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Art & Antiques:

by Brook S. Mason
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By staging his latest entry on the global art-shopping circuit in arguably the most ironic show venue yet, Floridian fair organizer David Lester has just about turned a sows’ ear into a silk purse. That is to say, for his inaugural Naples International Art & Antique Fair, Feb. 24-Mar. 1, 2011, Lester took over a former supermarket. He dressed up the stark concrete interiors with dove gray walls, beige carpeting and subdued lighting, then christened his newly trimmed building the Naples International Pavilion and packed it to the brim with 55 dealers.

“Naples is the sixth largest concentration of wealth in the country,” Lester points out, in explanation of his expansion to Florida’s west coast. Back in 1997, Lester made fair history when he set up his first Palm Beach International Fine Art & Antique Fair in a custom-made tent. Today, his new Naples pavilion, which measures 55,000 square feet, is a central attraction in a town that, well, lacks a convention center.

The greater Naples area spans vast portions of what is called Florida’s Paradise Coast -- which boasts no less than 80 championship golf courses and a 500,000-plus population, which far outpaces Palm Beach in size. The sprawling city is teeming with luxury label boutiques like Prada, Gucci and Hermes, along with other top-drawer players such as Sotheby’s Realty. It’s got a Ritz Carlton Hotel, too, and more than 50 art galleries, but (as Lester emphasizes) it’s a destination that has lacked an international fair.

Lester is by no means alone in seeing Naples as a must-do winter resort. “It’s a lot like Palm Beach in terms of wealth,” says Henri Barguirdjian, CEO of the megajeweler Graff, which already has an outpost in a Saks here and has long been a lynchpin of Lester’s PB fair.

But Naples is not merely a roost for billionaires and multimillionaires. According to the indefatigable Myra Janco Daniels, who founded the Patty and Jay Baker Naples Museum of Art, which is the beneficiary of the fair vernissage, the city boasts highly sophisticated collectors.

“The third largest collecting base in the country is right here in Naples,” says Daniels. She points out that this area draws an entirely different crowd from PB. “They’re well heeled, well educated and probably skewing to a younger audience than Palm Beach,” says Daniels. For an example of area collectors, she points to Dr. John and Frances Fenning, whose collection of Robert Rauschenberg “Combines” is legendary, as well as William and Suzanne von Liebig, celebrated for their holding of American Modernists. Close to 80 percent of the snowbird population here hails from the Midwest, including Chicago, Minneapolis and Indianapolis (whereas Palm Beach is a magnet for winter-weary New Yorkers), reports Daniels.

Fair dealers have come prepped to meet the needs of this untapped market. On view at New York’s Hammer Galleries is a $50-million cache of works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Just across the aisle, Graff is sporting a 20 karat emerald for a cool $6 million, while New York’s Forum Gallery is touting an Arshile Gorky 1928 oil, Enigma: Composition of Forms on a Table, from the Allan Stone collection for $1.8 million. Nearby Gavin Spanierman is showing a Childe Hassam for $1.5 million.

Still more 19th-century treasures include a Vincent van Gogh 1884 oil still life for $5.9 million and a Claude Monet landscape for $3.8 million, both on view at the New Orleans-based M.S. Rau Antiques, which is offering up wares worth $30 million in total. Rau has all the trimmings of lavish dining, from a 19th-century English mahogany table to a Tiffany & Co. 1912 Chrysanthemum silver flatware service for $124,500. The Silver Fund has a Cartier Paris 1920 silver tea set for $125,000, Jean Dunand metal vessels and Georg Jensen silver.

Early in the fair’s run, Rau reaped major-league sales, including Jean-Léon Gerome’s 1889 In the Harem Bath for $1.4 million and Norman Rockwell’s 1927 Saturday Evening Post cover Two Men Reading Detective Stories for $2.7 million. Both went to midwest collectors. “Clients want a great painting by a known name,” says William Rau.

Nineteenth-century pictures predominate (as they did so successfully at the PB fair) telling of a new taste shift. The growth of UK dealership Trinity House is a case in point. Although founded only five years ago, Trinity House, which is nestled in the provincial Cotswolds, set up a London outpost only footsteps away from Sotheby’s New Bond Street premises just five months ago. “Our clients are drawn to work by Boudin and Degas,” says Steven Beale, Trinity House director.

Private dealer Philip Mezzatesta, whose father Michael had headed the Palm Beach fair, has joined forces with Trinity House to represent them in Manhattan. On the Trinity House stand, Mezzatesta has Aristide Maillol’s 1943 bronze Harmonie, number three from an edition of six, for $950,000.

Other dealers going in a new direction include Michael James of the Silver Fund. His new venture, Michael James Fine Art, is based out of the Channel Islands and is showcasing a solo show dedicated to San Francisco painter Susan Swartz. Four different collectors bagged her landscapes, done in a blazing palette and priced up to $25,000.

Antiques sales tell of the taste for the American version of the English country house look. Rau sold a pair of 19th-century English knife boxes long deemed de rigueur for sideboards. Nearby sales were steady for Moylan-Smelkinson of Baltimore. “Early Worcester porcelain, Tartan boxes and 19th-century muff chains have found favor so far,” says Jackie Smelkinson. Eve Stone Antiques of East Haven, Conn., racked up a number of sales, ranging from a pair of American brass andirons and copper wares, all 19th century.

Red dotted at the Maryland 19th Century Rare Book & Photograph Shop was an albumen print The Coliseum, Rome, ca. 1850. Clients also focused on an autographed Abraham Lincoln 1861 portrait in its original gilt frame for $700,000. Atlanta jeweler J.S. Fearnley firmed up sales of gold and platinum set gems.

With the fair floor filled with attendees, dealers were optimistic. “We already have interest,” says Graff’s Barguidijian. Dealer Michael James concurred. “Palm Beach took a few years to get off the ground,” he said. “But straight out of the gate, the Naples fair has got arms and legs.”

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