LONDON -- Forget the dismal economy, it’s June in the Brit capital and the 36th annual Olympia International Art & Antiques Fair, June 5-14, 2009, is an undeniably spiffed up shopping bonanza for both collectors and collectibles fanciers. No wonder, as the fair occupies an entire square acre inside an 1885 glass and iron architectural extravaganza of an exhibition hall bathed in natural light. But more importantly, Olympia fair organizer Freya Simms has vastly recast the show to enormously stylish effect.
"We responded to the newly polarized market by emphasizing top quality over the middle sector," says Simms.
Her considerable changes include trimming the dealer roster from a stunning 300 two years ago to 220 this time around. Plus, she pulled in "top of the tree" dealers like Jean Luc Baroni of London, Steinitz of Paris and Carlton Hobbs of New York. Others she nicked include Tomasso Brothers of Leeds and Alberto di Castro of Rome, both with period sculpture.
With those additions and other new fair features, Olympia has risen far above its long-time home-grown DIY decorator status to rival the 75th annual Grosvenor House Fair in terms of the best dealers and grandest offerings. Other ways in which Simms worked her magic include roping in Sir Timothy Clifford, former director of the National Galleries of Scotland, to serve as fair patron and lend the museum-worthy seal of approval.
In doing so, Clifford pulled out all stops and snared the ultimate English country house trophy, a loan exhibition from Castle Howard. From that Yorkshire pile, best known to Yanks as the setting for television and film series Brideshead Revisited, Clifford garnered a sublime Claude Lorrain landscape, two Bernardo Bellotto Venetian views and gilded George II furniture, as well as other antiques for the fair.
That loan exhibition sets a high bar and when it comes to overall presentation, no other fair comes close to Olympia’s glam. Savvy Simms cleverly favors the haute fashion world’s boutique sensibility, with its emphasis on stylish settings, and a number of dealers deliver the luxe look for their stands, thereby relegating other fairs to the ho-hum bin.
For example, Dutch dealers Vanderven & Vanderven Oriental Art offer up Chinese porcelain within a chic, brilliantly lit black tent-like structure, while Müllendorf has its wares in a two story, white stucco-like spare structure with arched windows.
That new level of splendid presentation with offerings to match drew record attendance on the opening day, with visitor numbers up 38 percent over last year to a record 7,549. Among those buying were actor Dustin Hoffman, who snapped up oak furniture from Beedham Antiques based in Berkshire; decorators in droves like Michael Smith, who is trimming up the Obama White House; and New York collectors such as Audrey Gruss, along with billionaire Wilbur Ross and his wife Hilary.
With the recession all but a dim memory in deluxe London, lavish antiques seem to rule. Take returning Mayfair dealer Adrian Alan, who’s crammed his stand with £10 million worth of François Linke furniture. Linke was the Belle Epoque ebeniste par excellance and his flamboyant furniture attracted big spenders. In the 1920s, King Farouk of Egypt ordered over 1,000 pieces by Linke.
On offer at Olympia are some of Linke’s early show-stopping furniture, which he exhibited at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in the City of Light. Examples include a massive desk, bed and bookcase. Fifty years ago, a Texan (of course) housed Linke’s 20Grande Bibliotheque, a 12-foot-tall bookcase in kingwood with gleaming gilt bronze mounts and on paw feet, in his Lone Star State home. Later, a Japanese homeowner scooped it up, so that glittering hunk of furniture is relatively fresh to the market.
A bed from that same Linke suite was purchased on the second day of the fair by an American, natch, for a hefty £675,000.
Other dealers witnessing spirited sales include London folk art specialist Robert Young, who racked up 16 purchases priced up to £20,000, including a Charles II walnut desk on the first day alone. Part of the allure of Young’s stand was its decor, the booth clad in painted canvas appearing like distressed plaster walls setting a tone of early simplicity.
But it’s not simply traditional antiques capturing attention. Truly distinctive examples also score interest. For example, Carlton Hobbs is showcasing a unique German 1790 secretaire, which reflects that period’s prevailing taste for romantic ruins. Clad in painted cork resembling a crumbling stone ruin and encrusted with actual lichen, this tour de force piece of furniture opens to reveal a traditional mahogany chest/desk with drawers edged in beaded gilt. "It’s proof of the ingenuous intellectual rigor of that period while symbolizing the temporal nature of life," says Hobbs. The price for that metamorphic secretaire, which encapsulates the transience of power, is £875,000.
Nearby, Vanderven & Vanderven have done very well, selling a Kangxi period bowl made for the Imperial court on the preview day for £45,000 and a pair of blue and white ewers, also from the Kangxi period, for around £60,000. Each went to a different English private collector. Appealing to contemporary art collectors is a pair of porcelain bowls decorated in the "spinach and egg" pattern with the requisite daubs of green and yellow, dating from 1662-1722 and priced under £16,000. Also on offer is a Han period brown-glazed terra cotta miniature stove topped with cooking pots. At over 2,000 years old, the stove is modestly priced at £4,000.
Then Brit dealer Lucy Johnson has created a stylish stand encased in translucent plastic conservatory roofing. Inside are modern British paintings by the likes of Victor Pasmore and others along with early European furniture. "My stand makes people realize that antiques and mid-20th-century paintings are well suited to contemporary designed settings," says Johnson. Her strategy works, as snatched up early on was a 17th-century walnut library table, bought by a Saudi client, and paintings by Ben Nicholson and Graham Sutherland.
Twentieth century furniture was also capturing attention. Belgian dealer Mullendorf Antiques partnered with the Brussels Galerie Philippe Rapin and their stand featured a Gabriella Crespi dining table of stainless steel, which slides open to reveal a central black lacquer troth running the length of the table. The item dates from the late ‘60s, and the cost for that special commission is £85,000.
London textile dealer Jacqueline Simcox has seen a number of Chinese collectors on her stand and she has sold an 18th century cloisonné enamel incense burner in the form of a Buddhist lion as well as a silk ikat from Uzbekistan dating from the late 19th century. "Ikats then were symbolic of status and wealth," says Simcox. Those on view were in highly contemporary colors such as lime green and magenta.
Clearly, sales like these demonstrate the efficacy of the newest version of Olympia. At the same time, revving up the quality does spur sales of lower priced material. A case in point is Asian and European ceramics dealer Paul Peters, who reported ten sales to buyers of ten different nationalities, including Americans, Germans, Japanese and Taiwanese. "This is a phenomenonal fair with an international clientele," he said.
BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times and other publications.