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A preview of next month’s best fairs for collectors of art, furniture, antiques and ceramics

Art Basel
Expectations of an art fair are so much higher than they used to be,” says Marc Spiegler. He should know. The former journalist has stepped into the rather large shoes of Sam Keller, the ubiquitous and dapper former director of Art Basel, the world’s pre- eminent fair of modern and contemporary art (June 4-8).

Keller stepped down as head of the Swiss fair and its US counterpart Art Basel Miami Beach earlier this year to become director of Basel’s Beyeler Foundation Museum of Art (though he is still chairman of Art Basel). His blueprint for the art fair of today – a circuit of hot-ticket parties, cultural events and VIP treatment of top-notch collectors – has been adopted worldwide.

So is Spiegler set to ditch the recipe that attracted a record 60,000 visitors last year and had over 1,000 galleries clamouring for 300 selling slots this summer? “This time, we’ve mainly fine-tuned the existing Art Basel formula,” he says. “But in the art world, if you stand still, you fall behind, so the innovations come inevitably. That said, we don’t believe in change for its own sake.”

A marked change under the 2008 regime, however, is the prominent new platform for Art Basel Conversations (the fair’s highly popular big-name debates on issues ranging from emerging markets to philanthropy) right in the middle of Art Unlimited, the hangar-like space for spectacular, outsize works next to the main fair.

This intellectualisation of art is important to Spiegler: “A fair is more than just a place to sell art; it’s a site for exchanging ideas and concepts. The new, more central, location for Art Conversations and Art Lobby [a programme of interviews, presentations and book-signings] means the discussions about art will take place directly alongside art works.”

But this overhaul has been dealt a blow by the resignation of Cay Sophie Rabinowitz who, until recently, held the post of artistic director of Art Basel as part of the new management triumvirate. Her sudden departure means Spiegler, formerly director of strategy and development, and Annette Schönholzer, ex-director of operations and finance, have both been promoted to co-directors.

Rabinowitz was determined to make education a priority, with plans for programmes to train younger gallerists and aspiring museum professionals; Spiegler discusses the subject from the collector’s viewpoint. “The notion of the educated collector is very strong for us. What defines many great art collections is how they range across several generations of art history,” he says.

Education aside, nowhere does it bigger and bolder than Art Basel and this year is no exception. Public Art Projects, the outdoor exhibition space in front of the fair buildings that acts as a giant alfresco gallery, includes ten colossal works by superstar artists such as Germany’s Isa Genzken and the late Sol LeWitt.

Joining them will be German artist Tobias Rehberger with his “Gu Mo Ni Ma Da” piece (2006, Friedrich Petzel Gallery), a sculpture of a painted black boat made in collaboration with the Danish-Vietnamese artist Dahn Vo. After the fall of Saigon, Vo’s family fled Vietnam for the US but ended up in Denmark. This striking reconstruction of the vessel used by the family is on sale for €220,000.

Across the plaza, Subodh Gupta’s “Gandhi’s Three Monkeys” sculptural group (2008, Nature Morte Gallery) should seal this Indian artist’s reputation as an art market darling. The piece consists of a trio of huge bronze human heads covered by a gas mask, helmet and scarf. Gupta, dubbed the Damien Hirst of Delhi, says: “I’ve transformed Gandhi’s famous peace symbols into representations of war, violence and terrorism that reflect the world today.” 

But there’s more. At the Art Unlimited exhibition you’ll find “Vigie” (2002-07), an ominous, gleaming aluminium cabin that moves up and down a 12-metre tower. This militaristic installation by Swiss artist Fabrice Gygi has a price tag of between €220,000 and €240,000 at Galerie Chantal Crousel.

Equally provocative is “Hotel Democracy” (2003) by Thomas Hirschhorn, a ramshackle two-storey, 51-foot long structure containing 44 hotel rooms daubed with mass media images relating to worldwide struggles for democracy, on sale at £300,000 with Stephen Friedman Gallery. “Staring into Amnesia” by Chinese artist Qiu Anxiong, is another must-see. Footage of the Cultural Revolution and images shot from a moving train are projected across 24 windows of a 1960s railway car, linking China’s past with its heady future. Around 20 assistants from Boers-Li Gallery in Beijing will assemble the work.

