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    Decorative Arts Diary
by Brook S. Mason
 
     
 
The Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair catalogue
 
George III serpentine commode
attributed to John Cobb
ca. 1765
at Hotspur Ltd.
 
London's spiffiest antique show, the Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair (June 16-20, 2000), still gleams brightly at 67 years of age. Compared to other fairs, it's the granddaddy of them all and the gold standard that even the newest ones try to match. For one, thing, this fair has got a richly royal provenance (the Queen Mother is the patron) and for another, Grosvenor, as it's commonly referred to, was the first show to institute vetting. Plus, there are still only 86 dealers and a waiting list a two yards long.

Yes, there have been minor changes. Six years ago, dealers in modern art and design were allowed to join. While the fair organizers have been promoting lesser-tiered wares priced at £200 pounds (1£ = $1.62), the big-ticket items have been selling strongly.

Take Hotspur Ltd. By day two, a pair of gilt torcheres, a pair of lead crystal chandeliers, a pair of crystal and Wedgwood girandoles and a splendid lacquered console had been snapped up from this London dealer. The prices, the periods, the provenance? "We don't need to speak to the press," is the well-modulated response.

Reclusiveness aside, what counts are those sales. That super-gilt look remains a steadfast sure-seller. Last year, some £50 million and change was spent at the fair in a scant eight days.

What's driving these sales? Millennium madness? Well, yes, the craze for the antiques is stronger than ever. But it's also the economy. Britain now ranks as the fourth most prosperous economy worldwide. Tony Blair, like Bill Clinton, has the magic touch.

"There are 180,000 millionaires in the U.K. now," points out James Pollitt. High net-worth data is second nature to him. Pollit is with Aon, the second largest insurance brokerage in the world, which is sponsoring the fair.

That kind of hefty net worth is what has attracted the only newcomer this year to the dealer roster, which happens to be Harry Winston, jeweler to the stars. This New York jeweler has brought by air some $50 million in gems, including a copy in platinum and diamonds, 114 karats worth, of Marilyn Monroe's original costume version auctioned off at Christie's New York last summer. They're a cool $4 million. Catherine Deneuve wore them at the Cannes Film Festival only a few weeks ago.

Trolling the aisles at Grosvenor were the HRH Princess Margaret, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough along with the disgraced Lord Jeffrey Archer and the maligned Claus von Bulow. Also spotted stand-shopping was cabinetmaker to the royals and Bergdorf Goodman, too, David Linley. Plus, high-powered dealers like the Parisian king of boiserie, Bernard Steinitz, cruise the booths to learn new taste trends and just plain shop.

     
 
Mallett’s stand, with view of Grimthorpe castle chair, 1755, to the right of desk.
 
What especially attracts buyers are the heritage-laden wares. Take a pair of Chippendale side chairs touched by chinoiserie motifs - pagoda roof on the back crest, blind fretwork rimming the seat, gilt outlining the carving. They're from Grimthorpe Castle, no less, the last house built by Sir John Vanbrugh and Mallett has a pair with a sticker shock price of £390,000. "With a 15 percent discount, they're a relative bargain," coos Mallet rep Tarquin Bilgen.

Not exactly, Sotheby's New York sold two pairs of them at the Saul Steinberg garage sale on May 26. The first pair went for $456,750. That's only a price differential of a tad over a quarter million dollars. "Our pair has got the original needlework, plus they're in better condition than the Sotheby's ones," points out Bilgen.

They illustrate perfectly the rising prices in this area. Dealers know clients will pay premiums for a solid provenance. Also on the Mallet stand are a pair of super gilt demi-lune consoles with fishscale carving and acanthus leaf topped reeded legs. They're a reasonable £175,000.

