A real show-stopper

Thomas Woodham-Smith is forced to pack up and go home


For antique dealers, the coronavirus pandemic has the potential to be a terminal blow. When I joined the dealing world in 1985 the business was still in its pomp. Every small town was graced with a few junk or antique shops. But despite the swagger the decline had begun. The remorseless progress of the kitchen-dinner-sitting room rendered a whole raft of classic furniture pieces redundant. The bread and butter trade of English furniture slowly disappeared: sideboards, dining tables, dining chairs, Pembroke tables, sofa tables.

I used to know an old dealer from Brighton who had once dealt exclusively in butlers’ trays. On Wednesdays he would take orders in London from the dealers. On Thursdays he bought them in and around Brighton, and on Fridays he delivered them and got paid. He did this all year, every week. It was a solid business he aspired to hand on to his son.

The proliferation of fairs demonstrates that they are a preferred option to idling in a shop waiting for someone to come in and ask for directions to somewhere else

By the mid-1980s the tray business was already history. Dealers suffered during various financial crises. The internet recast the way people buy. The visit to the shop and the exclusive client are increasing rarities. This has led to the closure of further shops and a pull towards art and antique fairs as a last bastion of serendipitous shopping and a chance for dealers to meet and make new clients. The proliferation of fairs demonstrates that they are a preferred option to idling in a shop waiting for someone to come in and ask for directions to somewhere else.

A business partner and I bought the BADA (the British Antique Dealers Association) Fair last September with a plan to revive and improve it. We renamed it The Open Art Fair and brought in new design, an improved visitor experience and many new exhibitors. It was a challenging project but as we had both worked on the foundation of the Masterpiece fair we felt we had something new to offer and knew how to do it.

That was before Covid-19. Just one month before the fair the auguries seemed broadly positive. Then things started to get tricky. Fairs began to get cancelled as the pandemic took hold in Europe. But we were reassured that the largest and most important global art show, TEFAF (The European Fine Art Fair) in Maastricht, was going ahead. is was scheduled to finish two days before we opened, and we felt we might run in under the wire.

But four days into TEFAF disaster struck: an exhibitor was diagnosed with the virus. A day later they closed the fair. With only a week before our fair the UK press predicted daily that the government would impose restrictions on mass gatherings. The days crawled past. We were building all our tents and exhibitors’ stands in Duke of York Square, Chelsea, and nothing was announced to stop us.

A number of the exhibitors, however, were very forceful in telling me that we should not open. Often we mistake the loudest voices for the majority so I decided to canvas all the exhibitors about whether the fair should carry on. Except for a few, they wholeheartedly wanted to open. Some did drop out at this stage, and we did not try to dissuade them.

The day before we opened the prime minister told the nation not to socialise, but he did not ban mass gatherings. As everything was moving so fast at the time it is hard to capture the ephemeral nature of the mood; today we are fluent in social distancing, self-isolation and even quarantining, but back on 18 March nothing seemed clear at all.

We had started the week resilient and optimistic, convinced that we were being a bastion of normality and trade. We had an airy space and no one was going to be too close to anyone else. But as the opening day wore on visitors were few, and panic spread among the exhibitors that the city was going to be locked down.

There was another run for the door from some, so again I took a vote. Once again the majority voted to continue. But despite their optimism the instruction to stay away bit hard and almost no one came on our second day.

I am merely an antique dealer and a fair organiser and yet I felt I was burdened with a responsibility beyond that: I believed that the exhibitors’ safety was in my hands. I concluded I had to close the fair. In an orderly and impressive way the dealers made their premature transport arrangements, packed away their goods and left.

The fair was supposed to run for a further five days but soon everyone had gone. It turned out to be just in time, as the city and the country was closed down the following week. Our tents were put in limbo.

The antique trade is also in limbo and survival is far from certain. Currently there are no fairs planned for the rest of 2020 and without them dealers will suffer and many will disappear. This could be a terminal body blow for the trade, but I hope not.

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