Fairs and fair dealing

Thomas Woodham-Smith listens with caution


The early months of the year are awash with art fairs. I spent an hour or so at the season opener, the usually jolly Mayfair Antiques and Fine Art Fair at the Marriott Hotel just off Grosvenor Square. This year there was a discernible air of disgruntlement. The soignée Ingrid who owns and runs the fair was very friendly and solicitous. But now I am not a potential exhibitor but a competitor of sorts, since I am in the process of setting up another event — the Open Art Fair — she was quite uncomfortable about me moving around her exhibitors, as if I was some sort of wolf amongst her lambs. I spoke to some of the exhibitors, who moaned about Brexit or business or both, and cycled home slightly depressed.

The next stop was the Battersea Decorative Fair, which runs three times a year in a tent in the park. The January iteration is enhanced by the addition of a small independent but contiguous textile fair. Upstairs you enter a souk smelling of incense, with rugs spread everywhere and the unfathomable chatter of Arabic. Below there are the usual suspects but not me this time, as the organisers could no longer find a booth for me.

I fear that my new role as a fair organiser is to blame for my expulsion. But it was fun, as ever, to walk the aisles, chat to friends and roam among the beautiful and fun objects alongside those that have been brutalised by either stripping or painting to supposedly render them more “commercial”. Here business was also a little off the norm. Everyone had been anticipating a palpable Boris-Brexit-bounce but it was not forthcoming. A few dealers were swathed in cheque-induced smiles but many were groaning.

It is one of the curious characteristics of dealers that they tend to have a flexible attitude when it comes to the truth. I used to do a lot of business with a man based in Cambridgeshire who many would not trust. The fact was, as I told all who were prepared to listen, that doing business with him was easy because every word he uttered was an untruth and that was reliable.

His dishonesty became a sort of honesty — you could trust him. So it is with dealers and reporting about fairs business. Some always say business is terrible and some always say it is good. You never can really tell what has happened from what you hear.

That afternoon I made a big mistake. I had been at Battersea with my colleague Dorothea. We had started at midday and not finished until after 2.30. We also wanted to visit the British Art Fair in Islington and we had limited time. We failed to lunch, a schoolboy error: we were both in foul moods, pretending we were fine, especially me. The Islington Design Centre is an interesting venue in principle, but in practice it is very bitty and hard to navigate and consequently for the tired and hungry it was very challenging. I did have very convivial conversations with a few friendly dealers but I found myself slipping into a curmudgeonly Mr Scrooge mode.

It is one of the curious characteristics of dealers that they tend to have a flexible attitude with the truth

The fair is a mixture of Modern British art and Contemporary and I launched into a bit of a rant about the impossibility of telling good from bad with contemporary and how it was all the Emperor’s new clothes. Dorothea had to shut me up and encourage me to leave before I totally humiliated myself.

A few days later I was on the Eurostar heading to Brussels for BRAFA. This venerable art fair has seen a renaissance in the last few years and is now located in the Tour & Taxis building, which is a very stylish brick nineteenth-century former freight station. It is, though, unusual in that it is based on long, very narrow aisles: it is as if you were in the most elegant corridor ever. A disconcertingly erratic polychrome stripe carpet and some perplexing dried flowers dangling from chicken wire fail to distract from a show with very distinctive look.

There is a lot of tribal art, more medieval sculpture than most fairs and certainly more traditional continental furniture dealers. But what surprises is the marketing of expensive cartoon-strip art. Original artwork from Tintin books and more obscure strips familiar to the Belgian connoisseur but not so much to rest of the world command very large sums. The peak of the market may have passed for the moment but back in 2016 a page of Tintin sold at Artcurial in Paris for more than 2.5 million euros.

The other thing Belgians seem to like is sex. Nearly every stand has something really quite graphic on show. I ran into some old chums and even had firm interest from a couple of potential Open Art Fair exhibitors. It would really transform it if we had an international dimension to our event.

Finally, the charming Connect Art Fair in the Mall Galleries. Now in its third year, it is a gathering of the smaller twentieth-century British art trade. It is in the nicest possible way cheap and cheerful; everyone seems very  relaxed. The stands are not really divided, and beginnings and ends are a trifle blurred, but all of this only enhances the ambience.

There are quite a few exhibitors here from the Open Art Fair too and it is a pleasure to chat to them about their businesses without being too focused on our forthcoming event. As I sat down at home with my family to both bid farewell to our British European adventure and welcome in the post-Brexit era, nourished by tasty European comestibles, I felt sadness for the end of the European dream, but equally a peculiar and unfathomable sense of excitement for our uncertain future.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover