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Inaugural events can be problematic, but Sanford Smith's latest fair on the circuit, Art of the 20th Century, looked promising at its Nov. 20, 2002, opening at Park Avenue's Seventh Regiment Armory. A total of 62 dealers weighed in with representatives from London, Paris, Brussels, Munich, Canada and the U.S., of course. The event runs through Sunday, Nov. 24.

Best known for his 17-year-old Modernism fair of furniture and design, which set the gold standard for that specialty, Smith has taken a cue or two in presentation for this event from British show organizers Brian and Anna Haughton, who do the celebrated spring and fall art and antiques shows there. The stand walls have been raised, ceilings of flowingly draped fabric installed, and even the flower arrangements -- masses of amaryllis -- are a direct borrowing from the Haughton's. But then in this city, appearances are everything.

On opening night, this fair demonstrated drawing power. Major league museum directors like Arnold Lehman of the Brooklyn Museum of Art and Holly Hotchner of the Museum of Contemporary Arts and Design (nee American Craft Museum) were prowling the aisles. Architect I.M. Pei, arts patron Kitty Carlisle and Christie's Impressionist and modern specialist Nick Maclean also took in the event. By the following day, comedian Steve Martin and Whoopi Goldberg were spotted cruising the fair.

Celebrities aside, there are blue chip paintings on the floor and the "best stand award has" to go to Robert Landau of Montreal with a great late Picasso, a classic Calder stabile and a raft of Jawlensky portraits in piercing colors. Then James Goodman of New York is a close a runner-up. He's got a vibrant Raoul Dufy of flags from 1906 and a neoclassical Picasso La Communiante from 1919. The Paris Galerie Fabien Boulakia is boasting a small Renoir portrait and a Kees van Dongen ballerina.

Generally, figurative art predominates at this fair but London's Adam Gallery is touting a serene Ben Nicholson, one of his paper reliefs from 1962. The price? A reasonable $60,000 or considerably less than the new Mercedes SUV. With art like that, this fair is bound to have staying power.
-- Brook S. Mason