By Lionel Laurent
PARIS (Reuters) - A white horse quietly munches hay in the corner of a new warehouse-sized art gallery in the Paris suburb of Pantin, an oblivious player in a giant exhibit featuring mud-and-rust-colored paintings, creepy embryo sculptures and a black-and-white projection of an artist reciting Goethe.
Welcome to the world of the mega-gallery, a larger-than-life testament to the booming power of the $1.2 billion contemporary art market and the latest battleground for flamboyant art-dealer players and their increasingly valuable big-name artists.
While the French capital tends to be seen as a sleepy second fiddle to London in terms of market share, today it is staging the latest round of the fight for collector cash as two rival mega-spaces open just days apart with works by the same artist.
In one corner, Austrian-born dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, whose new gallery in Pantin is a 2,000 square-meter space housing a horse, its hay bale and a series of gloomy works by cerebral German artist Anselm Kiefer including doll-sized dresses skewered by branches.
In the other, world-famous American dealer Larry Gagosian - who earned a name-check from rapper Jay-Z on the "Watch The Throne" album - has opened a huge, new gallery at Le Bourget Airport, on the outskirts of Paris, again with work by Kiefer.
Kiefer's purpose-built sculpture of a crushed, caged field of wheat - inspired by a secret U.S. plan during World War Two to turn Germany into a pastoral, humbled land - fills up the entire hangar housing the airport gallery, which is seen as obvious bait for deep-pocketed art buyers from abroad.
"These galleries are a symbol of the business and marketing of art...It's a war machine," said Laurence Dreyfus, art advisor and curator of the 'Chambres A Part' exhibit at France's flagship FIAC contemporary art fair.
"Gagosian is especially targeting a clientele that lives in the air. They land, fill their boots and take off again."
According to online auction house Artprice.com, Kiefer was the 12th-highest earner in the contemporary art market between June 2011 and June 2012. His work brought in $14.3 million of revenue at auction, with a maximum hammer price of $1.49 million.
These numbers matter in a market that on the surface has shrugged off the crisis with barely a paint-smudge, but below the high-end has shown signs of scarring on the younger, more speculative current crop of artists.
Despite the obvious belief that Kiefer's art is sufficiently sought-after to win buyers for a double-whammy of new pieces, this kind of showdown is nonetheless a situation that dealers would rather avoid when it comes to big-name artist property.
Ropac dismissed the toe-to-toe over Kiefer with Gagosian as a "specific" situation. "We planned our show two years ago," he said on the sidelines of his gallery's opening.
Kiefer also shrugged it off as an "accident", speaking on the sidelines of the Gagosian opening, and said that it would not happen again.
But others say this is going to be a continuing trend as galleries fight to capture a global market and as artists fight to get the most exposure.
"It's the artist that has the upper hand at the moment," said Dreyfus. "Which is as it should be."
(Reporting by Lionel Laurent, editing by Paul Casciato)