Grosvenor House Art Fair, founded in 1934, used to be the grand art and antiques fair of London, but, after a half century of glory, it steadily declined and, like a dowdy old dowager, finally gave up the ghost, in 2009.
A year after its demise, Masterpiece stepped nimbly into its place, but establishing itself in much more airy and spacious premises in Chelsea rather than the cramped and penumbral environs of the Grosvenor House Hotel.
Though only in its fourth year, Masterpiece has become one of the premier art fairs of the world. Indeed, in terms of both visitor numbers and turnover, it has rapidly won a place among the top five, in the same league as Maastricht, Art Basel, the Armory New York and Frieze, but is the only one of that group that encompasses not only fine art but antiques and design as well. It also does luxury goods – such as jewellery, sports cars and boats.
It is housed in a temporary but spectacular pavilion in the leafy purlieus of Wren’s splendid Royal Hospital, Chelsea. With its opulent floral displays, uncluttered and beautifully lit booths, miles of soft carpets, champagne bars and restaurants, Masterpiece is a very stylish and elegant affair, akin to Maastricht or last year’s Frieze Masters. The booths look like rooms in smart Mayfair galleries rather than art fair stands.
The designers of the fair are to be congratulated. It really is a pleasure to amble along its wide aisles, admire the huge and imaginative flower displays, stop for a superior baguette at the Mount Street Deli, slurp up a few oysters with a glass of Ruinart at Scott’s Seafood & Champagne Bar or linger for a more lavish lunch (or even dinner) at the Caprice – all pop-up siblings of the distinguished Mayfair and St James’s restaurants.
However, there is much to see and, unless one has a lot of time, one can’t dawdle too long over lunch.
There are about 150 exhibitors, mainly top rung galleries from England, but also many from Europe and the USA. The art works are all vetted by a committee of experts, assuring buyers quality and authenticity.
A measure of a fair’s strength is whether it attracts museum curators – with their credit cards. I spotted directors and curators from the Metropolitan Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Rijksmuseum. Indeed, the elegance and calibre of the fair lures collectors as well as a sprinkling of grandees and celebs: for example, one has spotted a variety of royals including Prince Harry, Elton John, Oprah Winfrey, Anish Kapoor, Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood and Tom Ford. Unlike Frieze, Masterpiece attracts a chic and dapper crowd – not many jeans and trainers in evidence, more Chanel and Ferragamo.
As the fair offers so many works across multiple disciplines, mixing antique with contemporary, classic with quirky, most visitors will have no difficulty finding works to their taste – designers and decorators are key visitors and buyers.
This year, the antiquities section was particularly splendid: rare Egyptian, Greek and Roman sculptures. My personal favourites were a very fine 18th century copy of the famous Vatican Laocoon (about £750,000); a typically swaggerish portrait by Boldini of Princess Murat Ney d’Elchingen (£1m); a superb 16th century Urbino maiolica charger, a rare and elegant 18th century New Zealand long hand club of polished amber-coloured wood, that looked like a piece of contemporary sculpture (£340,000) and the stunning E-Type Jaguar.
If I had to choose one object for myself, I would have unhesitatingly taken a piece offered by the Merrin Gallery, New York. The owner had put together three pre-Columbian Olmec stone ‘yokes’ (probably ceremonial stone versions of the leather hip girdles that players in the Mesoamerican ball game wore around their waists, to protect themselves against the 5-pound balls). Of different colours and very differing dates (800BC – 900 AD), the three yokes form an astonishingly elegant, Zen-like contemporary sculpture. If I had $370,000, I would bought it in a heart-beat.
So, Masterpiece is clearly going from strength to strength. They have got the formula right: location (Chelsea), timing (mid-summer, just after Royal Ascot, just before the big sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s), great design, lavish décor, top-drawer galleries, a judicious mix of art, antiques, design and jewellery plus a few wow items (such as the Riva speedboat, a Maserati and an E-type Jaguar) and gastronomic treats.
Gravitas comes from the clever partnership with the Courtauld Institute of Art, and glamour comes from a good sprinkling of royals and celebs. The only unpredictable but essential thing is sales. Visitors flock there in their thousands, but do they buy? Judging from what I heard from dealers, most works flew off the walls and shelves. London’s high-end art and luxury market appears to be oblivious to the recession in Britain: in this fairy world of the super-rich, the depressed global economy, the euro zone debt crisis and double-dip recessions – all sound so far away.
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