Fairs United Kingdom

Masterpiece slowly breaks the mould

Reaching new audiences remains a priority for the high-end London fair

The Masterpiece pavilion in the South Grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea

When Masterpiece launched in 2010, following the sudden demise of the old-fashioned Grosvenor House fair, its organisers aimed to establish a new type of fair by bringing together art, antiques and antiquities with other sectors of the luxury market. Now in its third edition (28 June-4 July), co-founder Harry Apter of the London-based dealer Apter-Fredericks is just as evangelical about redefining the traditional art fair concept. “You have to try and reach new audiences,” he says. “The antiques fair format is tired.” The jury is still out, however, on whether Masterpiece is finding its niche in the crowded international fair landscape.

The organisers of Masterpiece hope to draw in potential collectors by creating an all-round de luxe experience, comprising classic cars, boats, wines, a plush restaurant run by Le Caprice and a trove of high-end art and antiques. The timing of the fair, held during the Wimbledon tennis championships and framed by the post-war and contemporary auctions just before and Old Master sales after, is fundamental in enticing “cultural tourists” in the capital, and to an extent established collectors, to the purpose-built pavilion at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. On Friday afternoon (29 June), the plan seemed to be working; the fair was full of affluent thirty- and fortysomethings keen to part with their cash.

“There are definitely people here with plenty of money,” said Clovis Whitfield of the London-based gallery Whitfield Fine Art. The gallery, a first-time participant, hopes that in these straitened economic times, a moneyed individual or organisation will dig deep for its £60m authenticated Caravaggio made around 1600 for Cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani; at the time of writing, the painting had not sold (the fair is still ongoing). A lithograph of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, 1895, available with Kaare Berntsen of Oslo for £1.7m, and Damien Hirst’s High Windows (Happy Life), 2006, priced at £1.5m with Robilant + Voena of Milan, had also failed to find buyers.

For now, core European connoisseurs still seem to be making their way to Masterpiece. But the question of whether the fair is an heir apparent to Tefaf Maastricht, the grand-dame of fairs which celebrated its silver jubilee in March, was a point of debate on the floor, especially as the heavyweight London old master dealers Johnny Van Haeften and Richard Green are notable absentees among the 154 exhibitors; Chinese antiques dealers are also under represented on the floor.

“Masterpiece is a very urban fair. Tefaf is geared to the tradition of collecting and trade but there is much cross-fertilisation here at Masterpiece and it works,” said the Swiss antiquities dealer Jean-David Cahn. “It’s the right time and the right place for Masterpiece which genuinely reflects London nowadays. Anyway, it’s unreasonable and unfair to compare this very young fair with a 25-year-old event.”

“Masterpiece has not yet found its niche in terms of being an international fair like Tefaf,” said Tom Hewlett of the London-based Portland Gallery which specialises in modern and contemporary British art. “The fair is targeting people who have disposable income and addressing how they spend it which is a fairly new concept.” He too welcomes the strong “cross-over” buying aspect of the fair with collectors tempted to dabble in different sectors.

Hewlett, who had sold three works to a Swiss collector, said that the fairgoers were predominantly British though young Brazilian collectors, along with a handful of buyers from Hong Kong, were spotted in the aisles. Some galleries had also seen a handful of Greek collectors who, “may be seeking to invest in art as a tangible asset” said an unnamed London dealer. Tate director Nicholas Serota and collector Charles Saatchi were also in attendance.

Meanwhile, Robert Upstone of the Fine Art Society (FAS) in London reported solid sales including Alexander Archipenko’s Flat Torso sculpture, around 1914 and priced at £150,000, which was given by the artist to Sir Osbert Sitwell. Frank Dobson’s bronze sculpture Woman Seated, 1926, was bought by a British collector from the same gallery for £60,000. Meanwhile, a German museum reportedly bought a large-scale wooden statue of an Egyptian official, dating from 2570 BC, for more than £1m from Sycomore Ancient Art of Geneva.

Tomasso Brothers gallery sold an early 19th-century Italian in-laid marble centre table to a European collector for around £150,000. The Leeds-based dealership, which is currently looking for premises in London, had sold at least ten items in the first two days. "The fair has really taken off," said Dino Tomasso.

“Furniture has done well this year,” said Apter. “We have seen three or four US clients with their interior designers.” Apter-Fredericks had sold major furniture pieces to American buyers; these include the Houghton Hall red lacquer Bachelor’s chest, around 1705, which had an asking price of £450,000. A pair of George III parquetry commodes attributed to Pierre Langlois, around 1770, was also bought by an American. “The asking price was in the region of £500,000,” says Apter.

The management decision to launch a US patrons committee of more than 100 members therefore appears to have paid off; any moves that consolidate the fair’s collector base should be welcomed especially as Frieze Masters, a hot topic at Masterpiece, launches in October. Crucially, this Frieze Art Fair spin-off will be targeting the same cross-over, aspirational buyers, taking a prime slice of the lucrative London fair pie.

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