The Connoisseurs

Jessica Antola

When Galerie J. Kugel abandoned its longtime home on the Rue St.-Honoré for new quarters on the Left Bank a couple years ago, the unveiling was held during the presti-gious Biennale des Antiquaires to ensure maximum attention from collectors and press. It worked. More than 5,000 people turned up in the opening days, and for weeks af- terward tongues wagged about how brothers Nicolas and Alexis Kugel had virtually upstaged Paris’s grandest antiques fair with their own singularly opulent showcase.

Located at 25 Quai Anatole France, directly across the Seine from the Tuileries, the gallery occupies the historic Hôtel Collot, a Palladian-style mansion designed by Louis Visconti, better known as the architect of Napoléon’s tomb at Les Invalides. It had been built in 1840 for Jean-Pierre Collot, director of the French mint. The Kugels spent a year and a half persuading the owner to sell. They hired designer François-Joseph Graf, darling of the Paris gallery set, to recapture the building’s former glory. With the help of architect Laurent Bourgois, Graf restored original decorative elements (the marquetry floor, for one) and, when adding new embellishments, honored Visconti’s neoclassical design. To walk into Galerie Kugel’s foyer—with its marble flooring, 18th-century mirrors, and antique sculpture—is to enter a lost world of perfectly restrained grandeur.

Upstairs, sumptuously carved Louis XVI boiserie lines the walls of one room, which houses furniture from the same period: a Jean-Henri Riesener secretary that belonged to Louis XVI’s sister-in-law; a large porcelain vase once owned by the Rothschilds; a Roman console designed by Vincenzo Pacetti from the Villa Borghese in Rome; a commode and a cabinet stamped by master furnituremaker Adam Weisweiler. Down the hall, another chamber holds the smallest of remarkable finds—an Italian rock-crystal candelabra, an enameled gold French miniature, a lapis lazuli Ptolemaic goblet.

"It’s basically a nineteenth-century antiquaire’s eclecticism," says Nicolas, explaining the gallery’s approach. "There are a lot of things we don’t deal in, but we follow in the tradition of big collectors like the Rothschilds and Frick—mixing Renaissance bronzes and silver, French furniture, medieval objects, and so on. That’s the basis of how my father developed his taste and how we followed up his past."

The Kugel brothers are the fifth generation in an antiques-dealing lineage that extends back to the late 18th century, when Elie Kugel founded the business in the Belarusan city of Minsk. In 1924 his great-grandson Jacques Kugel immigrated to Paris and after the war set up a shop specializing in silver and gold precious objects, later adding furniture and fine art. By 1970 Jacques had moved his operations to the Rue St.-Honoré where, on an avenue known for haute couture, the gallery quickly distinguished itself as an international destination for serious collectors of antique furniture and objets.

When Jacques died of cancer in 1985, Nicolas (who was 23 at the time) and Alexis (then 19) were left to decide the gallery’s future. Although far from ready, Nicolas admits, the brothers seized the opportunity. "We never said much or really discussed anything," he recalls. "We just did it."

Working together has come naturally. "Alexis is much more patient with books, and I with people," asserts Nicolas, who acts as the gallery’s unofficial spokesperson. He praises his brother’s flair for research and finely tuned eye. They have never worried over collecting trends or about tapping into the current zeitgeist. At a time when most of Paris’s arbiters of decorative taste promote the current predilection for furniture from the forties and fifties, the brothers prefer to track down items whose intrinsic value transcends fashion. "What I deal in is beautiful—it was there before me and it will be there after me," Nicolas says. "Only the price will change." The prices at Kugel, not surprisingly, can be steep. They range from several hundred dollars all the way up to several mil-lion for great masterpieces.

In this rarefied market, collectors tend to buy according to their own eye, in the tradition of the cabinet of curiosities, a closed-off chamber where an owner worshipped his treasures. "One thing you learn is that collecting is very private, intimate," Nicolas says. "Each collector has his own vision and his own way of putting things together. It’s very much an image of them." The gallery’s clients are "people who understand what we do," he adds. "Usually, they find us."

