PARIS - Although Switzerland’s Art Basel is still incontestably the top fair for contemporary art, London’s Frieze, which took place last week at Regent's Park, and Paris's FIAC, which begins Thursday, are now sharing the  second place on the podium.

"Each fair has a different identity and energy. Paris is more established, while London is younger. The different languages spoken attract buyers from different geographical regions," says Olivier Belot, director of the Yvon Lambert gallery, which is exhibiting at both fairs.

Frieze London is more hip and focused on contemporary art, while FIAC, more prestigious in its beautiful Grand Palais museum setting, shows a wider spectrum, from modern to contemporary art. It features international galleries and "bankable" artists, although it also includes some promising younger artists, for collectors looking for the next big thing.

The organizers of the two competing fairs, as it happens, are very respectful towards each other. "FIAC does a remarkable job," says Matthew Slotover, co-director of Frieze, while Jennifer Flay, artistic director of the Paris event, lauded "the quality at Frieze Masters," the new section of the London show launched this year to widen its scope to older and modern art.

Close in size and number of exhibitors, FIAC and Frieze are both working hard to increase their influence. FIAC expanded this year to newly renovated spaces in the Grand Palais museum, in particular the superb salon d’honneur, a 55-ft high glass-roofed space of almost 4,000 square feet. Frieze London inaugurated a New York branch of the fair in May of this year, and does not rule out further expansion. Frieze, which is much younger than FIAC, claims to be the most international. It benefits from the fact that 45 to 50% of international collectors are from English-speaking countries.

Competing for VIP buyers

Moreover, observes François Laffanour of the Downtown Gallery, London "is a rich city, with art collectors willing to pay big sums." FIAC, on the other hand, could suffer from the French political and fiscal context. Gallery owner Emmanuel Perrotin, who exhibits at both fairs, is worried about "the unfavorable impact of even mentioning that the works of art might be included in calculating the wealth tax (ISF), even if, in the end, that does not happen."

Eager to appear as major cultural events, Frieze and FIAC both benefit from the exceptional exhibits by great museums of Paris and London that are taking place at the same time as the fairs. A Hopper retrospective, likely to attract crowds, is being presented in the galleries of the Grand Palais next to FIAC, and the Louvre is in the news with its new department of Islamic art. Meanwhile, London boasts major auctions.

In terms of sheer numbers of visitors, the two fairs are equal, but that is not the most important thing. "At this kind of art fair, the general public goes as it would to a museum: to see, not to buy. The fairs are aimed mainly at investors," notes gallery owner Bernard Zürcher. "The heart of the matter and the core business is the VIP clientele."

"FIAC has carefully set up a VIP program with personalized, Anglo-Saxon-style service, to make the big collectors come, just like at the Frieze," says Jean-Christophe Castelain. That is probably the hardest-fought battle between the two adversaries.