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DUCHESS SPARKLE
by Brook S. Mason
 
LONDON -- The Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair, June 10-17, 2009, may be 75 years old, but it is spritely all the same. Still housed in the subterranean Great Room of the Grosvenor House Hotel, this year’s version boasts a cache of 22 new dealers, some with rather atypical specialties (at this show, anyway) like film posters and wine.

Grosvenor fair director Alison Vassiere has radically tweaked the dealer roster. "While collectors still favor traditional antiques, we’ve seen a pronounced swing over to modern British art," says Vassiere. To that end, she has ushered in what is arguably the biggest trove of modern British dealers at any art and antiques fair.

In total, a stunning 20 dealers carry some version of modern British art, making Henry Moore, color abstractionist Sir Terry Frost and London Group painter Ivon Hitchens really the new faces of the 90-dealer fair. Considering that period art was once banished from this event as too hipster, it’s a considerable change.

Old Masters dealers Richard Green and Agnew’s along with new participants Harry Moore-Gwyn, Whitford Fine Art, Caroline Wiseman and the Portland Gallery are all featuring the new 20th-century "contemporary" specialty.

They fill the gap left by Old Master dealers Johnny Van Haeften and Bernheimer Colnaghi, who defected this year to stage the inaugural "Masters Painting Week" during July 4-10, 2009, when 23 dealers are slated to present special exhibitions at the same time as the London Old Master auctions.

And Modern British art was coveted at Grosvenor, with London gallery Osborne Samuel racking up sales of three Henry Moore drawings as well as a Lynn Chadwick bronze. Although Peter Osborne says there has been "no American interest whatsoever," his clients are negotiating prices like Americans. "People are demanding tough deals, which is characteristic of a bear market," he notes.

Also confirming the penchant for Mod Brit art, Offer Waterman & Co. red dotted a Naum Gabo sculpture of Perspex and nylon filament, a Peter Blake oil from 1955, a Frank Auerbach painting from 1972 and a 1961 mobile by Kenneth Martin, the British Constructivist painter.

The Grosvenor fair revealed another shift and it relates to 18th-century English antiques, long the mainstay of this event, which was originally founded to boost sales of the trade in the depths of the Depression. These days, interior designers are increasingly turning away from the traditional to the minimalist look, and in so doing have contributed to the recent demise of London dealers (who were Grosvenor regulars) like Jeremy, Hotspur and Norman Adams, purveyors of "brown furniture," as those Georgian antiques are commonly dubbed.

But the closure of those dealers is hardly signaling the death of classical antiques, not by a long shot. In fact, brown furniture and the requisite tabletop accessories like porcelain are selling up a storm at Grosvenor.

Case in point, Ronald Phillips achieved more than a dozen sales, including a George II mahogany settee, a George III mahogany Pembroke table and a pair of Queen Anne walnut art chairs, all really quintessential examples of the English country house look and some with prices well over £100,000.

"My sales so far have been better than an entire October show," says Simon Phillips, referring to last fall’s Manhattan event. Clearly this new spurt of sales signals the turning of the tide for 18th-century and earlier English antiques.

Other indicators of this sudden return to traditional taste include period miniatures delicately painted on ivory scoring interest with London dealer Philip Mould. He sold five of them within days of the fair opening.

Further demonstrating an uptick in the period look, collectors pounced upon English needlework at Witney Antiques. Among the examples sold was the ultimate pillow, an English example from 1660 depicting a father greeting his daughter against a background of a unicorn, flora motifs, a mermaid and a palace complete with smoke spewing from its chimneys. Depicted with mica, metallic thread, pearls and coral, the price was north of £15,000.

"Fifty percent of our sales so far have been to Americans," says Witney director Joy Jarrett. She believes that the exhibition "Twixt Art and Nature: English Embroidery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art 1580-1700," which was on view this last winter at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in Manhattan, is instrumental in fueling sales and interest.

Pricey silver gilt was also much prized. Snapped up early on at Koopman Rare Art was a gleaming 1805 massive silver gilt tray emblazoned with the royal coat of arms and edged with perfectly shaped grapes and laurel leaves. By Digby Scott and Benjamin Smith, the lavish tray went for a stunning £350,000.

"We’ve sold five silver gilt examples so far," says Koopman director Lewis Smith, who spent four years assembling a dazzling array of silver gilt, from wine coolers to ewers.

Later antiques were also moving. London private dealer Peter Petrou red dotted an 1895 carved limewood bed by Gabriel Viardot for £145,000. With its sinuous shape and elaborate paw feet, the bed is poised for reclining in a drug-induced stupor, which was a highly popular 19th-century pastime, according to Petrou.

For Petrou, the market has been solid in spite of the recession. "The most expensive things have been selling throughout the year," he says.

Despite the sad results of last week’s Russian art auctions in London, wealthy citizens of that country are still seen as driving sales in Britain, and Grosvenor has been aggressively wooing them. A total of ten Russian publications are covering the fair. Five years ago, not a single one was paying any attention. So Russian was indeed heard on the fair floor, and visitors speaking Chinese, French, German, Spanish and American took in the event as well, signaling a new vigor for Grosvenor in its septuagenarian years.


BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times and other publications.