May 27, 2011 10:35 pm

Collecting special: Out with the old ...

Every cloud has a silver lining. The sudden demise of the Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair has proved no exception. When the eponymous hotel announced that it would no longer host London’s flagship fair at the close of its 75th edition in 2009, the news came as more of a shock than a sadness. For, sentimentality and tradition aside, the grand old dame of the art trade had had her day and – perhaps like many another septuagenarian – had sadly lost the plot.

For decades, London had not presented an art and antiques fair commensurate with the city’s position as a major international art market – arguably still the world’s pre-eminent marketplace in terms of the quantity and range of works of art and expertise on offer. While Grosvenor remained, a very British propriety ensured that no one else would – or could – launch a rival. But how the market, not least the beleaguered antiques trade, needed someone to rethink the tired old fair formula.

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What arose from its ashes last year was an unexpectedly resplendent phoenix: Masterpiece. Its founding partners – three London antiques dealers, the Maastricht stand-builders Stabilo and the luxury brand Asprey (which has now withdrawn) – chose not to include the words “art”, “antiques” or “fair” in its title or publicity. Styling itself instead as “the best of the best from around the world’’, it brought together not only fine and decorative art but wines, classic cars, vintage couture, jewellery and contemporary design in a bid to attract a new audience and refresh the existing one.

A glamorous affair was promised but no one realised quite how spectacular it would look, or how successful its novel formula would prove. Stabilo confected a pop-up, seemingly permanent structure whose elegant, high-ceilinged colonnaded interiors were infused with something akin to natural light. Unlike the claustrophobic former ice-rink of Grosvenor House, or the stifling greenhouse of the Biennale des Antiquaires at the Grand Palais, this was a fair in which lingering was a pleasure.

Of course it was far from perfect. There were far too few picture dealers exhibiting, and far too few of the international art trade. The quality of the exhibits was also not invariably of the first order, but there was enough serious material to spare it from looking like a Moscow luxury goods “millionaire” fair.

Its real achievement, however, was that it flourished a convincingly bravura display of confidence in a market that many western antiques dealers have given up on.

The rise in popularity of both contemporary art and minimalist design has so weakened the market for period fine and decorative arts that significantly less of it can now be found, even at art and antiques fairs, while an increasing amount of stock makes its way to auction as dealers either give up or fail to hand over to a younger generation. If the offering of last September’s Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris is anything to go by, even the once proud French trade has signalled defeat. None of the English, French or US trade associations or fair entrepreneurs seemed able to muster an adequate response.

Masterpiece, unsurprisingly, is a private initiative funded by those who have a vested interest in ensuring the future of the business, and none expect to see a return on their investment in the short term. Its founders understood that it is simply not enough to present the old in a contemporary way, or to invite a new crowd.

The crucial thing is to entertain them. Masterpiece unashamedly plays to the gallery: it is all about spectacle, shopping and the sybaritic pleasures of good food and wine. It also astutely coincides with the Old Master and fine furniture sales in the London salerooms, and Master Paintings Week and Master Drawings London in the galleries (July 1-8).

“We felt the market needed to be reinvigorated rather than abandoned,” explains founding partner Thomas Woodham-Smith of Mallett. “Counterintuitively, perhaps, we feel very positive about the future.” He continues: “People still want to live with beautiful things and it is our job to persuade them that these things are not any less valid if they are 300 years old.” At last year’s event Harry Apter, another founding partner, revealed that there had been numerous sales to people who had never even thought of visiting a fair before. Antiquities dealer James Ede reported that he had seen numerous old clients and had one of his best fairs in years.

This year sees Masterpiece moving to its new site in the South Grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, and it promises to be bigger, better and more international. Among the 152 exhibitors are high-calibre newcomers, including Didier Aaron, Ben Brown, Brame & Lorenceau, Colnaghi-Bernheimer, Daniel Katz, Kentshire, Di Castro/Carlo Orsi, Marlborough, Noortman, Robilant + Voena, Stair Sainty and Adam Williams. JAR introduces scent to the mix, while other specialities are transformed by the arrival of a critical mass of the biggest names in the business. The photography contingent, for instance, now includes New Yorkers Robert Hershkowitz and Hans P Kraus Jr, plus Hamiltons Gallery, Michael Hoppen and Blanca Bernheimer.

There are excellent rare books and manuscripts too, from Donald Heald, Dr Jörn Günther and Sam Fogg, and a stronger showing of twentieth-century furniture thanks to Gordon Watson and Anne Autegarden. In fact, there will be most things from arms and armour to historic wallpaper, tribal art and textiles.

To make a nice point about “living” antiques, this year’s spectacle is of the aural kind, with Peter Manning masterminding the world’s first-ever “chamber soundscape” which will be played on instruments by Stradivari and Guarneri. Appropriately enough, some of the instruments played are even for sale, through dealer Peter Biddulph.

Masterpiece London runs June 30 to July 5. www.masterpiecefair.com

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