Fairs Market USA

Stalwart art and antiques fair changes with the times

As it celebrates its 25th anniversary, the International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show fights to stay relevant

Richard Schillay, who is new to the fair this year, paired Impressionist paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Mary Cassatt alongside abstract Modernism by Sam Francis and Alexander Calder

The International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, but a fading antiques market and escalating rent has forced the fair to prove its relevance now more than ever.

Four years ago, rumours arose that organisers might cancel the event after its venue, the Park Avenue Armory, tripled its rent. Fortunately for its co-founders Brian and Anna Haughton, who also run Art Antiques London, many of the 67 dealers at the latest edition praised the blue-chip line-up of exhibitors and a strong collector presence at last night’s preview gala.

“Look around, they got the people,” said Marilyn Cooperman at the artist-designed jewellery booth Nexxt 20, gesturing to the well-heeled crowd. “The space is shockingly expensive to rent so you need someone with tremendous foresight to run it well.”

"Everybody has pulled out extraordinary items for this show because 25 years really is an extraordinary event," says Brian Haughton, who is also a ceramics dealer with a booth at the fair. During the annual vetting day on Wednesday, at which experts evaluate the authenticity and quality of the objects on offer, Haughton says curators identified some two-dozen works that they deemed worthy of museum collections.

It hasn’t always been easy, however, convincing dealers and collectors that the New York market remains strong enough to justify the fair. The number of exhibitors remains roughly the same as when it first launched, but a few longstanding dealers, such as Richard Green Gallery, have dropped out, as well as last year’s participants Daphne Alazraki, Mark Murray and Anne Autegarden.

With a particularly dwindling demand for Old Master paintings and 18th-century furniture, competition has also heated up between the Haughtons and the more regionally focused Winter Antiques Show, the annual February event also held at the Park Avenue Armory. “Everybody’s chasing the same clients and they’re chasing the dealers who have the best things,” said Red Fox Fine Art’s owner F. Turner Reuter.

And, today, what buyers consider the “best things” aren’t what they used to be. Many exhibitors are toning down the old-world and scholarly feel of their booths to appeal to younger collectors. Reuter, for one, now brings more recent paintings from the early- to mid-1900s. Richard Schillay, who is new to the fair this year, paired Impressionist paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Mary Cassatt alongside abstract Modernism by Sam Francis and Alexander Calder. At pre-Renaissance specialists Ariadne Galleries, its co-president Gregory Demirjian says, “Collectors today more frequently buy antiques to mix and match with contemporary works. You don't have to be a Greek antiquities collector to appreciate this great vase.”

The shift in sensibilities has worked out well for some dealers. “You can always put a map in a contemporary house and it looks cool,” says the maps and atlases dealer Daniel Crouch. “Serious collectors used to only buy 18th-century French furniture,” says Gerardus Widdershoven, the president of the more contemporary design gallery Maison Gerard, which has been exhibiting at the fair for ten years. “Now the 20th-century market is happening.”

The overall ambience of the fair reflects the more modern wares. This year, the Haughtons updated the font and design of the name boards and added contrasting black booth ceilings. Many dealers are now showing objects on sleek plinths, rather than display cases; in Minimalist frames, rather than gold leaf and gilt; and with white booth walls, instead of, say, the green damask that Haughton himself once preferred.

“We have to show the people on Park Avenue that you can still buy the best of the 16th, 17th, and 18th century and show it in a contemporary setting,” Haughton says. How much those residents were actually buying remained to be seen on opening night, which doubles as a benefit for the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The event figures prominently on the New York social calendar regardless of attendees’ collecting interests, and so the champagne flowed for the 25th year, with little mention of the fair’s rocky past.

“It becomes less of a paintings and pictures fair every year, and the redesigns were needed,” says Crouch. “But that just reflects the changing marketplace. It’s still a very successful fair.”

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