Fun and danger at the Fair

‘I need antique fairs like a junkie needs a needle’

As an antique dealer, I need antique fairs like a junkie needs a needle or an alcoholic needs a bracing vodka first thing in the morning. Back in the day when we all had shops, you could stand outside and look left and right up and down the high street and your colleagues would be doing the same thing, breathing in the crusty air of an area dedicated to what is sometimes described as the second oldest profession. Every city, town and even village had one or more antique shops.

These days, the shop is becoming a thing of the past — an antique almost, in and of itself. Tastes have changed, and having a house full of crumbly furniture in a kaleidoscope of brown is no longer fashionable. We want to live in our kitchen and make our homes look like offices or doctors’ waiting rooms — chrome, glass and leather abound. Then there is the relentless onward march of the internet: sitting in your bedroom in downtown Tbilisi, you can range through all the walnut bachelor’s chests available on the global market. Yes indeed, the world has changed. So village shops now offer “design” and we antique dealers have evacuated the high street and taken refuge among our peers in these seasonal shows.

Away from the accelerating madness of online comparison shopping and premises-free businesses, the only option for face-to-face buying and selling is to get down and dirty and do or attend an antique fair. These events afford both the curious and the buyer a precious opportunity to browse from the relative safety of the aisle without being collared by a salesman. They give the dealer a chance to spread out his or her treasures in a winning and appealing way and try to earn a living.

In the midst of this gentle skullduggery there are also very good things and many dealers who have devoted their lives to finding and selling pure and honest things

As I write, I am completing a stint at the Winter Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair, a thrice-yearly event which takes place in a fancy tent-like structure in Battersea Park. The word “decorative” in this context is a code word for goods which may not be all that good. Sometimes they are downright fake. For example, there is currently a fashion for so-called “shabby chic”.

This style has obviously been around for a while and is thankfully becoming less popular; it consists of painted furniture where the paint is knackered to the point of theatricality. All this stuff is usually ticketed as mid-century, which should make it at least 50 years old.

But around the fair there is a plethora of this nonsense which is clearly brand new. There is one dealer — whom I will not name — who has a strange binary stand of brand-new “shabby chic” furniture juxtaposed with Victorian oak and mahogany that has been stripped and/ or bleached to an aching whiteness. This is decorative furniture at its worst. Frankly I feel sorry for the items on his stand, which are as cruelly treated as geese on a pâté farm, forced into an unnatural state. Elsewhere you see painted things that have been stripped and timber pieces that have been painted. But all is fair in love and war and as the prices charged for these Frankenstein creations are usually modest, they often find new homes where they will be loved.

In the midst of this gentle skullduggery there are also very good things and many dealers who have devoted their lives to finding and selling pure and honest things. This is the real point of the decorative fair in Battersea: it is a real market where good sausages are sold alongside bad sausages. The fun, the adventure and the danger for the buyer is that what you will find is really unpredictable, and this makes the fair a success.

But while we do the fair to make money, we also revel in the camaraderie of our fellow dealers. We cannot resist asking, “How’s it going?” and “Are you doing all right?” While we are superficially interested in others’ success or failure we are mainly obsessed with ourselves. The upshot is that everyone lies. Either we downplay our success or we overplay it. We moan about the lack of profit or we trumpet a sale. What you say and hear won’t be the true state of affairs.

The final hour of any fair becomes the dealers’ hour: the punters drift away and we settle in to our alcoholic comforters to reminisce or complain and feel briefly as if we have real jobs.

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