Revealed: The hidden treasures of the Paris art scene

As Paris galleries celebrate the return of the French art scene's 'mojo', companies are now offering tours of the off-the-beaten track galleries, which welcome visitors even if they cannot afford to buy.

Revealed: The hidden treasures of the Paris art scene
The American David Zwirner Art Gallery is one of several to have opened a Paris site. Photo by Andrew Toth / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

Through the gallery window, just off the swanky Rue Faubourg Saint-Honore in Paris, a tree is growing out of the ceiling.

On closer inspection, it turns out the branches, leaves and flowers are made from bronze and rock-crystal, and it is one of dozens of beautiful and bizarre chandeliers in the Regis Mathieu Gallery.

Few tourists would think to visit – often too intimidated to enter the fancy showrooms of private galleries.

But with Paris having emerged from a half-century slumber to once again become a major global art hub, there is renewed focus on the treasures to be seen in the city’s galleries.

“It’s really not the case that they only want people who are buying,” said Zara Sajid, co-founder of Art Heart Tours, which aims to bring more tourists into this cloistered world.

“They open these galleries because they are passionate about art and want to share that passion with as many people as possible.”

The Paris contemporary art scene has partly got its mojo back thanks to a slew of new museums, including the Louis Vuitton Foundation and Bourse de Commerce, built by two rival uber-rich fashion tycoons.

Private galleries are also booming, helped by Brexit which encouraged big names to decamp from London.

“Paris is back at the forefront of the art scene,” said Justine Durrett of Zwirner Gallery, one of a dozen international dealers to open a Paris outpost in recent years.

She credits a “unique dialogue between history and contemporary art” in the city, going beyond fine art to include food, fashion and “the general lifestyle”.

France sells more art than any country apart from the United States – 91,692 works last year, according to Artprice, an analysis firm.

It still turns over less cash than China and Britain, though it is closing the gap with its northern neighbour and surpassed $1 billion in auction sales for the first time in 2021.

The boom has not been without controversy. Many locals were shocked to see their long-running FIAC fair ousted recently from its autumn slot at the Grand Palais in favour of a new Parisian edition of Art Basel, the world’s biggest fair organiser.

Some galleries feared this could see them squeezed out by global competitors, though Art Basel has insisted its new fair will be a thoroughly French affair with a local management team.

In any case, Marion Papillon, who heads a union of the city’s gallerists, is bullish: “Brexit accelerated things but there has been real dynamism: French galleries are exporting more, and becoming more visible internationally,” she told AFP.

This makes for a good time to be guiding people around Parisian galleries.

Art Heart Tours say they have tapped into a big demand, especially among returning tourists who have already ticked the obvious sites off their lists.

“We want to demystify galleries,” co-founder Eric Remmen told AFP.

“We have all these palatial museums in Paris but some of the best art and design is inside these galleries.”

Among the treasures they have seen since starting last May are a large collection of Picasso drawings at the Helene Bailey Gallery, George Baselitz paintings at the Perrotin Secondary Market and designs by late fashion icon Virgil Abloh at Galerie Kreo.

After the chandeliers, Remmen leads AFP to the Kamel Mennour Gallery where a mind-bending €575,000 curved mirror by Anish Kapoor can be found alongside a sculpture by French artist Bertrand Lavier.

“I understand why people are nervous to come in, but my job is to help people discover new things,” said gallery assistant Sidonie Sakhoun, 24.

“Art tells our history and it belongs to all of us, not just collectors.”

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Former Louvre museum director charged in art trafficking case

The former president of the Louvre museum in Paris has been charged with conspiring to hide the origin of Egyptian archaeological treasures that investigators suspect were spirited out of the country during the Arab Spring uprisings, a French judicial source said Thursday.

Former Louvre museum director charged in art trafficking case

Jean-Luc Martinez was charged Wednesday after being taken in for questioning along with two French specialists in Egyptian art, who were not charged, another source close to the inquiry told AFP.

The Louvre, which is owned by the French state, is the world’s most visited museum with around 10 million visitors a year before the Covid-19 pandemic and is home to some of Western civilization’s most celebrated cultural heritage.

The museum declined to comment when contacted by AFP.

French investigators opened the case in July 2018, two years after the Louvre’s branch in Abu Dhabi bought a rare pink granite stele depicting the pharaoh Tutankhamun and four other historic works for eight million euros ($8.5 million).

Martinez, who ran the Paris Louvre from 2013 to 2021, is accused of turning a blind eye to fake certificates of origin for the pieces, a fraud thought to involve several other art experts, according to French investigative weekly Canard Enchaine.

He has been charged with complicity in fraud and “concealing the origin of criminally obtained works by false endorsement,” according to the judicial source.

Martinez is currently the French foreign ministry’s ambassador in charge of international cooperation on cultural heritage, which focuses in particular on fighting art trafficking.

“Jean-Luc Martinez contests in the strongest way his indictment in this case,” his lawyers told AFP in a statement.

Arab Spring looting

“For now, he will reserve his declarations for the judiciary, and has no doubt that his good faith will be established,” they said.

French investigators suspect that hundreds of artefacts were pillaged from Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries during protests in the early 2010s that became known as the Arab Spring.

They suspect the artefacts were then sold to galleries and museums that did not ask too many questions about previous ownership.

Martinez’s indictment comes after the German-Lebanese gallery owner who brokered the sale, Robin Dib, was arrested in Hamburg in March and extradited to Paris for questioning.

Marc Gabolde, a French Egyptologist, was quoted by Canard Enchaine as saying that he informed Louvre officials about suspicions related to the Tutankhamun stele but received no response.

The opening of the inquiry in 2018 roiled the Paris art market, a major hub for antiquities from Middle Eastern civilisations.

In June 2020, prominent Paris archaeology expert Christophe Kunicki and dealer Richard Semper were charged with fraud for false certification of looted works from several countries during the Arab Spring.

They also had a role in certifying another prized Egyptian work, the gilded sarcophagus of the priest Nedjemankh that was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2017.

Gabolde said an Egyptian art dealer, Habib Tawadros, was also involved in both suspect deals.

After New York prosecutors determined that the sarcophagus had been stolen during the revolts against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the Met said it had been a victim of false statements and fake documentation, and returned the coffin to Egypt.