What was the big question on the mind of more than 500 dealers who gathered in London last week, from the tony specialists exhibiting at Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair down to generalists showing their goods at Olympia? Quite simple. Are the Americans coming to shop?
The tragedy of 9/11 had economic ramifications far beyond U.S. shores. It devastated the antiques trade here in England, with Americans in droves foregoing travel abroad and an overwhelming number of London dealers reported their sales dipping a staggering 40 percent.
While U.S. citizens generally make up only a paltry 10 percent of attendance at Grosvenor House, they have been the big spenders for decades. And that tradition stretches far back to the time when clutches of Kennedys and Whitneys would buy entire rooms of British antiques at this grand fair.
So with Americans critical to the success of the triumvirate of London fairs this June -- Grosvenor House, Summer Olympia and the International Ceramics Fair -- efforts to woo our countrymen include inviting William Farish, U.S. ambassador to Britain, to open Grosvenor House, which is packed with 92 dealers touting an impressive $600 million in wares. He is only the third American ambassador to be anointed for such a distinction since the fair was founded 68 years ago.
In spite of such attempts to lure Americans, this year is different. For one thing, U.S. unemployment stands at an appalling eight-year high. And for another, the stock market is in the doldrums. Still worse, the London stock exchange plummeted on Friday.
What's different at Grosvenor, the grand old lady of shows? The 100-year date limit for antiques has been scratched, with the idea that later material may attract younger clients. So, there's Art Deco jewelry and 20th-century painting, but it's all rather tame. Ben Nicholson at Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert and David Hockney at Sims Reed. So don't expect Basquiat or Tracey Emin.
Sales for new participant Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert, which specializes in Modern British art, were exceedingly brisk. An American snapped up a 1937 Edward Burra watercolor, Chile Con Carne, which depicts a Harlem bar scene, for a six-figure price. Other favored artists included Stanley Spencer.
Then dealer Richard Philp wrote up a Fra Bartolomeo (1472-1517) Madonna for $375,000. Also popular were pottery by this dealer's brother Paul, some with a haunting mottled surface in blues.
As to furniture, on hand are the requisite ingredients for a splendid English country house, many with steep prices. At Mallett, a pair of fine Queen Anne mirrors with the original plates command a price of $480,000. There are George II library chairs with needlepoint seats, also with hefty price tags. Perhaps the choicest example at Mallett's stand is a pair of marquetry commodes from 1710, made for Lord Craven. And by Pierre Langlois, who supplied furniture to Buckingham Palace. Outstanding marquetry coupled with that kind of royal connection makes this a rarity priced at $2.1 million.
Sold were a number of pieces of crystal, ormolu objects and a pair of German Rococo stands in giltwood. "At the top end of the market, there is always strength," says Jeremy Garfield-Davis of Mallett. In fact, such quality is in such demand in the states that Mallett is opening a Madison Avenue outpost next spring.
New York's A La Vieille Russie is celebrating its 10th anniversary as the first non-British firm to be invited to show at Grosvenor House with a spectacular exhibition of Fabergé. By the second day, 25 pieces were sold to residents of the UK, Europe and the Far East, reports Peter Schaffer, who heads up the Fifth Avenue establishment.
Sweerts de Landes, perhaps the world's finest garden ornament dealer, was finding the fair absolutely flourishing. He sold a pair of 1870 cast iron boars, which looked appropriately frightful, for a stunning $102,000, as well as a pair of 19th century two-handled vases for the same price. They were unusually large.
If Grosvenor is definitely for the well-heeled collector, then Olympia is the haute Bloomingdale's of the antiques world. The setting is stylish and everything under the sun from solid Windsor chairs to high kitsch Majolica can be procured. Specialty dealers cover virtually every niche of the decorative arts.
Crowds of 35,000 were expected in this rather spectacular 19th century cast iron and glass exposition hall. Plus, in celebrating its 30th anniversary, the summer Olympia is now ensconced in an expanded exhibition space, making for larger stands. Yet the mainstay of this 408-dealer fair remains furniture, with some 160 galleries showing this specialty. In fact, there are a stunning 82 dealers in mahogany furniture alone.
What's new are larger stands, some virtual duplexes like Guinevere Antiques, which also sports a working fountain. Clearly, this fair is setting a new pace in terms of stylish stands, spacious walkways and natural light.
Dealers such as the London-based Ciancimino, which in addition to offering Art Deco furniture is also showing his custom-made examples, is part of a new trend -- the dealer as decorator.
The quality of 20th century furniture is markedly improved and Gordon Watson has some of the best. There's a Dupre Lafon desk with bronze trim but a replaced top. It costs $84,000, which is quite frankly a new price benchmark for that designer. But prices seem irrelevant as Watson had written up close to 40 sales with more than half going to Americans.
The gallery Antique English Windsor Chairs could not be more emphatic about its wares. And the quality material remains fetching. A set of six 18th century Windsor's go for $75,000 and they are exceedingly handsome. "Half the stock goes to America," says dealer Michael Harding Hill.
Brian and Anna Haughton's International Ceramic Fair is celebrating its 21st birthday and although reduced in size, specifically down 15 dealers, this show has not lost its luster. With such prestigious dealers as Jonathan Horne, Alistair Sampson and Adrian Sassoon on the roster, the ceramic fair is still the crown jewel in the Haughton's fair empire.
In part, the appeal of this exposition is its academic bent. A total of 14 lectures were offered, by such experts as Victoria & Albert Museum Asian art curator Rose Kerr, who spoke on hidden treasures at Sir John Soane's Museum, where there are more than 300 blue and white Chinese porcelain bricks tucked away, and Wallace Collection director Rosaline Savill, whose subject was Madame de Pompadour's personal service of Sevres.
The combination of top tier dealers and lectures by experts has proved a winning formula and to some degree, this specialist fair has been a victim of its own success. It's been replicated in Paris, Brussels and New York.
And connoisseur collectors and curators turn out in droves for this show. Simply consider an Early Vincennes vase at Adrian Sassoon. Encrusted with delicate white gardenias and leaves, the vase was probably made for Louis XV or Madame de Pompadour. It's priced at $127,500.
"Sales have been up," says Sassoon, who finds collectors perking up their lives with new additions. And many are Americans, which is a relief to the entire trade here.
Jonathan Horne, president of the British Antique Dealers Association and an English pottery exhibitor at the fair, best summed up the event. "God Bless America. A total of 90 percent of our sales have been to Americans." He reported achieving his best first-day sales ever. In fact, most of the ceramics dealers rang up substantial sales proving the value of this show.
BROOK S. MASON writes on antiques and the fine arts.