With more gilded furniture than even the glitzy Palm Beach show serves up, Grosvenor House also offers decidedly different accessories than the majority of Americans are accustomed to. Take needlepoint. Alaistair Sampson is hawking 18 pieces and Anthony Witney has got a grand three dozen, spanning 1590 to 1800 and priced from £2,500 to £55,000. The most expensive item is already sold, of course. And a 1590 black-work example done in black silk with silver and gilt thread on linen in a stylized floral pattern was written up for a five-figure sum. "Americans buy four out of every ten pieces I sell," says Witney, who estimates he sells a startling 400 examples annually. Part of the attraction is the price. Costs for top American needlework, professionally termed "girlhood embroidery," are formidable, with prices running up to a cool $250,000. So, the English versions seem a steal.

     
 
George III mahogany stools
18th century
at Devenish
 
Thomas Jeckyll
Oak circular table
ca. 1866
at Harris Lindsay
 
Even the American dealers here, like New York's Devenish, sell top English antiques, which is really what Grosvenor is known for. On his stand is a pair of George II mahogany footstools. Patrician publisher Jock Hay Whitney had once owned them. The price is £369,000.

But what sets this fair apart is the really extraordinary museum quality furniture - examples of such rarity that they hardly cross the salesroom floor. Front and center at Harris Lindsay is a circular table by none other than Thomas Jeckyll, whose most celebrated commission is the Peacock Room decorated by James Whistler now in the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C. The oak table, which dates from the late 1860s, shows the early use of esthetic motifs, which include Japanese design elements like the openness and attenuation of the legs, the square scroll carving on the feet, the raised eyebrow motifs picked out on the lower legs and the thinness of the table top. The documentation for the table is in the Victoria & Albert Museum. The cost is £200,000.

Garden furnishings are also on a high here. Baron Sweerts de Landes, a Dutch royal, who is based on a grand Surrey estate, is the only dealer in garden ornament on the floor. What's pushing this garden furnishing craze today is not only more clients but also individual clients demanding more pieces. "And they want the best," says de Landes. By that he means no repros but top quality, early works, fine condition and appealing figures. For example, an over-life-size Ceres (she's a Roman maiden) in flowing robes from the late 18th century in Codestone is only £270,000. While this dealer may sell only a half dozen pieces off of his stand, more importantly he will make contact with at least three clients who will each spend £100,000 in one fell swoop.

     
 
Codestone Ceres
at Sweert de Landas
 
Codestone Ceres
(detail)
 
Pieter Neefs II and Gonzales Coques
Interior of Antwerp Townhouse
1650
at Johnny van Haeften
 
Edgar Degas
Danseuse Mettant Son Bas
ca. 1896-1911
at Waddington Galleries
 
In addition to fine furnishings, Old Master paintings are prevalent at this fair and Johnny van Haeften, who also participates in the Maastricht-based European Fine Art Fair, has some of the best. On view is a Jan Brueghel the Elder diminutive study of insects. It's a mere six inches across but the creatures are picked out in such vibrancy and delicacy, it's bound to be sold by the end of the fair. Also, there is a wonderfully placid landscape by Salomon van Ruysdael. It's £550,000. The most expensive painting has to be a Flemish interior by Pieter Neefs II and Gonzales Coques, which is priced at £1.2 million.

Van Haeften is unquestionably top dealer in his specialty, Flemish and Dutch paintings, worldwide. But 12 years ago, he began at Grosvenor with portable cardboard stand located by the ladies loo. "I called it deals on wheels and by the following the year, they gave me a real stand," recalls van Haeften.

For later fare and even works with modern and contemporary bent, there's pictures dealer Leslie Waddington, who is offering a Peter Blake portrait of Madonna in a bikini with roller blades. In addition, Waddington has a splendid Degas bronze dancer for £250,000. Grosvenor is one of seven fairs this dealer participates in, which says how this industry is now beholden to the movable shopping center model.

Oh, if you should want to spend a modest amount, there are cast iron building tiles, brass doorknockers or a sheet of hand-colored English wallpaper. Dating from 1750, a single sheet just under a yard square is £2,500 pounds. Five of them have already been sold at Andrew Edmunds. But hurry, there are only four left at this super gilt fair.

BROOK S. MASON writes on the fine and decorative arts.
 
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