Antiquaires (Assouline, $70) is the sort of book that will keep an antiques lover busy for days. Forty-six of the leading dealers in Paris are profiled in a coffee-table-size tome with 100 luscious full-page pictures of gallery interiors and a complete address list at the end.
It is clear from the opening section of Antiquaires that Jean-Louis Gaillemin, with the help of art historian Charlotte Vignon, has done his etudes on the origins of the dealer, tracing the evolution from fripiers (dealers in old clothes and objects—often junk—in the Middle Ages) to the antiquaires of the 19th and 20th centuries. Gaillemin is copious in his offering of details, quoting from the diaries or memoirs of a number of prominent collectors and social historians. “Before, (bric-a-brac sellers) were dealers in scrap-iron, itinerant hawkers, in a word: peddlers,” critic Edmond de Goncourt wrote in 1877. “Today, they are gentlemen in tailor-made suits, purchasers and readers of books, whose wives are as distinguished as any society wife, gentlemen who have dinners where one is waited upon by man servants in white tie and tails.”
With his obligation to history fulfilled, Gaillemin turns to the subject at hand, a selection of the most important generalist dealers whose collections combine furniture, mirrors, objects, paintings and sculpture. Some of these “gentlemen” (alas, there are but a handful of women in the upper echelons of the antiques trade) are very outspoken. “I was raised on strict principles: Mahogany was banished and the Empire style was only good enough for dentists,” says Jean-Paul Fabre, a third-generation dealer in 18th-century French furniture. Art Deco and Art Nouveau proponent Félix Marcilhac recounts how a collector told him, “When you can afford to buy a Brancusi, you’ll see, you’ll give it all up,” after the young dealer had just purchased a Miklos bronze. “I have hated that man all of my life for saying that. No one has the right to say that to an enthusiastic kid of 23.”
The backgrounds of some of the most renowned dealers are amazing. While many in the new generation were educated at the Ecole du Louvre, who knew that Ariane Dandois, now ensconced in a marble edifice on the Faubourg Saint-Honoré with her superb collection of Neoclassical furniture, had a career as a journalist before London’s Jean-Claude Ciancimino helped her get her start selling Japanese screens on the Rue des Saints-Pères in 1973? Pierre Passebon was a publisher and Nicolas Kugel a moviemaker whose antiquarian father’s untimely death forced him to renege on a self-promise to avoid the trade.
Laziz Hamani’s portraits of the galleries tell a thousand words about the treasure troves that await those who visit Paris. However, one wonders why there are so many typographical and grammatical errors in the text with three translators having worked on what must be beautiful French prose by Gaillemin. Despite such production problems, Antiquaires is a visual and intellectual pleasure for anyone with even the remotest interest in the decorative arts.