Not everyone can afford to be found. These days, when many dealers see exposure as the key to attracting an international client base, exhibiting at art and antiques fairs has be-come increasingly vital to business. But the Kugels participate in just one: TEFAF Maastricht in the Netherlands, which is being held this year March 9 to 18. The top antiques fair in the world, Maastricht is a bastion of the traditional connoisseurship that Galerie Kugel was founded on.

The Kugel booth is always a highlight at Maastricht, filled with spectacular finds sourced from owners across Europe. Indeed, the thrill of the hunt is what Nicolas says compels him. "I’m most interested in the pieces I’ve only just discovered and haven’t acquired yet," he declares, smiling. The brothers will spend years tracking down pieces for special exhibitions, usually staged around the same time as the Biennale des Antiquaires. In 2002 they organized a jaw-dropping show of more than 50 horological spheres, with examples from ancient Rome up to the early 19th century. In its time each was a scientific tool used to represent the celestial universe. Each is also an exquisite work of art.

Last fall, in collaboration with Belgian dealer and decorator Axel Vervoordt, Galerie Kugel paid homage to the iconic 20th-century dealer Nicolas Landau with an exhibition that re-created rooms from Landau’s Paris apartment. While Vervoordt and Kugel are both respected for handling top quality, they represent distinct points of view—the latter emphasizes old-world connoisseurship while the former has a modern, more purely visual sensibility. This contrast made for a sophisticated, nuanced show.

"Both of us looked at Landau as our mutual master and teacher," says Boris Vervoordt, Axel’s son. "We were primarily focused on his modern way of composing forms—of viewing the objects in an abstract way. The Kugels concentrated on the more theoretical, knowledge-based look he had."

It is precisely his colleagues’ intel-lectual approach that Vervoordt admires. "They are interesting to collectors who really want to learn about what they buy," he says. "One can- not categorize them—they have made a unique business model. But I would absolutely rank them among the best dealers in the world."

Galerie J. Kugel is located at 25 Quai Anatole France, in the Hôtel Collot, Paris. For more information call 33-1/42-60-86-23 or log on to galerie-kugel.com.

Object Lesson: Four Masterworks

1. Bureau A Caissons in marquetry of ebony, brass, and tortoiseshell with ormolu mounts
Made: Paris, circa 1700, by André-Charles Boulle
Price: In excess of $2 million

This exceptional desk has all the hallmarks that made Boulle the most famous ébéniste of his day and earned him the position of cabinetmaker to Louis XIV. "The bureau is done with the best marquetry," says Nicolas Kugel. "Boulle excelled so much in the technique that his name became synonymous with it."

2. Octagonal Mirror in enameled gilt-copper and coral
Made: Sicily, 1600-50
Price: $105,000

Under the patronage of the viceroys, the production of gilt-copper objects embellished with coral (considered highly precious) flourished in the Sicilian city of Trapani from the 16th through 18th centuries. According to classical mythology, coral originated from Medusa’s blood after she was slain by Perseus—who used his shield as a mirror to avoid looking directly at her and being turned to stone.

3. Silver Tureen and Stand
Made: Paris, 1772-73, attributed to François-Thomas Germain
Price: In excess of $1.6 million

The great 18th-century collector Count Alexander Sergeievitch Stroganoff commissioned this spectacular tureen during a stay in Paris. It is stamped with the mark of the goldsmith Jean-François Dapcher, but the quality of the modeling suggests the more talented hand of Germain, who was unable to mark his works during a period of bankruptcy.

4. Casket in rock crystal, silver-gilt, and lacquer
Made: Venice, circa 1600
Price: In excess of $650,000

Reliquary caskets were often produced as expensive gifts. This one, in an architectural form, was given by the Vatican to an unknown owner. "It belongs to a series of similar princely pieces, apparently from the same Venetian workshop," says Kugel. "They are distinguished by the Oriental influence in the lacquered decoration."