Crash_Famille Kraemer interview


By Crash redaction



What criteria do you use when you select new items?

When someone brings us an item, our very first criterion is beauty – which is entirely subjective. It’s also extremely important to know if the item is 100% authentic, because we want genuine antiques. When we get a piece of furniture, we unscrew all the bronze, open all the drawers, inspect the marble, and study every corner in detail. Even if we like the item, we try to keep a highly critical mindset. Rarity is another factor. Most of the time the two go together: very beautiful items are often also very rare. We also have to study quality: items have to be perfect from far away and close up. With gilded bronze, for example, the chasing has to be perfect. The last criterion we can mention is an item’s charm, which is just as undefinable as beauty. But an item can be beautiful without having any charm. And for us that little extra is essential. If any of these criteria are missing, we won’t buy the item. Even if it might be a good investment and have value on the market, we have the luxury of only acquiring items we like and refusing any items that do not meet all our criteria. And it’s this privilege that has built our reputation. People say we have the biggest stock of high-quality antiques, but, for us, we tend to be a little more modest because we want to keep our critical eye. In art, you can reach perfection. In fact, it’s one of the few fields where this is possible.

Are your acquisitions made as a group decision? Does everyone have to give their approval for each purchase?

Preferably. It’s very rare that we do not all agree on a given acquisition. It’s funny, even when people bring us items that our ancestors originally acquired – our grandparents and great grandparents – all these items are still in style and still meet our standards. So it’s timeless. Historical and artistic knowledge were different in those days, but there’s a certain Kraemer taste that has been passed on through the generations. It’s kind of a love story between our family and the different items we acquire. When some of our clients visit other collections, they know that certain items came from us. They recognize our family’s taste, the Kraemer taste.

When and how did furniture become a major fine art?

People are most often familiar with painting and sculpture: leading art forms in every country and every time, from Antiquity to today. 18th century furniture is exceptional in this regard. Beginning in the late 17th and early 18th century, furniture became a true fine art, and this lasted until the French Revolution. When he was building Versailles, Louis XIV wanted exceptional furniture to match the chateau’s exquisite interiors. Through his ministers, like Lebrun and other major figures from the time, he commissioned Pierre Gole and, above all, André-Charles Boulle, who was the inventor of furniture as a fine art. Their mission was to furnish the magnificent rooms and halls of Versailles in a style that was noticeably French. And their work was a success: nobles and financiers all wanted furniture as beautiful as the king’s, and that eventually snowballed into other countries. All the great lords abroad wanted Made in France furniture. They all wanted their castle to have the most beautiful room in Europe. Essentially, they all wanted something like Versailles. So there was a real drive to emulate what was going on in France. Also in Louix XIV’s time, furniture became a common diplomatic gift that served as an example of the Sun King’s power to all the foreign sovereigns and diplomats who came to France. And unlike German and Italian furniture, French furniture changed quickly and often: thus the shift from rounded to more architectural right angles under Louis XVI. This style emerged about twenty years before the death of Louis XV, who also had a few items that we would today classify as Louis XVI. He was keen enough to send the Marquis de Marigny and a team of French architects to the new architectural sites in Pompei, and they returned with new styles of columns they wanted to adapt and use in architecture and furniture.

This kind of profound intertwining of design and art is fascinating…

Absolutely. It’s even more interesting knowing that the craftsmen who were making the furniture mostly came from Germany, Flanders, and elsewhere. They had the best techniques for working wood and marquetry, which is the layer of a few millimeters of veneer applied to wood. And the metalworkers had a marvelous technique to chase bronze for gilding. When they arrived in Paris, they were inspired to do great work and quickly became famous. Paris was an essential step in the career of any good woodworker. In the same way, perfumers and fashion designers who left Paris knew they would not be able to maintain their Parisian spirit for very long. Paris was truly an effervescent hub of arts and crafts at the time. Louis XIV brought in the best Venetian glassworkers for the Hall of Mirrors and other projects. It was a fascinating time. These people were young, energetic, and they only wanted the best and most comfortable things. Nobles didn’t work, so they were completely free to get involved in planning with their decorators and designers. Often they even worked directly with woodworkers to get the best version of an item with the best proportions. And they also had the time to check and verify an object’s durability and usefulness. Every last detail was studied with meticulous care.

Can you tell us a little about your clientele?

A portion of our clientele is what you might call “normal.” The rest is more inaccessible. These are aristocrats who typically delegate their purchases to an agent, but when they buy from us, they make sure to visit our gallery. For the past fifteen years or so, we’ve seen a new kind of clientele who is a lot younger and who likes to mix antique furniture with contemporary art. What’s interesting is that these clients primarily come for home furniture and quickly end up putting together a collection. No matter how old they are, all our clients are looking for the best in every category, whether it’s their lifestyle or the art they pick for their homes. They want the best piece of furniture, with the best painting and the best sculpture. They want something that’s to their taste and has a bit of art history. Mixing is probably the thing that our young generation of clients from all around the globe is most interested in. When our grandfather was working, his clientele came primarily from New York, Paris, and London. Today, our clientele really comes from everywhere around the world.

