The measure of the antiques trade today is unquestionably the 67-year-old Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair. This year saw the largest influx of new dealers in two decades, 16 new exhibitors in all, swelling the dealer roster to 92. Plus, the show could not look more stylish, in part due to an $8.5 million renovation of the Grosvenor House hotel and its ballroom, where the fair is held.
Last year, an estimated $76 million was spent here. This time, that amount might just be boosted even higher. By the second day, dealers were restocking their stands as prize pieces were sold. At S.J. Phillips, a pair of 18th-century silver English chandeliers went for a cool $1 million.
What's on the floor? The English Country House look as set down by generations of nobility and landowners. Mirrors are mandatory, as in 18th-century megawatt gilt versions with rampant "S" scrolls and "C" curves, with some topped by lattice baskets, others by the triumphant phoenix. The prices, which are generally in the low six figures, say just how revered and coveted this hallmark of that taste is these days.
Also high on the list are lacquered secretaries. The venerable firm of Mallett had already sent one red-painted example with chinoiserie scenes and original mirrors out on approval. The price was a steep $625,500. "Such secretaries were devised to be spectacular and they are through and through," says Mallett director Lanto Synge.
Mallett also has the ultimate trophy desk set. It's 19th-century Austrian and made of polished granite with steel trim: a blotter, ink ports, bell, clock and candleholder. All for $62,500. It's bound to go to a trader or someone with that kind of salary.
Even if you can never afford an 18th-century lacquered secretary, the most distinctive one ever seen by this reporter is at the booth of Ronald Phillips. In deep navy blue with a red interior, it's got a double domed top. Once owned by a member of the Swedish royal family, who placed gilded phoenixes around the top, this regal piece of furniture costs $1,390,000. In addition, Phillips has the latest decorator rage -- Anglo Chinese furniture. Their cabinet is made of Padouk wood and painted with Chinese scenes. It's already reserved.
The perfect clock has got to be at Hotspur, Ltd. Made by Matthew Boulton in 1771 of white marble and ormulu, this clock features the goddess Minerva. A similar one is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art but a third one was once owned by Catherine the Great. In 1771, Christie's sold the clock for £274 -- the cost of small house. Today, it's $486,500 -- still the cost of a house.
For those who want skip an 18th-century mirror and instead pick up a pair of ornate Chippendale period girandoles to hold candles, Norman Adams has the perfect set. Their carving is exuberant and they are priced at $201,500.
Interestingly, the rug and tapestry dealer Keshishian, who just opened an outpost in New York, sold an Art Deco rug with a geometric design in browns to a New Yorker.
Martin Levy of H. Blairman & Sons was selling up a storm. He wrote up a pair of Godwin cupboards, a pair of Pugin chandeliers and more. The most stunning sale was a severe wooden chair created by and once belonging to the 19th-century architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who designed the Houses of Parliament along with Sir Charles Barry. The simple straight chair with a shield back sold for $94,500. Twenty years ago, Levy says, it would have sold for about $3,000.
In fact, church-like furniture languished in church basements and household attics for decades. "But with research on the period, there's been a gradual incline in interest," says Levy. Prices, too, have soared. "People are now passionate about the decorative arts," explains Levy.
Part of the reason crowds fill the fair (aside from the social cachet and the chance to rub elbows with the likes of Ivana Trump) is the truly important examples of decorative arts. For instance, John Bly has perhaps the most significant piece of 19th-century English furniture on the market today. By the celebrated designer and cabinetmaking team of Jackson and Graham, the satinwood chest is decorated with silver covered with lacquer emblems. Bly says both the V&A Museum and Oxford's Ashmoleon have looked at the chest. The price is $257,000.
But it's not simply English furniture packing the stands at this fair. Harris Lindsay has a quixotic Turkish street sign. Carved of wood in the shape of a pointed shoe, lined in red, the sign was sold on day one. This London dealer also has a gigantic pair of brass andirons (they're called firedogs on this side of the Atlantic) topped by a hefty brass ball. They're Dutch and date from 1650.
When it comes to books, Bernard J. Shapero Rare Books has got to have the most expensive photographic tomes in the world. Priced at $1.2 million and dating from 1895, this set of 20 leather-bound volumes of sepia photographs is by Edward S. Curtis, who literally documented the lives of 80 Native American tribes. Theodore Roosevelt penned the introduction and J.P. Morgan provided financial backing to Curtis for the project. This particular set has a royal pedigree. Morgan presented it to King Edward VII.
The new dealers participating in the fair indicate much about new collecting trends. There's textile specialist Linda Wrigglesworth, who began showing at the Caskey-Leas Asian Art Fair at New York's 26th Street Armory. Just as she has graduated to this top tier show, the entire field of textiles has been booming. In the first four months of 2001, there were a stunning 16 museum textile exhibitions. Why the sudden interest? In part it's due to the fact that a sumptuous embroidered dragon robe from the Ming period is a fraction the cost of a painting.
Wrigglesworth has an 18th-century imperial guardsman uniform in white satin and bounded with navy; it's decorated with brass studs to simulate armor and complete with a black lacquer helmet topped by dyed red Yak hair. It's just under $35,000, or the price of a couture gown today. There's also a Manchu lady's robe in brown silk and embroidered with orchids for $25,000.
If the antiques at Grosvenor House don't suit you, there's always the Olympia Fine Art and Antiques Fair, June 7-17, 2001, or the Hali Antique Carpet and Textile Art Fair, June 14-18, 2001. After all, it's June in London and the antiques trade is flourishing.
BROOK S. MASON writes on the fine and decorative arts.