“That level of ambition is typical of Art Basel’s galleries,” says Spiegler. But is there a market for such monumental, costly work in these fraught economic times? Spiegler is adamant that high-end art is “at the stable end of the market. We see what finance types call ‘a flight to quality’, [in the art market], meaning that collectors are seeking to buy great art, not speculate based on unproven potential. That’s a perfect situation for the type of galleries we work with.”

Olympia’s International Art and Antiques Fair, which runs this year from June 5 to 15, has been going for 35 years. But, though it had become regarded as being on the fusty side of fairs, over the past few years its image has shown obvious signs of change.

While Olympia still remains an excellent port of call for traditional antiques dating back as far as the 15th century, the much-loved Victorian exhibition space has lately become the backdrop for a growing quantity of works of art from the 20th and, occasionally, the 21st centuries.

Fair director Freya Simms, who took over the running of the event in 2005, says that at least 20 per cent of this year’s 260 exhibitors (deliberately trimmed down from the 301 of last year to preserve quality) will offer objects from the 1940s onwards, with top dealers such as the UK’s Gordon Watson and Belgium’s Mullendorf Antiques exhibiting exclusively 20th-century furniture and works of art.

The influx of more modern pieces has also led to a decision by the recently created management board to review the vetting arrangements to ensure that the quality of the “new” is equal to that expected of the “old”.

“The fair has evolved dramatically in that it was once very much a mid-range trade show that also attracted a few savvy members of the public to buy traditional antiques in the brown furniture mould,” says Simms.

“In recent years, however, the market has become very different in that it is geared more towards the high-end consumer, the connoisseur, the professional decorator and, of course, the younger buyer. Perhaps the most significant opportunity for change came in 2006 when we altered the floor plan and I introduced the “freebuilds” in the central aisle where the exhibitors can construct stands in exactly the way they want to rather than being restricted to the traditional, more formulaic set-up.

“Mullendorff, for example, has chosen to create a very contemporary, all-white space this year and Vanderven & Vanderven Oriental Art will show its fine Tang ceramics and export porcelain against an ultra-modern backdrop of black leather, chrome and glass.”

One dealer who has successfully introduced the idea of showing modern pieces to her stand at Olympia is a specialist in English and continental furniture, tapestries and works of art dating back to the 16th century. Lucy Johnson, whose business is based in a large, Cotswold barn, displays pieces of ancient furniture at the fair against a backdrop of modern British pictures and 20th century sculpture to demonstrate that old doesn't have to mean dull. This year, she has also teamed up with bronze-furniture maker Barbara Greenberg and plans to include some of her just-made pieces on the stand.

“Early furniture mixes very well with modern and contemporary pictures and works of art, and the juxtaposition is exciting, dynamic and representative of the 21st century,” says Johnson.

“The progression towards contemporary architecture and interior design is, I believe, more than fashion orientated. A significant lifestyle change has taken place over the past five years, and the inclination is to furnish homes with an eclectic and uncluttered mix of furniture, pictures and works of art from different periods. Old Master pictures, drawings and tapestries also mix very well with modern and contemporary furniture creating highly-stylised interiors.”

Grosvenor House
The Grosvenor House Art and Antiques Fair, which runs from June 12–18, seems to have embraced perpetual revolution. Once regarded as an elegant but conservative, old dowager, in recent years it has sought, through innovation, to prove that it can be as exciting as Frieze or Art Basel Miami.

First it threw away datelines; then it went for a snazzy, if poorly received, new minimalist look – and now it is accepting the fact that works of art are bought for their investment potential as well as for their intrinsic beauty. The marketing pitch for this year’s fair has been concentrated on personal approaches to hedge fund managers and rich Russians. Before the official opening, interior decorators are to be allowed in to pick over eye-catching items for their wealthy clients.