This kind of genre mixing is fairly recent. It’s also the trend you see at the biennale des anitquaires, where a new focus on the 20th century is developing. Mixing is an exciting new thing…

At our gallery at 43, rue de Monceau, we have three rooms decorated in a more modern, sleek style, but paired with antique furniture. It’s funny to see people from all over the world come here having heard of Versailles and the Louvre without really knowing the kind of furniture associated with these places, and then they end up buying antique items when they’re displayed in a modern setting. Maybe they wouldn’t have bought them if they hadn’t seen them in a modern room. They aren’t familiar with this kind of furniture, but they manage to think up some extraordinary combinations, like a marquetry dresser, gilded bronze sconces, and contemporary art. Furniture is the only fine art you can use on a daily basis: it’s art with a utility factor. When people see our furniture, Louvre furniture, Musée Camondo furniture, they start dreaming about the fact that people still use these items today. And the vast majority of our clientele consists in individual buyers, like most of our supply sources are private collections.

It’s true that an antique dresser paired with a rough concrete floor is magnified in a way. It stands out…

Though there’s some nuance to this. It only works with truly magnificent items. Medium-quality items from the 18th century, like bourgeois furniture from France, is unfortunately neglected. Which isn’t very fair, in our opinion. Contemporary art sells for infinitely more than the fine furniture we have. A lot of marketing and speculation goes into the contemporary art market, unlike the market for 18th century furniture, which is more of a passion purchase. People don’t buy our furniture to sell it again later and turn a profit, whereas contemporary art sees a lot of turnover. A lot of people use contemporary art to buy social status, though it’s no guarantee that this will be a good investment over the long term. However, when people become truly passionate about art, they end up giving us a visit. You have to remember that only a dozen or so names will be remembered per decade and that a lot of items will end up in basement and attic storage. Things are different for our items. They were all passed on from generation to generation due to the value they already had in the 18th century. Furniture items cost so much at the time that even the king had to pay in installments. So they are all in good condition, even when they are two hundred, three hundred years old, because there has always been someone there to take care of them. They’ve never seen a basement or an attic. They weren’t mass produced, but all made by hand.

What do you enjoy most about your business?

What we like the most is having objects or items you won’t see anywhere else. We’re not interested in the ordinary. We’re looking for the exceptional, and we’ve been doing it for six generations now. In 1870, our ancestors made acquisitions using the same criteria and standards we use today. And we have nothing but admiration for the period surrounding our beginnings. Lucien Kraemer was the first in our family to start purchasing furniture. He left Alsace for Paris in order to remain French when Prussia occupied the region. And that’s when he founded Kraemer and Cie. After the Second World War, nothing was left. Everything had been taken. His son, Raymond Kraemer then took over the business with our father, Philippe, who must have been 16 when the war ended. It took them about 15 to 20 years after 1944 to become a leader in the market once again. Then we learned the business and further developed the company with our father. It’s a real challenge just to stick around. We needed talent and luck. But luck doesn’t last forever. These are long periods and we have always done our business by respecting our peers who were not so lucky to have inherited such a large company. We’ve always helped them get started as much as we could. Unfortunately, we don’t have many competitors. We also try to harmonize relations with collectors and museums, especially since our father’s time. We were one of the first antiquarian families to give unconditional gifts to national museums, like the Louvre, Versailles, Sèvres, Fontainebleau, and Chambord. It’s important for us because these kinds of relations didn’t exist before, even though we share the same passion and interests on both sides.

Your recent contributions to the biennale des antiquaires have been spectacular. What do you have planned for this year?

Even though our great grandfather, grandfather, and father were chairmen of the French Antiquarian Union, we have only been involved in the Biennale for four years. For our first exhibition, which we put together both at and apart from the Biennale, we built two completely transparent 16 m2 glass cubes and placed them one in front of the other. In one, we used an antique carpet for the floor, and left the other in rough concrete. Both cubes were furnished in nearly the same way, so the antique and modern settings were paired one next to the other. Two years ago, for our second exhibition at the Biennale, we built an exact replica of the White House Oval Office and furnished it with our items. It got a lot of media coverage, especially abroad and even in China, where they never show symbols of foreign power like the Oval Office. This year we decided a décor like this would be too expected. So we decided to put together the first exhibition of woodworker Jean-Henri Riesener. He is considered one of the top – if not the top – woodworker from the Louis XVI period. So it’s a single artist exhibit that will display about twenty pieces of furniture. We’re going to show Riesener in the same way the Grand Palais might show Picasso or Jeff Koons. Each item will be displayed on a gray stand in a simple, dignified way. It’s a lot of fun putting together such a marvelous exhibition for the audience. The Antiques Union wants it to be an exhibition-sale, so people can buy the items, but our main goal is to showcase 18th century furniture and present it to the general public. We’re trying to do something out of the ordinary every time. And our peers are excited about the things we do. They see it as a wonderful way to promote 18th century furniture. For us, it’s extremely important not to be too imposing with our items. That’s why we pick themes that apply to the whole profession.

What is the most exceptional item you have ever purchased?

Each new item is always more exceptional than the last. People often say we’re the most modest company in the world. We never talk about the latest item we’ve acquired and where it came from when collectors and art dealers come to our gallery. And we also never give away our clients’ names. When we make a good acquisition, all of us at the company are excited, but we don’t broadcast it all over the place. And our gallery is also completely open to the general public.

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