As head of the Strategic Board of the Richemont Group and President of the Fondation Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art and the Jeu de Paume in Paris, Alain-Dominique Perrin is a busy man. Between flights, he agreed to join the Biennale Paris Commission. As a plain speaker.
What role have you played with the Biennale Commission for the last two years?
I act as a consultant and friend. The main issue is the ethical rules. Alongside Mathias Ary Jan, Anisabelle Berès and Benjamin Steinitz, the board members of the Syndicat National des Antiquaires, we eight Commission members give our opinion on the main lines of the Biennale and make recommendations. We come from different worlds: jewellery with me, interior design with Jacques Garcia, and industry with Christian Langlois-Meurinne. So we each contribute our own personal experience and taste for the arts, because we are all collectors – first and foremost Prince Amyn Aga Khan. For my part, I feel that vetting is a crucial aspect. It has to be irreproachable, even more than anywhere else, especially given the nasty taste left by the faking scandals involving certain antiques dealers. I told them I would agree to be part of this group only if I was sure that the process would be totally transparent, and that pieces would be properly authenticated. I have a strong sense of honour, so it's a central issue for me. The vetting was already uncompromising last year, and I can assure you it won't let up this year.
What made you join this commission?
I was an antiques dealer for many years. It was a profession that gave me great happiness, but I also discovered its "little schemes", even if I myself was always crystal-clear, as they say across the Channel. And the British have precisely developed major events like the Art & Antiques Fair at Olympia in London, where the vetting process is very stringent. Mathias Ary Jan is a decent man, and I trust him to apply these measures. In addition, I feel the Biennale is a real institution, and we shouldn't let it die. Many antiques dealers have jumped ship, often big names like the Vallois, de Jonckheere and Dominique Chevalier, my friend, who was the first to approach me about joining the commission. It's not for me to judge them, even if I told them they were wrong to take that attitude with such a high-quality event. We all need to stick together and get it back on track.
What would be the answer?
Antiques dealers are split between the Biennale Paris, staged by the SNA, and the ones who wanted to create a rival event on the banks of the Seine, headed by Christian Deydier, which didn't happen in the end. There's a bad atmosphere, yet they all have interests in common. Antiques dealers are currently suffering from an economic downturn, with antiques losing ground compared with design, contemporary art and architecture. This means there is even less room for the classical antiques trade, even if it's still breathing. So it's really not a good time to be squabbling! The Biennale needs a united approach if it is to become a key event again. Perhaps that means a new board, or the election of a new president – that's how it goes; it's no big deal – but it's essential for the leading antique dealers to take power again. The situation reminds me of my early days with Cartier. When I took over the company, everything had fallen apart, and yet I built it up again with my team, and made it the global number one in jewellery. At the time, the Cartier brothers weren't speaking to each other; the Paris, London and New York offices were no longer communicating, and were all suing each other. After lengthy negotiations, we bought Paris and London, and then New York. It took us ten years, but we managed it.
What's new in this edition?
Various top dealers will be coming from France and abroad, but many jewellers won't be there. We must remember that five years ago, leading jewellers like Cartier, Piaget and Van Cleef had an argument with the Biennale organisers and then abandoned it for other events. So they no longer need it today. But their presence goes back many years. In the beginning, in fact, the event was the "Biennial of Paris antiques dealers and jewellers". When I joined Cartier, in 1969, we exhibited at it. Jewellers have the wealthiest customers in the world. If they returned to the Grand Palais, they would represent enormous potential for a new clientele not that accessible to antiques dealers in normal circumstances. It would create an undeniable synergy.
You are a major collector yourself. Have you ever bought items at the Biennale?
Yes, of course, regularly. I particularly remember a 17th century cassone I bought from Gabrielle Laroche, and a work by César I acquired just before he died in 1998. It's no secret: I adore contemporary art – but other things as well. I collect 17th century Flemish paintings, and fine mediaeval and Renaissance furniture. My collection features a mixture of Italian, Spanish, Dutch, French and especially British pieces. I realised that the UK had some absolute gems, mainly because the country had not been invaded for over a thousand years, so had preserved all its art works. On the other hand, the English had pillaged us during the Hundred Years' War, and you can find unbelievably magnificent French furniture over there, like an early 15th century vestment chest, which I bought for my Château Lagrézette: an extraordinarily rare piece. There is another in the Musée de Cluny. I've been hunting antiques for a long time; I've been at it for fifty years. I buy from dealers or at certain auctions. I don't have a special organisation; I do it alone. But I'm always on the look-out for quality. My collection is a living thing. I had a Basquiat for a long time, which gained so much in value that I decided to sell it and buy young artists instead. Sometimes I have no choice. For instance, I had 75 cabriolets from the 1950s and 1960s, but when I went to live in England, I had to sell them.
What did you want to be when you were young?
When I was a student, I was torn between being a music manager and a dealer! I love art works, and
I have a certain culture and experience. I was an antiques dealer from 1965 to 1978. I had a shop on the Île de Noirmoutier, where I sold furniture from the region, then two others at the Louvre des Antiquaires: one dedicated to the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the other to regionalistic furniture. When I joined Cartier in 1969, I told Robert Hocq that I was a dealer. He encouraged me to continue; in fact, what he liked about me was my eye and my taste for objects. But in 1977, I told him I had too much work with Cartier and I would have to drop antiques. I stopped a year later. Maybe I sensed the coming changes in the profession, and the problems largely linked with the emergence of IKEA and Habitat, which altered everything.
None! And art has always been part of my life. Luxury companies live off their creations: that's why I created the Fondation Cartier nearly 35 years ago. If anyone asked me why, I would say that a company that lives off creation needs to help artists. The State is not enough. I suppose I was right, because all the others followed suit – companies like Vuitton, Prada and Hermès. On the other hand, I have never wanted to employ artists to design Cartier products. I think that's unnatural. We need to help artists and respect them, not use them. I knew Arman, Klein and that whole crowd - César was like a brother to me; I miss him – but I also spend time with the current generation, and I don't restrict myself to one field. I know people in show business, as well. I was executor for Claude François' estate; Johnny Hallyday was a friend, and I'm very close to Elton John and Tina Turner, whom I recently saw in London at the first night of her latest show: a musical about her life…