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The Masterpiece fair in London: Art and antiques with a side of Rolls-Royce

10 July '11 by the editors

“IT IS a phoenix that rose out of the ashes of Grosvenor House,” says Geoffrey Munn, managing director of Wartski, a London jeweller. He is talking about the Masterpiece fair, which has just finished its second year alongside the river Thames.

When Grosvenor, the grande dame of London’s annual art and antiques fairs, shut down in 2009, Masterpiece was one of two new fairs to have emerged, along with Brian and Anna Haughton’s Art Antiques London, which took place in Kensington Gardens in early June. After maiden voyages last year, both improved in 2011.

Art Antiques London is pitched to mid-range collectors with an emphasis on exceptional ceramics. Masterpiece is a bigger and glitzier bird, which aims to exhibit the best of the best. A visitor to this more ambitious fair, which closed on July 5th, could have taken home some 18th-century scenic wallpaper (at Carolle Thibaut-Pomerantz); a sleekly sensual, modern white sofa (Ciancimino); a series of four Commedia dell’Arte paintings by Giandomenico Tiepolo (Dickinson); a sapphire blue Rolls-Royce; or a Spitfire plane. The stands are generously proportioned, the colours soothingly neutral and the aisles thickly carpeted. For the peckish, there were outposts of the fashionable Le Caprice and Harry’s Bar.

The fair essentially felt like a shopping mall in an absurdly smart hotel, which helped to make the targeted demographic feel right at home. Though some serious art collectors are not thrilled with the inclusion of luxury goods, this mix is likely to continue. The unique blue Rolls-Royce Phantom, complete with an Asprey jewellery box fitted in its glove compartment, sold “in the region of £400,000” ($640,000). JAR Parfums, an exclusive Parisian appointment-only jewellery designer and perfumier, made a rare appearance to launch an “affordable” line of bold, limited-edition earrings inspired by flowers and fans. Priced from €1,000 to €3,800, they flew out of the stall, designed to look just like the Paris boutique.

Thomas Woodham-Smith, a former managing director of Mallet, an English and Continental furniture specialist (a veteran of Grosvenor and now Masterpiece), is one of the founders of this new fair. He still looks surprised as he reports that last year, at the post-fair meeting with dealers, he was greeted with applause. Many were thrilled with the fair’s new look and the clients they’d met. In 2010 there were fewer than 120 exhibitors; this year 300 dealers reportedly signed on to the waiting list, and some 150 took part.

“This is the fair London needs,” says Peter Schaffer of New York’s A La Vieille Russie which specialises in Russian objets d’art. “It will put London back on the international art and antiques map.” Many others agree. “We have done very, very well,” says Jan Finch of Finch & Co, eclectic dealers based in London. “We were prepared for the fair to take four or five years to be this good.” Jorge Welsh, a dealer in Chinese export porcelain, is also delighted. “We had clients from all over the world,” he says.

But all was not bliss after the fair. Some dealers have complained that the timing was unfortunate, as they were forced to compete with the Wimbledon finals and the end of the British boarding-school year. Others claim that the fair isn’t international enough. (As for the grim preview party for press and MVPs, the less said about it the better.) But the mood remains optimistic and most dealers seem patient. James Ede, of antiquities dealer Charles Ede, concedes that the weekend was very quiet, but the numbers of visitors on the final two days more than made up for it. He sold more than a dozen works, and says he had four collectors queuing to buy an Etruscan helmet priced at £145,000. Asian and Medieval art were among the growth areas, and modern British paintings sold well, such as Leon Kossoff’s 1998 “Kings Cross, Spring II” at Agnews.

“The best of the best” is the motto for London’s Masterpiece fair. The report for year two: shows real promise, with room for improvement.

The Economist


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