There’s a surprising new group of antiques fanciers trolling the aisles of the grande dame of antiques fairs, the Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair, this week. And a trove of dealers have trimmed up their stands to lure them. A number of them are betting that malachite, that vivid pea green stone mined in the Urals, along with 18th century Italian gilt furniture, gleaming gold boxes studded with emeralds and rubies, and Meissen porcelain are the new must-haves for flocks of Russians and Catherine the Great wannabes at the 74th annual event held through June 18, 2008, at the Grosvenor House Hotel.
To woo such clientele at the Grosvenor fair, the Manhattan dealer A La Vieille Russie has shipped over "an entire malachite room." Actually, the chamber in question is comprised of a set of 12 malachite panels dating from the 1800s, stretching eight feet across and costing £400,000.
"The vogue for malachite as a decorative material for architectural elements to lavish objects like candlesticks and boxes dates back centuries and even the Kremlin and St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg are lined with malachite columns," says Peter Schaeffer, co-director of A La Vieille Russie, which is located on Fifth Avenue. "Our room is the only one like it on the market anywhere," he says while waiting for the crew from the Moscow television network NTV to film his offerings. To further tempt Russians, Schaeffer is also featuring other malachite items, including a pair of 1840 urns measuring over three feet high and a huge tazza costing £750,000 each, as well as numerous small objet d’art, from paperweights to large boxes.
The market for Russian objects like those featured by Schaeffer has been changing rapidly. "While small paperweights, picture frames and pens have been selling briskly, larger items like the malachite urns are just coming into favor," says Schaeffer.
Still, some question if malachite is totally in sync with Russian taste today. "These days, the wealthy living in Russia don’t want local materials like that," says New York architect and decorator Juan Pablo Molyneux. He’s completing two monumental residences outside Moscow. One is a four story high, 130,000-foot home sheathed in red marble and the owner, a precious metals plutocrat, just ordered up an entire new wing. "The only touch of malachite is a mantel in a dressing room," says Molyneux who furnished the house with 18th-century French, English and Italian antiques. The lone antiques hailing from Russia which Molyneux supplied are restricted to gilt bronze and crystal chandeliers from the 1700s. Although the second house Molyneux is designing is a tad smaller, he is also filling it with British and continental period furniture.
Other dealers at Grosvenor confirm a shift in Russians’ preferences for period furnishings. "Some may laugh, but Russians now are very sophisticated and attracted to high-end continental furniture," says Paris dealer Benjamin Steinitz. Five years ago, he was seeing that clientele drawn to reproductions. Recently, Steinitz has sold Regence commodes, Empire dining tables and gueridons, as well as 18th-century English chandeliers to Russians living in Moscow. In catering to this new taste shift at the Grosvenor fair, Steinitz boasts a pair of massive carved gilt Italian consoles dating from 1750 and priced at £375,000.
London antiques dealer Jeremy is also garnering Russian clients. Lately, Jeremy director John Hill has sold an English Chippendale side table, a French Empire clock in gilded bronze and an Austrian mahogany center table with inlaid marble top and ormolu mounts, each costing a six-figure amount -- among other items -- to Russians. "Now that they have seen the great English country houses, Russians are veering towards that particular look," says Hill. He’s betting a Russian will pounce on a European 1815 gilded table for £275,000 and a George III wall mirror in the shape of Order of then Garter, the English symbol of knighthood, priced at £340,000 and displayed front and center on his Grosvenor fair stand.
Even when it comes to small table-top items, Russians are branching out while still favoring bell pulls and picture frames by Fabergé, the St. Petersburg goldsmith who built the largest such establishment in the world. "Now they want gold boxes," says Nicolas Norton, chairman of the London S.J. Phillips Ltd., which specializes in Georgian silver and gold boxes from France, Germany and Britain, some dating back to the 17th century.
"Three years ago, not a single Russian walked on to our stand or crossed through the doors of our New Bond Street gallery asking for Meissen porcelain," says Mark Law, who heads up the specialist dealership Albert Amor. "Now, that’s all changed," he says. Within the past ten months, Law has sold more than 20 Meissen examples to Russians and on the first day of the Grosvenor fair, a Russian client plucked up both Russian and German porcelain figures dressed in their native costumes for up to £10,000 each.
One thing is certain: Russians buying art and antiques are on a shopping spree in London. Oliver Howell, managing director of Gander & White Shipping Ltd., has seen their shipments of those trimmings jump six times in the past five years. "It’s really taken off," says Howell.
Those kind of figures conjure up endless selling opportunities for dealers. "They’ve got these ruddy great houses in Cannes and elsewhere, which they’ve got to fill up," says Geoffrey Munn of Wartski, which is based in Mayfair and has sold Fabergé items and period jewelry for over a century. While Munn would not disclose if his opening sales were to Russians, Schaeffer reported that he had sold a number of small malachite items to them.
"Now, a Middle East client is seriously interested in the malachite room," says A La Vieille Russie’s Schaeffer indicating yet another new frontier for antiques dealers in their quest for a new and deep pocketed clientele.
BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times, the New York Sun and other publications.