Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair, June 12-17, 2003, at Le Meridien Grosvenor House Hotel, Park Lane, London W1K 7FN
Grosvenor House, as it is commonly known, ranks as the grande dame of all art and antique shows. At close to 70 years old and the first event of its kind, this fair has been setting standards in presentation, quality and collecting trends for generations.
And it's packed with a royal patronage like no other such show. The late Queen Mother favored this fair as its Royal Patron for 48 years, and now Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra presides as patron. Annually, the show features works of art from the Royal Collection.
This year's version boasts a modern makeover under the direction of award winning designer George Carter. The entrance to the fair at the Le Meridien Grosvenor House on the tony Park Lane sports a series of shiny chrome-like columns and a veritable plethora of towering topiaries setting a new upbeat mood.
Prior to this daring facelift, the fair design gave off a whiff of Sir John Vanbrugh, who had led the British Baroque style back in the 18th century. A lightness of touch was not his strong point. Banished is the dark interior and installed is an emphasis on silver, gray and bisque white and superior lighting. It took a stunning 26 45-foot trailers loaded with bespoke flooring and interiors for the installation.
While Grosvenor has always been considered de rigueur in haute social circles, right along with Ascot and Henley, but now it's got the millennium's international panache.
New dealers include London's Adrian Alan with European furniture, Gregg Baker with superb Japanese art, Lefevre joining up with Thomas Gibson with 19th and 20th century art, Offer Waterman with British art, Rafferty & Walwyn with clocks and Arnold Wiggins with antique picture frames; Wiltshire's Delomosne with English glass and porcelain; and lastly the San Francisco-based Montgomery Gallery with 19th and 20th century paintings. Nine American participants, among them New York's Kentshire, make up the 90-dealer roster.
Visual bedazzlement is the only term characterizing the experience of taking in this fair. The number of top tier examples in every category is outstanding. Having dropped the staid datelines, the paintings on view speak of new collecting trends. A generation or two ago, Gainsborough, Romney and Hogarth were predominant.
Now modern British paintings take center stage with London dealer Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert in the forefront. Along with a massive Barbara Hepworth 1956 sculpture in steel and string referencing both Naum Gabo and Archipenko, there's a ravishing John Piper 1941 abstract oil Salisbury Plain under Plough. With heavy impasto and searing brushstrokes, the palette runs from burnt sienna to dove gray with a blush of celadon. Priced at $136,000, this painting reflecting the depressive wartime mood yet in a stunning homage to Turner is a relative bargain.
One index to the favor for later British painting is the sale of Walter Sickert's 1900 oil Santa Maria delle Salute by Browse & Darby on opening day. It's the first time the painting has been on the market since 1920.
Hazlitt as well as Lefevre with Thomas Gibson are showcasing Edward Burra, the Brit who painted in Manhattan's Harlem during the 1920's. Widely admired at Lefevre was a R. B. Kitaj oil A Disciple of Bernstein and Kautsky for a six figure price.
Old Masters with Pieter Brueghel taking the lead are on a high. Opening day, London dealer Johnny van Haeften sold the painter's Vulcan's Forge for over $800,000 to a European collector while Rachel Kaminsky, director of Bernheimer-Colnaghi wrote up the artist's winter scene The Birdtrap for $1.6 million. "It's going to America," says Kaminsky.
Above all decorative arts dealers, London's Richard Philp best epitomizes the newest international look: a spirited mixing of periods and medium. There's a Hellenistic ship's prow dating from 32 BC with a sinuous line and a charming dolphin at its base bearing the pleasing patina of aged bronze. "It's the only existing known such example," says Philp. At $24,000, this work evoking the best sensibility of modern sculpture is modestly priced.
Philp's range of wares runs right up to objects created literally yesterday. His brother Paul is an accomplished potter and his stoneware of red clay and crushed brick some with firings up to 1165 Centigrade are breathtaking for their simple forms and distinctive surfaces. Shown alongside Neolithic ax heads, the pottery span the ages comfortably.
This fair has long been known for what has been derisively termed "brown furniture" -- really the best of George I, II and III furnishings. London dealers Apter-Fredericks have the most important example on the floor: a robustly carved 1750 sofa by William Vile and John Cobb, cabinetmakers to both King George II and III. It sold for $448,000 and it went to an American collector no less. An overwhelming majority of such sofas have been lost over the ages, which explains its hefty price.
The reigning "small" of the moment seems to be English 19th century perfume burners or the designer fragrance candles of their day. Mallett, which just opened a Madison Avenue outpost, is touting a 1771 ormolu mounted blue john stone example. The price is a touch over $60,000 but then it's by the celebrated industrialist Matthew Boulton, who manufactured steam engines. He production of ormolu examples was a direct challenge to that French art form.
Proving the penchant for perfume burners, London dealer Ronald Phillips Ltd. sold a 1770 pair of such creations by Boulton on opening day. Catherine the Great had once owned a similar pair.
Overall, sales were brisk opening day. "Despite the extreme economic times, buoyant sales," reported Stuart Whittington of Norman Adams. He sold a 1760 Irish wine waiter, a pair of Adam chairs, among other examples.
Also racking up substantial sales in the first two days of the fair was London dealer Alistair Sampson. He sold a late 18th century English doll's house for just under $12,000 as well as a Sheraton birdcage outfitted with trays for food and water. The front is painted with delightful bird names like Mr. and Mrs. Pretty Triller and Mrs. Twit. Sampson has packed the charming cage of mahogany and satinwood with Austrian carved and painted birds. The cage alone sold for $28,800 and it went to a New York area collector, the birds are $10,400.
Then Martin Levy of Blairman, specialists in 19th century English furniture, is sporting a fabulous Japonisme cabinet on a Regency stand attributed to George Oakley. He supplied the great English country house Longleat. Trimmed up with 17th century Japanese lacquer panels, gilt bronze mounts and papier-mch borders on a S-scroll base, the cabinet is priced at $224,000. It's a major piece in that category of so-called intellectual 19th century furniture.
Among the extraordinary decorative arts objects on view are a quartet of Japanese birdcage vases at the Munich-based Rudiger. These blue and white porcelain creations with metal, wood and lacquer cages are filled with porcelain birds and flowers. The sides of the vases are banked by elephant heads. They are a 1700 version of folly and kitsch. Augustus the Strong owned 20 of them and those on view are the only such examples on the market. Truly a rarity, they cost $1.2 million.
Speaking of the passion for 20th century furniture, London dealer Trevor Philip briskly sold a Piero Fornasetti trumeau (bureau desk) in wood faced with laminated designs based on 17th and 18th century drawings. It's a modern day replica of the Palazzo Alessi in Genoa. The fact that Philip, best known for 18th and 19th century navigation and astronomical instruments is exhibiting such recent antiques tells of how clever dealers today update their offerings.
One thing is certain, the early abundance of sales at this fair demonstrates that the market is back even though fewer Americans seem to be on the floor. Dealers and collectors alike could not be more pleased with the roaring success of this celebrated show.
BROOK S. MASON writes on the fine and decorative arts.