I had an extremely interesting conversation the other day with Thomas Woodham-Smith, the Director of Mallet’s. He has joined with a group of other dealers in starting a new kind of collector’s fair (I can’t call it an art fair, since other varieties of luxury goods will be included.). Masterpiece 2010 will replace The Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair, which took its bow earlier this year after 75 distinguished years, because it was “no longer financially viable.” As the closure notice stated, “The closure of this much-loved fair, however, presents an opportunity for the trade to mount a new event commensurate with maintaining London as the centre of the art market.” Grosvenor House was unequivocally devoted to “beautiful objects,” with a preponderance of the decorative arts over the fine arts. The new event will include a wider array of luxury items, including wine, classic cars, jewellery, contemporary design, and more. The dealers who apply to exhibit in this vetted fair will be encouraged to show their finest stock, “show-stoppers,” which they might otherwise reserve to show only to their best clients in the back room.
Has taste changed…even declined? Have the very wealthy forgotten how to distinguish between a Raphael Madonna and a Bugatti motorcar? (I do not intend to slight the merits of either.) Has the “designer” concept in marketing, which has long replaced intrinsic quality with a symbolic surrogate, branding, corrupted their tastes? The answer is simpler than that.
The supply of beauty from the past is drying up. There are no longer enough old masters, Louis XV, and Picasso to go round. In our dealer-chat, which I have enjoyed all too seldom since I left the art trade, Mr Woodham-Smith told me something I didn’t know before, that the scarcity of quality is not confined to paintings, drawings, prints, and sculpture, but extends to antique furniture and objets d’art as well. It is no longer possible for a private collector or a museum to enter a field and to form a comprehensive collection in the way one almost could only a generation ago. A collector has the choice of lowering his or her standards, or finding some undiscovered area, which might end in a money-wasting bubble, or to pursue miscellany on the highest level. In this way one might well encounter a Bugatti sportster in the company of a Raphael Madonna, although perhaps not in immediate juxtaposition. Our recent exhaustion of the past, as if it were an oil reserve, changes the character of collecting, and perhaps its nature as well.
The great collectors of the past were not simply buying objects. They bought history and knowledge, a body of expertise, which they might acquire themselves to some degree, or purchase from established experts, whether in the trade or in academia. This ability to take comprehensive possession of a time and place in history—Renaissance Venice, Eighteenth Century Versailles, the Belle Époque—provided some intangible aura to material possessions, which enhanced their cultural value, distinguishing them from the junk in Charles Foster Kane’s basement or his real-life counterpart at San Simeon. In the tradition of the seventeenth or eighteenth century amateur, who might learn to draw landscapes from Cotman or to play the fortepiano from a Bach, the twentieth century collector could participate actively in the scholarship of his advisors, and eventually, in his own museum-like abode, borrow their mantle for as long as he felt like wearing it. This sort of discipline-based time-travel is no longer possible today, but, at high-bandwidth speed, the collector can dart from Paris of the 1920’s to 1970’s New York, back to Baroque Rome or ancient Egypt, all without changing his designer casuals for a professor’s musty three-piece suit. He might even never have to leave his everyday reality, which might be embodied in the latest iPhone or a Lexus hybrid.
I may say this with some irony, but without denigration of the contemporary collector, who, like the rest of us, must settle for what he or she can have. The upcoming Masterpiece 2010 in London will show us just what that can be. In any case, there can be nothing healthier than new perspectives in guiding collectors in their explorations, and the show should be a delight for the eye, and for other human faculties as well: Mr. Woodham-Smith assures me that the restaurant in the hall—the Chelsea Barracks (subject to planning permission)—will be of top quality. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying window shopping in our advertiser Bloomsbury Auctions’ latest catalogue of European and American posters, and looking forward to January, the month when the old breed of collectors and experts descend on New York for old master week. We’ll have previews and reports on the auctions, and, like last year, on Master Drawings New York.