By: Sallie Brady
With the cancellations of the 12-year-old International Asian Art Fair, which was once was the centerpiece of New York’s March Asia Week, and the 5-year-old Moscow World Fine Art Fair, which was rescheduled for September from May, collectors are wondering which fair will go next.
Factor in the closing of three of the world’s top English furniture dealers—London’s Jeremy and Hotspur, which sold their stock in a combined $5 million sale in November at Christie’s; and Norman Adams, whose wares will be sold at Sotheby’s London on April 21—and it becomes clear it’s a new state of the fairs.
In order to remain vibrant, art and antiques fairs will need to search beyond the traditional backbone of furniture dealers who always drew in a loyal clientele. In the new order of things, buyers will see more jewelry, 20th century and photography—look for a section debuting at Olympia International Art & Antiques in June. They’ll also enjoy more competitive pricing, last-minute sales and, yes, maybe a deal. “We’re seeing much more activity on the last day and after-fair sales,” says Michael Cohen, of Cohen & Cohen, the venerable Chinese export dealers.
The shift in the market began when the 24th Biennale des Antiquaires opened to great fanfare in Paris this past September, back in its original home at the Grand Palais, where the mood among the lush indoor gardens and soaring booths was upbeat with early sales among its 94 dealers of Old Masters paintings, 18th-century French furniture and antiquities well into the six-figure euro sums. Four days later the New York Stock Exchange had its biggest selloff since 2001, Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 and the global economy fissured as the whisperings began that some of those sales weren’t quite so final.
Back in New York in October, the International Art + Design Fair and the 20th International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show fought daily against a roller coaster of a stock market, with holding-their-own results. Sales at the Art + Design Fair included a 1935 Jules Leleu rosewood, shagreen and gilt bronze cabinet for $50,000 at Maison Gerard; Matthias Pliessnig’s stunning woven-wood furniture from $28,000 upward at the Wexler Gallery, which also sold a pair of Wendell Castle doors for $120,000; and lots of silver, including important Georg Jensen at Drucker Antiques.
At the International, top quality was in demand with sales of a pair of perfectly provenanced Matthew Boulton ormolu mounted blue-john lion-faced vases that left Frank Partridge for $725,000, as well as a number of rare clocks including an 18th-century longcase and two miniature Vienna wall clocks at Rafferty & Walwyn, and a rare $200,000 George III rhinoceros clock by Thomas Weeks at Ronald Philips.
Some dealers swear it was the “Obama bounce” that gave them their best SOFA Chicago ever. That was the theory, as pieces flew out of booths at the opening gala, just two days after the City of Big Shoulders’ native son won the White House. “It’s the best opening night I’ve ever had,” says Leslie Ferrin of the Ferrin Gallery. “I sold all of my biggest pieces by my top artists,” noting Richard Notkin’s ceramic tile mural It’s No Use Shooting, for $95,000, and Make Up, a large Sergei Isupov ceramic head, for $50,000. The Heller Gallery sold a Dale Chihuly chandelier for $160,000 to a new collector on opening night, and glass master Lino Tagliapietra was on hand when the Holsten gallery sold Masai, his wall-installation of nine glass leaves for $180,000, as well as when a new collector commissioned a work. Obamamania, or not, some middle-tier galleries did not enjoy the same happy days.
The appetite for antiques was tested in mid-November in London at the Winter Fine Art & Antiques Fair, Olympia, traditionally a very British fair, where Gordon Watson sold a Paolo Buffa card table and four chairs and sent half of his stand to be installed on spec in a Notting Hill flat; and London’s hot vintage jeweler Symbolic & Chase had multiple sales of the of their exquisite pearl and sapphire pieces starting at $6,000. “We had a very good fair and will be back in June,” says director Martin Travis. Other sellers reported quiet booths.
So what will 2009 bring? That was on everyone’s mind as the season opened in January with the Brussels Antiques and Fine Art Fair, continental Europe’s oldest, known for its dealers of antiquities and tribal. Claes Gallery, a leading tribal dealer, sold its top piece to an American dealer buying for a collector, a very rare pre-Bembe statue. Pierre Bergé sold an unusual Philip and Kelvin LaVerne side table with samurai figures to a private American client for €7,500, while Pierre Dequenne’s large canvas The Painter and His Models, at Jean Nelis, also found a U.S. home. Dealers throughout the fair reported conservative sales widely subject to the economic pinch.
Across the pond, the 55th annual Winter Antiques Show, with 75 dealers, was under way. By the end of the fair some Americana gallerists reported a crushing lack of sales, while other sellers were pleased—among them a handful of British gallerists who saw clients take advantage of a finally favorable exchange rate. London sculpture dealer Danny Katz sold, in the six figures, the most-expensive piece on his stand: a large-scale 19th-century terra-cotta Bust of Balzac by Pierre-Eugène-Emile Hébert, which came out of a private collection in Switzerland and went to an American museum. Rupert Wace sold numerous Egyptian works to private collectors, some of which were new clients, including an Egyptian bronze cat from the Late Dynastic Period for $135,000.
Days later the action had moved to Palm Beach where entrepreneurs David and Lee Ann Lester, having bought back the antiques fair that they founded, with a cool $17 million profit, had renamed it the American International Fine Art Fair.The Lesters’ glitzy approach gave the fair record numbers, and the 70 dealers in attendance reported several high-price deals. Among them were a $300,000 Tiffany chandelier (circa 1900) at the Macklowe Gallery in New York; a $300,000 Gustav Klimt 1917 Study for the Painting of Adam and Eve, at Vienna’s Wienerroither & Kohlbacher; and a $5 million Andrew Wyeth painting, Winfield’s Porch, at New York’s Adelson Galleries.
And there was much buzz about Carlton Hobbs’ presence here, the New York antiques dealer accused, along with his estranged, London-based antiques-dealer brother, of alleged forgery by a restorer. You’ll see him at this summer’s Olympia fair, too, which, along with the Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair, is celebrating its 75th anniversary. He’ll also appear at the International Ceramics Fair & Seminar, which might see more Americans shopping since the turn of the 21st century. The strength of the dollar has them London-bound, and that’s the new state of the fairs.