Interview France

“I want Paris to be the capital of the art market”

Hervé Aaron, one of France's leading antique dealers, believes in the power of the market

Aaron: high expectations for the 25th edition of the Biennale des Antiquaires

Hervé Aaron is one of France’s foremost dealers in 18th-century furniture and old master paintings. His gallery, Galerie Didier Aaron & Cie, has spaces in London, New York and Paris. Aaron was appointed president of the Syndicat National des Antiquaires, France’s national association of antique dealers, in 2008 and is in charge of the 25th edition of the Biennale des Antiquaires (15-22 September, p70). The biennale was founded by the syndicate in 1962 to generate more business for its members. Over the years, it has become increasingly international and this edition’s 80 dealers include 24 foreign exhibitors, in addition to seven jewellers.

Aaron has orchestrated several major sales, including Titian’s Portrait of Alfonso d’Avalos, 1533, to the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2003 for “more than $50m”, by his own account. Other coups include the sales of Antoine-François Callet’s Ceres Begging for Jupiter’s Thunderbolt after the Kidnapping of her Daughter Proserpine, 1777, to Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Dirck van Delen’s Iconoclasts in a Church, 1630, to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Henri Mauperché’s Personnages sur les Marches d’un Palais en Ruines, 1645, to the Beaux-Arts de Rennes, and a pedestal table in porcelain from the Manufacture de Sèvres, 1841-43, to the Musée du Louvre.

The Art Newspaper: What are your hopes for the 25th anniversary of the biennale?

Hervé Aaron: I’m hoping to make a very good fair of which Paris can be proud. I want Paris to be the capital of the art market. It has all the necessary ingredients for this, except for some fiscal barriers. Paris is battling to get back the prime position that it lost before the [second world] war. We are positive about this biennale because—especially recently—it has been proven that any tangible goods such as gold or art objects are more sought after than shares in a company, because their values are steadier.

TAN: What inspired the Stepping Stone initiative, whereby 25 young antique dealers will each present one object?

HA: It is a tremplin [springboard] for 25 young dealers who have never done the biennale before. The function is to show people who are not yet at the level of the biennale. It’s also to mark the 25th anniversary.

TAN: How supportive is the French state of the biennale?

HA: They are supportive, but don’t do anything for us. Not only the ministry of culture but also the ministry of the economy don’t realise what the art market brings to the economy. They do not subsidise anything in the way that the city of Basel helps Art Basel. But the biennale is under the patronage of the President of the République and the minister of culture will definitely come to visit us.

TAN: How serious a problem is the shrinking supply of old master works and antiquities?

HA: The biggest challenge is to find the goods. Selling things when they are exceptional is extremely easy. Buying things of very good quality is difficult because every year some of them go into institutions, and the market is not very fluid, thanks to the economic crisis. People don’t feel that it is the right time to sell, and at all the auctions of old masters and 18th-century furniture there have been very few things coming on the market. Dealers of medium-level objects have suffered a lot, and the general volume of transactions has been lower.

TAN: What effect will this have on the market and the biennale?

HA: It’s just going to drive the prices of things higher. Dealers stash items away for months especially for the biennale, so I don’t think we’ll have a problem of not having goods there.

TAN: How do you source outstanding works?

HA: Our practice is to try to find things that others have not noticed, and to do things differently. We try to be subtle in very precise purchases, which we make through a network of go-betweens in Europe. This year we bought several things at auctions that were pre-empted by museums. [Pre-empting is a French practice that enables French museums to buy lots at the hammer price, despite not bidding.] We try to be accommodating when it is a museum that we know well, because I believe that we need to support French culture. In July, Sotheby’s London was selling a set of three stools made for [Queen Marie-Antoinette at the Château de] Versailles and the president of the Associated Friends of Versailles asked me not to bid, so I didn’t.

TAN: Have museum purchases decreased recently?

HA: Museum acquisitions of French furniture have been in decline for many years because the big American museums bought French furniture between the wars, and so now there is less need to make acquisitions. French museums are still buying things related to their collections. As for old masters, there was a minimal decline of purchases in the last five years because museum directors were more inclined to increase the size of their buildings. I think it has started again and that museums are buying a lot.

TAN: How have the types of collectors changed?

HA: In the last three years, Americans have gone out of the market a little bit due to the high level of the euro. Now the euro has declined so probably we’ll see American collectors again. In the last two years, European collectors have been very strong because they probably have more connoisseurship.

TAN: You’re also the president of the Salon du Dessin drawings fair.

HA: I’ve been president for 12 years. The initial term was for one year that was renewable only three times, but they have always wanted me to stay president. The goal for the salon is to remain specialised and to try to mix the cultural and commercial aspects even more.

TAN: What key developments have you seen over the last three decades?

HA: I’ve seen the rise of collecting 20th-century furniture. There has been an increase in the value of modern painting and this incredible rush towards contemporary art. And rare examples of goods across all parts of the antique trade and also French 18th-century furniture sell well.

TAN: How do you see things developing in the future?

HA: The same way. Fashions are fashions, and trends are trends but there are only so many pieces of any type and they are going to become increasingly scarce. In the near future, people will realise that contemporary art is a very interesting field but that there are a lot of flukes and that it is probably a rather difficult investment. At my gallery, we will try to be more and more pertinent in what we specialise in and try to offer a better service of connoisseurship.

Gallery history

1932—Jeanne Aaron, Hervé Aaron’s grandmother, opens her gallery

1946—Hervé Aaron’s father, Didier Aaron, takes over and renames the space

1976—After a BA in the history of art and a Masters in management, Hervé Aaron joins the gallery. Opens a New York space which he directs until 1993

1985—Opens a third, smaller space in London which, like the New York gallery, only deals in old master paintings and drawings

1988-94—Creates the Comité Colbert in America. In 1988-89, Aaron organises the Comité Colbert’s exhibition “200 Years of Decorative Arts in France” at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, New York

1991-92—Vice-president of the National Antique and Art Dealer Association of America

1999—to present President of the board of Didier Aaron & Co, Paris; organiser of the Salon du Dessin drawings fair in Paris and the Semaine du Dessin (Drawings Week), and president of the Société du Dessin. Commissioned by the Institut de France to restore the furniture in the Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris

2008—Elected president of the Syndicat National des Antiquaires on a renewable, two-year mandate

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