Magazine article The Spectator

Crisis of Confidence

Magazine article The Spectator

Crisis of Confidence

Article excerpt

What do you find at the world's great antiques fairs these days? The answer, increasingly, is modern and contemporary art. Few will lament the disappearance of doleful, second-rate period furniture in favour of Art Deco and postwar design, or the introduction of major international art galleries offering the work of 20th-century masters. But as growing numbers of dealers adjust their stock in a bid to attract a new generation of buyers -- not always with conviction or success -- it seems that the antiques trade is in danger of shooting itself in the foot.

It is evident that the trade is suffering a crisis of confidence. Heaven knows, the business is beleaguered -- under siege by both changing tastes and by the ever-growing retail might of the auction-houses. Long gone are the days when clients would regularly drop by their favourite galleries on the off chance of finding something to buy.

Now it takes the collaboration of a mass of international dealers to focus the collector's mind and justify the curator's expenses. The art fair rather than the gallery has become the dealer's prime showcase, his best shot at wowing old clients and making new ones.

The best of the dealers have turned these events into artworks in their own right, their stands bravura performances orchestrated to flaunt their taste, style and wit. Fairs present the public face of this once private business.

That face has seen a great deal of nipping and tucking of late. Take Grosvenor House, the grand old dame of the business and London's flagship fair. After dropping the dateline to allow the introduction of modern and contemporary art, its organisers -- the British Antique Dealers' Association -- took its makeover a radical stage further last year, creating Grosvenor Contemporary and encouraging dealers to exhibit recent pieces. Even its loan exhibition comprised exclusively contemporary applied arts. What a way for a trade association to promote a flagging business. If the BADA did not appear to believe in its members' stock, one wondered, why should anyone else? No wonder that initiative was quietly dropped this year. It was replaced by Grosvenor Modern.

The slightest sense of apology -- or was it defeatism? -- even hovered uncomfortably around this year's spectacular Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris, without doubt the most glamorous antiques fair in the world. To mark the fair's triumphant return this September to the newly restored Grand Palais, cult designer François-Joseph Graf spent a mind-boggling 35 million euros on the installation alone. While his trompe l'oeil streetscape rather perversely imposed an austere NeoClassical straitjacket on one of the most exuberant Bel Epoque buildings in Paris, it achieved its goal in unifying the stands in an elegant, unfussy whole. …

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