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The State of the Fairs

Our reporter recaps trends in the ever-evolving art-fair scene, and takes a peek ahead.

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It’s back-to-booth time for art and antiques dealers as the international fair season kicks off this month. When a new collecting calendar gets underway, there will be high hopes for global economic calm and a desire to spend, but the fair world is changing.

Every year, it seems, less business is done on the spot, with more sales post-fair.

Evidently, collectors are taking their time making buying decisions. This is common for big-ticket sales, say, at TEFAF (March 18–27), and was the case when two of the fair’s important sales were not announced until May. Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Femme cueillant des Fleurs, 1874, deaccessioned by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., through Dickinson of London, went for $15 million. Jan Lievens’ Tronie of an Old Man, 1629, offered by Haboldt & Co. of Paris, was sold for €3.9 million. But now, even dealers report a trend in delayed purchasing of lower-priced works. They also note that the last day of a fair can be the busiest, with clients returning to negotiate and for one final look: “Do you really want to ship that sécrétaire back to Paris?”

A casualty of this more measured approach to buying is the once-mad vernissage, where collectors raced about with checkbook in one hand and Champagne flute in the other to secure the best the fair had to offer. Particularly at Maastricht this year, the vernissage was noticeably less urgent. But then again, the fair had a few too many familiar faces to create much excitement—at least in the Old Masters section—with plenty of portraits we’d seen not all that long ago on the auction block.

It’s worth noting two New York dealers who were the exception to that. David Tunick spent TEFAF swarmed by Scandinavian TV crews due to his discovery of an unknown Edvard Munch Madonna lithograph on paper from the 1890s that he found hanging in an Upper East Side apartment. Lawrence Steigrad also saw crowds to inspect his charming Hendrick Berckman A Young Boy with a Dog, 1667, that was fresh from a private Virginia collection and had the honor of adorning the cover of the TEFAF catalogue. Go U.S.A.

Maybe because they still can source fresh-to-the-market quality, highly specialized dealers do still seem able to whip up a frenzy. Anthony Meyer, a Paris dealer of Oceanic art, says he sold eight pieces in TEFAF’s first hour, some to clients he hadn’t seen in years. At London’s Masterpiece fair in early July, Japanese screen dealer Gregg Baker said he sold more in the opening hours than he sold in the entire fair last year. When Whitford Fine Art of London, which for decades has worked on amassing a varied stock of 20th-century British and European art, showed at the Brussels Antiques & Fine Art Fair (BRAFA) in January for the first time, they appropriately brought a booth full of works by the Zero Group, which is hugely popular with Belgians. Before the fair opened they could have sold-out–to fellow dealers who were drooling over key 1950s paintings.

It seems that when a fair builds an area of strength or specialization, the faithful follow. Masterpiece received a taste of that this year when they cleverly expanded into photography. The parade of princesses, socialites and actresses to see the Helmut Newtons at Hamiltons Gallery—as well as dishy proprietor Tim Jeffries—were just the kind of clientele the fair is after. Add to that other serious galleries: London’s Michael Hoppen; Munich’s Blanca Bernheimer, who shared a stunning booth with her father, Konrad Bernheimer of Colnaghi; and New York’s Hans P. Kraus Jr., who impressed many with his historic 19th- and early 20th-century photographs, and you have a destination for a photography collector.

Fair organizers Brian and Anna Haughton have known this for years from running the International Ceramics Fair & Seminar. This year they folded it into Art Antiques, which had its second edition in London in June. Museum-quality strength brings curators and serious collectors to a fair. This year’s elegant event was larger than last year’s, and while dealers had mixed reviews on business, specialists did well. Mary Deeming, a dealer of Japanese prints and works of art, sold a collection of “Japanese Girl and Boy Festival Dolls” from the late Edo period to an Amsterdam museum, and sculpture dealer William Agnew sold 32 pieces, which made it his best fair ever.

The trio of Sculpture Objects & Functional Art (SOFA) shows—New York in April, Santa Fe in August and Chicago in November—have actually succeeded in exposing areas of specialty such as contemporary glass, ceramics and textiles, to a broader audience. Interior designers are now regulars at these fairs, including that trade’s key younger generation, and every year dealers report an increase in private commissions from new clients.

If you remain Stateside and are shopping for antique furniture, you won’t have the choice you once had with international dealers showing at U.S. fairs. While there’s always a strong showing of the best of English furniture at New York’s International Fine Art & Antique Dealers Show (October 21–27), and there was a healthy number of American dealers at April’s new New York Spring Show, antique furniture presence at fairs has shrunk—perhaps due to taste changes or overseas shipping costs. The American International Fine Art Fair in Palm Beach this year (February 5–13) was a sad shadow of what it used to be. For furniture, there were Mallett and Todd Merrill but little else. The market there remained strong for arms and armor, represented by London dealer Peter Finer, who reported his usual multimillion-dollar sales, and for pictures, with Richard Green and Waterhouse & Dodd, both of London, reporting sales.

New and emerging markets are a fair organizer and antique dealer’s dreams, but a flotilla of sheikhs and Chinese billionaires arriving and emptying booths is pure fantasy. This June, Olympia International Fine Art & Antiques Fair, which made a fantastic comeback with an emphasis on its strength—English dealers—opened the fair in the evenings for private groups of Indian and Chinese collectors, with pleasant results. The British Antiques Dealers Fair (BADA) in March, which amped up its marketing to emerging markets, was rewarded with a number of Russian, Ukrainian and Middle Eastern clients with new appetites for English furniture and silver. Americans also shopped that fair heavily this year. Organizer David Lester saw a new market in Naples, Fla., where he achieved a stunning transformation of an old supermarket into a exhibition pavilion. Both the Naples International Art & Antique Fair in February and Art Naples, a contemporary fair in March, were enthusiastically received by that city. Dealers reported patchy sales, but a mid-range fair could work here.

And, of course, the entire concept of an art and antiques fair was rethought and modernized when Masterpiece London was launched last year. Its July incarnation was larger than last year and even more stunning. Prince Harry and other royals strode the aisles, which included a Rolls-Royce car and a two-seater Spitfire fighter plane. Some dealers reported encouraging sales, but others felt the fair’s name and lack of an art or antique image in the logo was preventing the right people from learning about it. “We are building a brand, and it is early days,” says Thomas Woodham-Smith, the fair’s founder. “We are taking the stodgy antiques market into the 21st century.”

Now looking to this autumn season, the action begins in London with the popular 20/21 British Art Fair (September 14–18), which will feature top-quality modern and British contemporary art. Stay on for the LAPADA Art & Antiques Dealers Fair (September 21–25) held in a tent in Berkeley Square. Now in its third year, it has added the likes of ethnographic and design dealer Peter Petrou and Witney Antiques, dealers in antique needlework and samplers.

In Paris, it’s the 10th anniversary of Parcours des Mondes (September 6–11) the popular tribal fair held in dealers’ galleries that draws collectors from all over the world. Later, the world’s top international collectors will be found in Florence when the 27th Florence International Antiques Biennale Fair (October 1–9) opens at the Palazzo Corsini with 98 dealers.

Over in New York, AVENUE’s Antiques, Art & Design at the Armory (September 22–25) begins the Manhattan shopping season. David Lester’s SeaFair is also in the water with Art Greenwich (September 16–19). In November, New Yorkers can look forward to a Gallic invasion when a new fair, the Pavilion of Art & Design, the U.S. edition of a popular Paris and London fair, replaces the long-running Modernism show and promises to bring dealers of modern art and design from the Continent who have never shown in New York before.
—Sallie Brady

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: September 2011

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