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You have to wonder if they’re masochists. Vettors at top art and antiques fairs don’t get paid for the hours they spend deciding what should and should not remain on exhibitors’ stands nor do they get much applause from their colleagues. On the contrary. “Certain dealers won’t talk to me any more,” reports Leslie Waddington, a foremost dealer in contemporary art.
Until two years ago, Waddington headed the Modern Art vetting group at TEFAF (The European Fine Art Foundation), known to all but its organisers as Maastricht. “I was very tough,” he says. “But it was nothing personal.” For him. But to one of the 200-plus dealers who hold back their best stock for a fair where they can earn a big chunk of their annual income, the vetting of an important piece can be enraging.
Dave Aronson, who oversees Maastricht’s 140 vettors and is a vettor himself, is strong-minded and philosophical about all this. Director of the esteemed Dutch faience firm bearing his family name, Aronson also vets and exhibits at Grosvenor House and the Paris Biennale. He wryly observes that “even in your family, if you are an honest person, it is not a way to make friends. That’s life. The moment you accept to be on a vetting committee, you have to look at the goods and not at the names”.
There are arguments, of course. Conflicts of interest have been heard of but well-respected fairs work to keep a lid on the cronyism that can result in
second-rate items being passed because judge and dealer are pals. Fairs also try to prevent bitchy competitiveness that leads to a rival’s perfectly sound stock being vetted off.
A new fair may have few demands because organisers need to attract exhibitors. A vettor may be asked to decide only that an object is the “19th century English table” on the label. But, at top fairs, vettors are required to judge the quality, authenticity, condition and date of every item.
At last month’s Palm Beach! US art fair, 41 vettors, mostly museum curators, were at work. Michael Mezzatesta, the fair director, believes this best avoids any conflict of interest or the appearance of it. (The Metropolitan Museum is said to prohibit curators from vetting – but they have not responded to requests asking for confirmation of this, or reasons for it).
Dave Aronson thinks that a mix of dealers and experts is ideal. London’s HALI fair, specialising in textiles and tribal art, covers all the bases: 70 exhibitors are vetted by 40 auction house staff, dealers and academics.
At Maastricht, the vetting guidelines occupy four pages of the hefty catalogue. Here we find that with Chinese Furniture, “restorations should be no more than 50 per cent”. And, “all oriental carpets must have been woven before 1800”. On and on it goes.
“Maastricht is the best fair in the world,” Aronson says, and this is widely agreed. “We have the best vetting in the world. To maintain that, we have to be very tough on our exhibitors.”
Vettor search the Art Loss Register to be certain that no object offered is listed. And, unlike most fairs, they must rule on “show worthiness”.
Many vettors prefer not to be paid anything but expenses and some face the silent treatment from friends because of their judgments. So what makes them do it? “My opinion is the most valuable thing I have,” explains J. Michael Padgett, curator of ancient art at the Princeton Museum and a Palm Beach! vettor.
Dilys E. Blum, curator of costume and textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and another vettor at Palm Beach!, candidly talks about how nice it is to get together with
colleagues while also having a winter break. But she vets, too, because she wants to uphold standards. “It is hard to identify something if you haven’t seen masses of material,” she says. “Especially with woven textiles.”
Keeping standards high is important to vettors and to the success of a fair. Above all, confidence in the art and antiques trade depends upon it.
“Any dealer who is in love with his subject knows it inside out and in those circumstances has nothing to fear from vetting,” says Geoffrey Munn of London jewellers Wartksi. There is also the bottom line. Top fairs where top money can be made often have long waiting lists. The longer the waiting list, the choosier the organisers can be. Asian art dealer Ben Janssens, who not only vets and shows at Maastricht but serves on its executive committee, notes that so many want to show there that “the first part of the vetting process is the invitation to the dealer”.
Subjectivity’s mobile face may have been spotted by now. To a degree, “show worthiness” also means taste and that is very very tricky. One protection for dealers is that at Maastricht, for example, at least three out of four vetting committee’s members must agree before an object is removed.
Vettors give their expert opinion. This is helpful and reassuring. It is not a guarantee. When money is exchanged, the deal is not with the vettor, or the fair, but between buyer and seller. Learn about genres that attract you. And remember, buyer beware. In the end, it makes collecting more fun.
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