It is revealing that the organisers of the new Masterpiece fair in London chose not to use the “A” word. Even a mention of the word “antiques”, it seems, is enough to alienate any self-respecting thirty- or fortysomething.
The question of how to present the art of the past – particularly furniture and applied or decorative arts – to a new and younger audience has exercised the art trade since the fashion for period clutter and the English country-house look (spurred by the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer in 1981) gave way to the uncompromising twin orthodoxies of modernism and minimalism.
Presenting these works of art is vital. According to veteran dealer Alan Rubin, of the Pelham Galleries in London and Paris, “before 1975 hardly any antiques dealers expressed any taste at all. They gathered together the sort of things that people were supposed to admire and their customers took their pick.” That all changed with the new design and lifestyle magazines – Architectural Digest was reinvented in 1975 and Interiors was founded six years later.
Those traditionalists who continued to display doleful period rooms in musty showrooms paid the price: those genteel general merchants all but disappeared from provincial towns. So, too, did many of their grander cousins on Mount Street, Madison Avenue and the Faubourg Sainte-Honoré. Tastes changed, but so did the way people chose to live: who wanted a formal dining room when so many people entertained their friends around the kitchen table? Even fewer wanted to pay for the pleasure of sitting on stiffly upholstered Georgian sofas or Louis XVI fauteuils. Something had to be done.
One solution was to embrace the new. One of the first and most successful pioneers to mix the old and the new in a creative way was the Belgian dealer and decorator Axel Vervoordt. His eclecticism brought together anything from a classical Roman head or torso to mirror pieces by Anish Kapoor. Great library bookshelves would be filled with artfully arranged groups of objects – turned ivory or wood, porphyry vessels, scientific instruments. Form was paramount. All the pieces were united by a particular aesthetic and a belief, as the company puts it, that certain objects “regardless of their origin and value, are infused with a timeless, universal beauty and an intrinsic purity that preserves their contemporary relevance”.
Vervoordt’s passion for intriguing Kunstkammer curiosities and vanitas items was inspired by the taste of the legendary antiquaire Nicolas Landau (1887-1979), but his genius was to make such objects accessible to the novice. However recherché his exhibits, his stands at the world’s great antiques fairs were never intimidating. He created rooms that you wanted to be in, full of objects that you wanted to pick up and look at. Most importantly, he realised that people wanted to be relaxed and comfortable in their homes.
The 1980s and 1990s saw bravura theatrical presentations of furniture and works of art created by the likes of Ariane Dandois, Carlton Hobbs, Kugel, Pelham, Steinitz, Edric Van Vredenburgh – the list was long and impressive. It is noticeably shorter these days. Many big casualties in the furniture trade came because businesses had reached the end of a generation and there was no succession. But there was also a crisis of confidence, a crisis apparent when even the stuffy old Grosvenor House fair introduced Grosvenor Contemporary in 2005 and the following year exhibitors at the grandest of all fairs, the Paris Biennale, showed modern and contemporary alongside period treasures.
In 2008, Mallett, one of the oldest firms in the business with premises in London and New York, took embracing the new to another level. It launched Meta, pairing traditional furniture and lighting with cutting-edge design. Other responses to the relentless demand for the contemporary included that of ceramics specialists Lefebvre & Fils of Paris, who redesigned their gallery to present 21st-century works in dialogue with pieces from past centuries.
Eclecticism – so difficult to do well, and almost impossible for any single specialist to achieve on his or her own – seems to have given way to more intelligent collaborations between dealers. Last year, for example, French antiquities dealer Chenel, Charly Bailly, an expert in Old Master paintings, and the Tomasso Brothers, English sculpture dealers, presented a chic, spare exhibition in the stunning Jean Nouvel gallery on the Quai Voltaire of high-quality works of art thoughtfully selected to engage with one another.
What was striking about this show was how “contemporary” it felt, despite the fact that there was nothing modern or contemporary on display at all. This aesthetic, one suspects, is the key to another way forward – a key already made and turned, very skilfully, by Philippe Perrin, now at the helm of the Galerie Perrin, one of the grand antiquaires of Paris.
“About four or five years ago I got bored with what I was doing. All my stands at antiques fairs looked the same. There was too much stuff. That was not the way I was living in my house and I wanted my stand to look like that – pure, clean, with few objects but each of them possessing something special,” he says.
He also broadened his reach, exhibiting not only in art and antiques fairs but at Design Basel/Miami, showing pieces that in their day were avant-garde in their design or use of materials. One display at Basel this June featured a polished steel day-bed flanked by two foldable steel campaign chairs with leather strap arms – the kind of “functional, strong and light” military furniture commissioned by Napoleon that had a domestic vogue too. Not only has his initiative proved a commercial success but he has grabbed the attention of contemporary collectors who had never previously bought anything old.
Rubin, Perrin and their colleagues are also buying far less, and concentrating on exceptional pieces. The market for these is still strong (the difficulty is finding them), with eager new clients from Brazil, Russia, China and the Middle East. “Minimalism is over,” says Perrin. “Last year I began doing a lot of business with a big decorator who I last worked with 10 years ago. ‘We are all coming back to this,’ he told me.”
Perhaps things are looking up for the antiques trade after all.
The International Show, Park Avenue Armory, New York, October 21-27; www.haughton.com
The Collections of Lily and Edmond J. Safra, Sotheby’s, New York: a six-sale auction, October 18-21; www.sothebys.com