piece of French art. It will be on display at the Kraemer & Cie booth.

Wallace Chan

Chan's HK$20 million necklace, A Drop in the Ocean, features a stunning 379-carat aquamarine of rare clarity. Chan sources stones from Myanmar, Colombia and Sri Lanka, at times descending into mines himself to hunt for gems. His work is inspired by natural forms and Chinese Zen philosophy.