For dealers, art and antiques fairs have become a grim necessity. They bridle at the cost of taking exhibiting space and they hate the time idly spent in claustrophobic surroundings while a trickle of visitors blithely ignores their goods. But still they know that fairs are their best way of meeting new clients; of spotting bargains among their rivals’ stock; and, above all, of making sales.

There have never been more fairs than now because dealers, in difficult trading conditions, need them. Many reckon to notch up more than 40 per cent of their annual sales through fairs or follow-up business. It is less important for the big London dealers, with their international clientele, but more smaller dealers are shutting up their galleries and concentrating their energies on fairs.

Among those fairs, Maastricht is reckoned to be the most important, accounting for as much as 60 per cent of annual sales for some dealers, while, on average, 20 per cent of a year’s trading takes place in just 10 days in this small Dutch town. The event is just as important to Maastricht itself, with the 75,000 visitors injecting more than £5m into the local economy.

As fairs proliferate, they seek individuality, which often means specialising in one sector of the art and antiques market. The most successful recent fairs have concentrated on the most buoyant and high profile sector – contemporary art. In three years the Frieze fair, held each October in London’s Regent’s Park, has become a cultural entertainment, with an appeal far beyond art collectors. It has been suggested that 80 per cent of its 47,000 visitors last year came to look rather than to buy.

Frieze has filled that long-discussed gap – the need for London to have an international fair that reflects the city’s prominence in contemporary art – and has already made an impact with sales estimated at £30m and leading overseas galleries among its 160 exhibitors.

Its well-established rival, the London Art Fair, which struggled for years to bring foreign buyers to the capital, has accepted reality and, in January, at the Business Design Centre in London, confirmed its future as a mainly British, mainly 20th century art fair, a sector with enough current appeal to generate sales of more than £15m.

Frieze achieved its ambition of bringing desirable overseas galleries and buyers to London. The other great success story among fairs, Art Basle Miami, tried the alternative tack and set up at a location where the American rich traditionally gathered to enjoy winter sunshine. With the largest conglomeration of the world’s wealthy in seasonal residence, Palm Beach started the trend for art fairs to move to Florida in the winter. It was a considerable gamble for Art Basle, which every June draws all the serious collectors, curators, and dealers in modern and contemporary art to the Swiss city, to attempt to repeat its success in the US with a fair in the Miami Convention Center.

Within four years Art Basle Miami has achieved cult status as the spot where art, money and fashion collide. Contemporary art is an enjoyable gamble for the new generation of American billionaires and Miami has become their casino of choice as they compete to invest in works by such hotly tipped artists as Richard Price, whose prices rose from $35,000 to over $1m in a year, and to attend parties that are almost as frothy as the art. Last December 90 American museums organised trips to Art Basle Miami and, by adding seminars to the programme in both Basle and Miami, the organisers aim to make the fairs the decisive events in the
contemporary art calendar.

The cost of exhibiting at fairs has risen sharply with a lavish stand at the Paris Biennale absorbing almost £100,000. Not surprisingly dealers have become more discriminating and some fairs have been found wanting. As Art Basle has prospered, so competitive contemporary fairs such as Art Chicago and FIAC in Paris have lost some of their appeal. November’s Art Cologne, the oldest of the contemporary art fairs, has been forced to sharpen its act, bringing in a new director, Gérard Goodrow from Christie’s, moving to a larger space, and boosting “hot” collecting areas such as photography.

The Grosvenor House fair, held in London each June, has also wobbled. It has a celebrated 70-year history but failed to become truly international in its range of dealers and in recent years its main attraction, a healthy flow of American buyers, has become more of a trickle. It was criticised for its predictability even when it attempted to update itself by abolishing datelines on the objects offered with the aim of attracting younger collectors. Now it is marketing itself more energetically abroad and, for all its faults, always manages to put on a glitzy display.

The summer Olympia fair, with which Grosvenor House invariably overlaps, has been more radical in its revamp. It had become an indigestible souk, with almost 400 dealers fighting for the attention of weary visitors. Now the organisers are aiming to shed the dreary, old-fashioned image that clings to antiques in favour of a fair with broader appeal. The aim is to limit the exhibitors to just 200, eliminating some provincial furniture and picture dealers and replacing them with upmarket international dealers. At the same time the November Olympia fair will be flagged as an opportunity for Christmas shopping while the spring Olympia fair, which ends this weekend, is geared towards design.

The other new feature of art and antiques fairs is the willingness of dealers to do it for themselves. Maastricht is the outstanding example of a fair run by dealers but increasingly specialist sectors are establishing fairs in potentially profitable places. There are now antiquities fairs in Basle and Brussels because the Swiss and the Belgians are traditionally keen on antiquities; the carpets and textile trade congregates in London in June for the HALI fair, taking advantage of the many collectors who come to the city in that month. London dealers in sculpture and in Old Master drawings have jumped on the same summer bandwagon but instead of congregating in one location, pursue a cheaper alternative by holding special exhibitions in their galleries.

It is now difficult to avoid fairs. This weekend in London there is another new one, Ceramic Art London, taking place at the Royal College of Art in Kensington Gore, and featuring the work of 80 leading ceramics makers with work on offer priced between £30 and £30,000.

For dealers, fairs serve two contradictory purposes – they enable those in fast-growing collecting areas, such as contemporary art, to satisfy a popular demand for novelty that cannot be met through individual exhibitions; and they offer the opportunity for dealers in less fashionable areas to huddle together for mutual support. It is always said that there are too many fairs but they only exist because the trade demands them.

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