As a further enticement, fashionable new exhibitors, such as Hamiltons, the first photography gallery to be admitted to the fair, and Andrew Bruce & Bordeaux Index Fine Wines, who promote the investment opportunities in wine, have been squeezed in to make younger visitors feel at home.

Even in the traditional fields that once dominated the fair, such as furniture, it helps to be contemporary. Linley is showing five new pieces, including a sideboard and day bed inspired by op art and geometric abstraction, where form, in a three dimensional vision of a Bridget Riley painting, far outstrips function.

Also out to attract the younger buyer is new exhibitor, Lefevre. Traditionally a picture dealer, it is diversifying into furniture, and alongside the paintings of Edward Burra, is decking out its stand with a bronze and leather bench and a bronze and glass console table by the French sculptor Philippe Anthonioz, while Peter Petrou offers a modernist masterpiece, a 1934 chair designed by Gerard Summers.

This seems a world away from the brown, 18th-century furniture that once dominated the fair. It is, however, still there in all its glory, especially in the George III mahogany bookcase cabinet, repatriated from the US, which was almost certainly made in the workshop of Thomas Chippendale and is priced accordingly by Jeremy Ltd at £675,000.

Hotspur is one of a handful of dealers who have exhibited at the fair since it began in 1934. It is ironic that these days the US is supplying stock rather than visitors and exhibitors: rich Americans, traditionally the best clients of the fair, have become thin on the ground while some US dealers have dropped out, deterred by the falling value of the dollar.

The new generation of collectors is also expected to be more interested in 20th-century art than in Old Masters, and among the new exhibitors is the Fine Art Society, which will be showing works by Glyn Philpot, Christopher Wood and Prunella Clough, among others, while another fresh face, Caroline Wiseman, offers Bridget Riley, Terry Frost, John Hoyland, and the like.

There will still be plenty to please traditional visitors: Moretti has an enthroned Madonna by the 15th-century Sienese artist Giovanni di Paolo, which is still in its original frame, while Richard Green, along with modern British, has a decorative Renoir “Chapeau au ruban rouge”.

Anyone seeking something even older should look to the antiquities dealers: Jean-David Cahn has a rare Phoenician shell, engraved with sphinxes, dated to the 7th century BC while Rupert Wace has a gilded wood and bronze striding Ibis from late Dynastic Egypt.

The International Ceramics Fair & Seminar, which takes place from June 12 to 15 at the Park Lane Hotel, has been the major annual gathering place for collectors of ceramics for the past 25 years.

Although the 15 exhibitors will be hoping for brisk sales, the occasion is as much a forum for swapping knowledge through the seminar programme of 12 lectures as for trading. There will also be an accompanying exhibition organised by the English Ceramic Circle on “Armorial ceramics in 18th-century Britain”, which will feature 75 rare examples and takes place at the Brian Haughton Gallery from June 21 to July 3.

Ceramics prices, except for the most desirable pieces of early Worcester or Royal Sèvres and Meissen, have not experienced the price fluctuations which have unsettled paintings and furniture, and there will be items on offer for as little as £100.

For that you might acquire a pre-1760 blue and white Worcester saucer, an 18th-century glass, or a contemporary pot.

Among the dealers taking stands is Bazaart, which concentrates on Italian ceramics from the 15th century to the modern period; Daniela Kumpf Kunsthandel, an authority on German porcelain; Robyn Robb, an expert in Royal Worcester; Sampson & Horne, which dominates in early English pottery; glass dealer John Smith; and Adrian Sassoon, who offers contemporary British studio pottery along with Sèvres porcelain.

Still, some of the rarest pieces will be found on the stand of Brian Haughton, who founded the fair with wife Anna in 1982: the only known Bow figure of a galloping hussar, priced at £12,000, as well as two very rare Royal Worcester hexagonal vases and covers, with a £120,000 tag.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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