At FIAC Art Fair, Ambitions Are High. Can Sales Keep Pace?

PARIS — It’s hard to escape the sense of rivalry between France and its cross-channel neighbor, from the Battle of Agincourt through the Napoleonic Wars to President Charles de Gaulle blocking Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community. And now that Britain has left the European Union, France is looking to gain an economic edge over its old foe. London’s ebbing dominance of the European art trade is one area of opportunity.

“Paris is thinking it can claim once again that it’s the capital,” the Lithuanian artist Augustas Serapinas said on Monday, standing beside a sculpture he had constructed in the Tuileries Garden for the 47th annual edition of the FIAC fair of contemporary and modern art.

Like last week’s Frieze fairs in London, FIAC was returning to an in-person format after a pandemic-enforced year of online equivalents. Did the sculptor think Paris could once again return to its glory days as a leading art market hub, as it was in the 1950s? “I don’t know. I’m an artist,” Serapinas said. “A millionaire should answer this question.”

In 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, Britain was the world’s second biggest art market, after the United States, accounting for 20 percent of the year’s $64.1 billion worth of dealer and auction sales, according to the 2020 Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report. Sales increased in France in 2019 to 7 percent from 6 percent.

Since then, art auctions have expanded in Hong Kong at the expense of London. In the first half of this year, turnover at auction sales in Hong Kong increased 47 percent compared with the same period in 2019. In London, they were down 21 percent, according to the London-based art auction analysts Pi-eX. Dealers in Britain have also had to grapple with a welter of extra taxes and administrative and shipping costs caused by Brexit.

Meanwhile, a procession of international galleries — like David Zwirner, Skarstedt and Mariane Ibrahim from the United States, White Cube from Britain, and Galleria Continua from Italy — have opened spaces in Paris to take advantage of frictionless trade within the European Union. Established Paris dealers, like Gagosian, Perrotin and Kamel Mennour, have expanded their footprints.

Though high-quality exhibitions in commercial galleries and museums are a major draw for visitors, fairs remain the centerpieces of both the Frieze and FIAC “weeks.” In recent years, FIAC has been held in Paris’s cathedral-like Grand Palais, but because of restoration work, this year’s edition, featuring 171 galleries, has transferred to a Frieze-like tent near the Eiffel Tower, where it will be held until 2024.

“It’s basically the same presentation as Frieze, though FIAC is smaller and more European. More Americans go to Frieze because English is spoken there,” said Christy Ferer, the New York-based chief executive of Vidicom Inc. and a regular art fair visitor. She was one of the few international voices to be heard in a predominantly Francophone crowd at FIAC’s Wednesday preview.

Ferer, like many visitors to Paris, said she was impressed by the quality of the museum shows that coincided with FIAC. “The exhibitions we’ve seen here have been stupendous,” said Ferer, singling out the Anni & Josef Albers show at the Musee d’Art Moderne and the Impressionist and Modernist masterpieces from the early 20th-century Morozov Collection at the Fondation Louis Vuitton. “The whole environment feels richer here at the moment,” Ferer added.

But with fewer wealthy Americans around, FIAC lived up to its reputation for slower sales at lower price points than Frieze. While the Thaddaeus Ropac gallery said it had found a buyer for the 1963 Robert Rauschenberg oil and silk-screen on canvas “Star Grass,” priced at $2.8 million, Zwirner, who has galleries in four international locations, said that after the “vibrancy of Frieze,” he was “a little disappointed” with sales at the Paris fair.

“Paris is such a great city for a fair, but FIAC has tended to underperform for us,” Zwirner said in an email. He added, however, that he was pleased to sell several works for under $500,000, like the 1947 “Study for a Variant/Adobe” by Josef Albers (whose estate Zwirner represents) at $400,000.

The Paris dealer Jocelyn Wolff said he sold the nine-foot landscape “Meine Wege 23.09.2018,” by the Swiss painter Miriam Cahn, for $200,000 within the first hour of the fair to a Parisian collector.

Wolff, who has a gallery in Romainville, an outer district of the city, said he estimated there were at least 100 “internationally minded” Paris-based collectors with annual budgets of more than $100,000 to spend on contemporary art. “This is a lot more than in London,” he added.

London, even after Brexit, has a “very shiny elite,” Wolff said, particularly in the finance and music industries, and it continues to attract the global superrich who can spend millions on art. “Paris is not a place with big heroes like Mick Jagger,” he added.

That said, sleek new galleries are now clustered around Avenue Matignon, near the Arc de Triomphe: Their owners hope for business-transforming visits from the millionaires who fly in to view trophies at the nearby Sotheby’s and Christie’s showrooms and stay at the Ritz or Bristol hotels.

For some collectors, “FIAC Week” also offers thoughtfully curated “discovery” fairs, such as Paris Internationale and Asia Now. This year’s seventh edition of Paris Internationale, featuring 36 dealers from 21 countries, was held in a vacant mansion block in the smart 16th Arrondissement.

On the fourth floor, the Tokyo-based gallery Misako & Rosen was showing small works by the Japanese painters Kazuyuki Takezaki and Reina Sugihara. Takezaki gives a new twist to landscape painting by rotating his canvases while working in the open air; Sugihara, who trained in London, creates abstracts that evoke intense bodily experiences, like childbirth. Being little-known outside Japan, their paintings were modestly priced from $1,500 to $4,500. By Friday morning, seven of the nine displayed works had found buyers from France, the Netherlands, Britain and the United States.

Misako & Rosen’s co-founder Jeffrey Rosen said he regarded these sales as an endorsement of Paris Internationale’s “discovery” model. “People were looking for what they don’t know,” he said. The prices were also attractively low.

On Wednesday evening, after the FIAC preview, President Emmanuel Macron gave a reception at the Élysée Palace for about 200 fair exhibitors and organizers, museum curators, artists and journalists. In a 15-minute speech, Macron thanked FIAC’s director, Jennifer Flay, for transforming the fair into the “nerve center of the art world,” and name-checked some of the international dealers who have set up shop in Paris. He went on to welcome to France artists, dealers, curators, sponsors, collectors and teachers from across the world. “Create and innovate!” he exhorted.

The fact that the president made time for FIAC shows how seriously the French government (unlike its British counterpart) takes the international art trade. But the market continues to ask the question: Can Paris convert creativity into million-euro sales?

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