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« Long live Paris! »: the comeback of the city of light on the Contemporary Art scene

After several decades where Paris was somewhat overshadowed by its immediate British neighbour on the contemporary art market–with France still accounting for about 7% of the global art market compared to Great Britain’s 17%–, the capital of France is making a comeback. Indeed, albeit Paris had never ceased to be one of Europe’s cultural hubs, the biggest local art fair FIAC had always struggled these last two decades to reach the same level of prestige and sales of its direct European competitors: Art Basel and Frieze London. Founded in 1974 and commonly held one or two weeks after Frieze London, the French art fair seemed to be always lagging behind, despite the progress that was made these last few years. With the recent event Paris + by Art Basel which took over the beautiful Grand Palais Éphémère in front of the Eiffel Tower from October 20th to October 23rd, however, things seem to have taken a turn for the better. Gathering more than 150 art galleries from 30 countries all around the world, the event was successful by all accounts.

Border (1989) by Joan Mitchell, sold for $ 4.5 million to a private collector at Paris +. Courtesy of David Zwirner.

The first thing which struck out at Paris +, was the attendance: a press release stated that over 40,000 people showed up at the event, and undoubtedly something of this magnitude seems to have taken place. At the opening of the Parisian fair, one could see a wide array of major international collectors, art advisors and museum representatives—to an unprecedented degree compared to what was customary at FIAC in the last decade. It was thus strikingly evident that the Art Basel trademark had played a great part in bringing all eyes from the Contemporary Art scene to Paris during these few days. The opening itself was widely regarded as a great success, and sales rapidly ensued: if the numbers are not typically disclosed by galleries, more than a dozen deals over $1 million have been confirmed. On the other hand, Frieze London had taken place little time before on October 12th, and if attendance was stronger than ever there as well… it might just have been too much. Indeed, many people were disappointed by the way the opening was organized: indeed, too many VIP entries had been handed out and the opening was thus flooded with socialites, with formidable queues to even access the fair. A few notable collectors and gallery owners hence took to Twitter, complaining that the opening did not provide the right conditions for serious buyers to contemplate a purchase: after waiting one hour or more to set foot in the event, the fair itself was simply too crowded to appreciate the works on display, to the dismay of some prominent collectors.

The crowded opening of Frieze London. Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Another aspect in which Paris + by Art Basel stood out was the overall quality of artworks on display. In general, it’s fair to say that FIAC was always behind the level of works shown at Frieze Masters, if not Frieze London. This time around, however, you could make an argument that Paris had surpassed London in prestige: as one wandered around the alleys of the fair, one was struck many a time by great artworks from top-tier artists. To name a few, there was a beautiful piece by Giacometti at the Kamel Mennour booth, a delightful Portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter from 1937 by Picasso at the Acquavella booth, or the immense 1930s sculpture by Calder at Lévy Gorvy. On top of that, elsewhere in the French capital during the same week, an exceptional level of works by blue-chip artists was on display during auction sales that were taking place at Christie’s and Sotheby’s—in a rather unique fashion for Parisian auction standards. The sale AVANT-GARDE(S) Including Thinking Italian by Christie’s on October 20th, for instance, gathered a total of € 66,690,300 euros in sales with top notch works by artists such as Lucio Fontana, Alighiero Boetti, Joan Mitchell or Yves Klein.

Mappa embroidery by Alighiero Boetti, sold for € 5,643,500 at Christie's October 20th Sale in Paris

Bonhams headquarters in Paris

So, what happened there? How did one week suffice to give the impression Paris had supplanted London on the Contemporary Art scene? One obvious factor at play is Brexit. For instance, Christie’s Italian Sales—which usually take place in the British capital—had been transferred to Paris this year. The clientele for these sales had always been prominently Italian, and with current taxation between the UK and the European Union, it now made little sense to keep the sales on British soil. In a similar admittance of the change of tides, the British auction house Bonhams established itself in Paris in 2021 and recently announced its acquisition of the French auction house Cornette de Saint-Cyr. Something else which most definitely played a part is the psychological toll the previous months had taken on the art world. It seemed as though the war in Ukraine and global recession were about to generate a self-realizing fear of a dip in sales and prices all across the art world. But at Paris + by Art Basel, the Contemporary Art scene seemed to be magically back on cloud nine. The “vigorous” gross sales described by the event’s organizers are a testament to the change in mentality which took place in little less than a week: collectors showed they really wanted to finally turn the page of the morose atmosphere that was widespread only a couple weeks ago and find a bit of carelessness. The result was a positive frenzy for beautiful artworks.

Hence, the question that naturally arises: will this trend continue? It might be too soon to tell, and the upcoming New-York Evening Sales will be the true tell-tale sign of the art market’s health. What is certain, however, is that Paris laid the first stones to reclaim a very enviable position on the European Contemporary Art scene and carve out a bright future for itself.



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