Listen to this article
Masterpiece art fair returns to London’s Chelsea this week, in all its gorgeous luxury. Fine displays, high-end restaurants and well-heeled gallerists set the scene, but beneath the surface and ahead of the fair’s opening on Thursday, some 150 museum experts, art restorers, scholars and trade specialists, across 27 fields, will scrutinise every item brought to the fair by its 160 exhibitors. Their (unpaid) job is to make sure the objects on offer are worthy of the event, correctly recorded and labelled.
Other cross-category art fairs offer the same attention to detail, notably the Tefaf fairs in Maastricht and New York, but Masterpiece, now majority owned by Art Basel’s organiser MCH Group, brings something new to the vetting process: on-the-job training for younger professionals. The scheme was launched last year with seven vetting mentees. This year 11 trainees are on board, while two of last year’s crop — Milo Dickinson, Christie’s early sculpture expert, and the English furniture specialist David Oakey — are full committee members this time around.
The training happens during the vetting, which this year takes place on June 25. Exhibiting gallerists are asked to leave the fair as each committee, comprising about six people, assesses the pieces on their booths. Full committee members reach a consensus on whether anything needs to be changed, clarified or even removed. Their shadowing trainees are party to all discussions, but don’t get a vote.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for younger specialists to work with senior experts,” says Dickinson (28), who feels his experience last year has prepared him well for the full committee role.
An important part of the skills training is diplomacy. “The new generation has to understand that what they are looking at is the lifeblood of the exhibitors, it’s their business, which needs respect. It can be a tense day: not everybody gets everything right all the time, but if approached calmly, it’s a productive two-way street,” says Masterpiece chairman Philip Hewatt-Jaboor.
When an issue does arise, it is rarely because the exhibitors are deliberately trying to mislead. Dickinson says that often the problems arise when galleries have items that don’t fall within their speciality, such as an expert in Old Master paintings adding pieces of sculpture to help fill the booth.
Helen Wyld (37), senior curator of historic textiles at National Museums Scotland, agrees. She is a mentee in the textiles, carpets and upholstery committee for the second time this year. She explains how problems can creep in: “There’s often a textile on a piece of furniture, but the [gallery is] primarily selling a chair, not a piece of needlework. You need to clarify if the upholstery is original [which would add to its value]; there were a couple of examples last year when this was implied, but was not the case,” she says.
Other problematic areas across most fields include provenance, restoration and dating, particularly with items such as sculptures and textiles that can have been conceived by the artist long before they were made, and sometimes made after the artist’s death. Casting a piece of sculpture after an artist has died is legitimate, provided the production goes through approved manufacturers, but it has implications for the value of a work.
There is a mix of professions among the trainees and among the representatives on each vetting committee. Potential conflicts of interest may arise, as the committees include art dealers. But exhibiting dealers play no part in vetting their own stand and are not permitted to chair a vetting committee. There are a couple of exceptions this year, as Adrian Sutton of Blain|Southern heads the contemporary art and design team and Martin Levy, director of H Blairman & Sons, stepped in as a last-minute replacement to chair the English furniture and works of art committee. Dealers must stand down if there are vested interests — from personal grudges to a financial share in an object on another dealer’s stand — that must be declared.
It’s all part of the “melting pot of opinion”, says Tom Davies (35), a pre-1830 sculpture specialist with London dealer Daniel Katz, who joins as a mentee this year. His gallery isn’t showing at the fair — “We chose to focus on our gallery space, which is still in close proximity to the fair,” he says.
Mentees from other professions say that specialists from the trade are particularly instructive and can give them the sort of education they can’t get elsewhere. “Dealers have the best experience of handling works and knowing how to look at objects, which is a declining skill and just as important as getting knowledge from a book,” Wyld says.
To date, the “vetting school” has been rather informally organised, based largely on word-of-mouth recommendations. “We’ve started gently but I’m sure we’ll be more publicly proactive in getting potential mentees. It’s important to have a younger generation of characters involved in this great play,” Hewat-Jaboor says. Adding younger specialists to the vetting team is key to Masterpiece’s overarching strategy of inclusion — more youthful dealers have also joined the exhibitor list this year — all geared towards encouraging new buyers. “They’re trying to stimulate a younger crowd, and that has to go right down to the vetting. These areas can be a bit of an old man’s game, but contemporary taste doesn’t necessarily have to be for contemporary art,” Davies says.
June 28-July 4, masterpiecefair.com
Get alerts on Collecting when a new story is published