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beverly hills fair strikes it rich
by Brook S. Mason

Famille verte jar
with baluster cover
Chinese Kangxi period

Mario Buatta

Tudor Rose brooch

Guillaume Seignac
Jeune Femme Dénudeé
sur Canapé

ca. 1900

Pablo Picasso
Man's Head with Red Nose

Pablo Picasso
Plat Espagnol: Taureau et Masques

German miniature
Suit of Armor
ca. 1860

English rapier
ca. 1610

Pair of cabinets
ca. 1690-1700

Rufino Tamayo
The Smoker

Paul Cézanne
Deux Pommes sur une table
ca. 1895-1900

Taddeo Zuccaro
Saint Paul Standing with
his Right Arm Raised

ca. 1549

Kees Van Dongen
ca. 1914-15

David and Lee Ann Lester
   The hot spot of the moment is Beverly Hills, 90210 -- but not because of the suave teens there. Rather, it's the $7 million Cézannes, Renaissance bronzes and period diamonds at the brand new Beverly Hills International Art and Antiques Fair, Oct. 29-Nov. 3, 1998.

Beverly Hills is an eminently appropriate locale for a top-notch show, one with vintage wares estimated at $600 million to $1 billion, according to show organizer David Lester. Movie stars and Silicon Valley dollars have lured European dealers to this palmy clime, but so has the booming California economy. "It's the seventh largest economy in the world and has the same precise GNP as the country of France," points out Lester. Not to mention, the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce aptly cites shopping as the town's key attraction.

More importantly, this new addition to the art and antique circuit is part of an increasing trend. Traditionally, dealers on both sides of the Atlantic have waited for clients to call on them. But with the fierce competition for customers and the globalization of the arts, even securely established dealers like London's Spink (founded in 1666), the oldest antique dealer in the world, have heeded the international call. For the Beverly Hills show, Lester has corralled 55 dealers, including 19 from Britain, five from France, two from Belgium and one each from Italy and Switzerland, as well as 27 Americans.

Up until now, the Los Angelenos have had to content themselves with middle-market antique shows. For more distinctive wares, legions of Californian decorators like Rose Tarlow and Michael Smith have headed to New York, London and Paris. There is of course the San Francisco Fall Antiques Show, which happens to be on now too, but it's only got 11 dealers from the continent.

Only the Beverly Hills fair takes convenience shopping for art and antiques to a new dimension. Complete with valet parking, the fair is barely 10 minutes from the infamous homes of Bel Air and Beverly Hills. It's almost curb service!

The fair's dealers are ensconced in Lester's $1 million tent, built on top of a parking garage directly across from the Beverly Hilton. It's no ordinary tent, but rather a 35,000-square-foot structure with shirred white ceilings and navy trim. Only 29 flatbed trucks were required to deliver the tent and four generators, which Lester uses for all his fairs.

This first-time event has all the trimmings, including a vernissage to benefit the prestigious Pasadena-based Huntington Library and Art Collections, and a collectors committee chaired by New York designer Mario Buatta, better known as the Prince of Chintz. Buatta even has his own lecture series at the fair, in conjunction with other lectures on such topics as "The Idiosyncrasies of British Studio Practices."

The stars and the stylish flocked to check out the tented wonder. Locals Jackie Collins, Aaron and Candy Spelling, Peter Falk and Getty Center architect Richard Meier were just a few of the celebrities spotted browsing. Los Angeles collectors Julian and Joanne Ganz Jr. also turned out for the show. As hoped, the locals bought big.

Within days, New York dealer James Trezza rang up seven figures in sales, including a coy 1860 William Adolphe Bougereau oil of two children, and works by Renoir and Milton Avery. Even less glamorous Old Master drawings were snapped up in the town of mandatory glitter. L.A. dealer Tim Wright sold a Giuseppe Valadier architectural study, a Giovanni Maria Ciocchi male nude drawing and a Eugene Ciceri watercolor. To some surprise, quirky, life-size sheep by the contemporary French artist Claude Lalanne were scooped up at Gasiunasen Gallery's booth for $18,000 a pair.

Jewels of the mega-karat variety were a big draw, as some of the finest dealers were on hand. Nine purveyors from London's Asprey & Garrard were there with their in-house Crown Jeweler. Asprey sold an entire diamond and sapphire suite composed of a necklace and earrings, and a $35,000 George I silver teapot.

Jewelry dealer Fred Leighton, whose newest outpost is in Steve Wynn's Bellagio resort-cum-gallery-cum-casino in Las Vegas, sold two diamond necklaces, both from the 1920s, as well as a ten karat diamond solitaire ring. The Tudor Rose, a diamond corsage of more than 300 karats made for Napoleon's niece, Princess Mathilde, and later owned by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, is available for a cool million.

Lester's reputation for efficient planning and impressive sales results has drawn top dealers like MacConnal-Mason of London. Chairman David L. Mason has been instrumental in the formation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's vast collection of Victorian painting. On display at the MacConnal-Mason booth is Guillaume Seignac's sumptuous nude, Jeune Femme Dénudée sur Canapé, priced at $314,500.

In short, museum-quality wares abound. Hammer Galleries/Etienne Sassi, Inc., features Picasso ceramics, which are also currently on view at London's Royal Academy. A terra-cotta Tete d'Homme au Nez Rouge, from Picasso's personal collection, is for sale at Hammer for $385,000. Lesser-priced limited edition Picasso ceramics are on sale at Jane Kahan's booth for $10,000 and under.

English arms and armor dealer Peter Finer stresses connoisseurship. On view is a Tyrolese pavise wood and gessoed shield painted with the royal arms of Austria, (ca. 1485). If the $68,000 price tag is a problem, consumers can see the shield elsewhere. Two identical ones are in the Met, three are in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and four in Rome's Collezione Odeleschalchi.

Quality sells, and by the second day of the show Finer had already found buyers for three 16th-century rapiers, a French shield and a German suit of armor, altogether totaling in the hefty six figures. Why do clients turn to savage weapons in this age of détente? "They're works of art," replies Finer.

Eccentricity sells too -- in L.A. at least. "I've got the perfect piece of furniture for the L.A. lifestyle," declares of San Francisco dealer Antonio Mariani of Antonio's Antiques -- a pair of 19th-century ebony and gilt Russian chairs with serpent heads for arms and fish heads for feet. The price is $210,000. Only at the Beverly Hills show.

But the dazzling sales don't come cheaply. The booth rental alone is $15,000-$60,000, with most dealers paying $45,000 for only six days. Freight and insurance bills can far outweigh booth rental, however.

Parisian dealer Bernard Steinitz shipped by air two complete rooms of boiserie and a pair of marble sphinx weighing upwards of several tons. "I don't even like to think about the freight bills," said Steinitz. He's been dealing for more than 40 years, and now crisscrosses the Atlantic to participate in five shows annually.

Lester's track record in sales justifies the immense overhead. His Palm Beach show last year generated a hefty $50 million in sales, including $8 million for dealer Jacques Cazeau and $2 million for Fred Leighton.

A big attraction for dealers is Lester's piggyback approach. To maximize economies of sale and to save European dealers the expense of additional transatlantic shipping, the Palm Beach show is scheduled just a single week after the Winter Antiques Show in New York, while Beverly Hills is slotted one week after Brian and Anna Haughton's International Art and Antique Dealer's Show in New York.

Lester is planning two more first-time fairs for 1999 -- one in Aspen, Colo., and the other in the Hamptons. The two notoriously affluent vacation areas should be good targets -- but how many fairs a year can be a success?

BROOKE MASON is an art journalist living in New York.