'Masterpiece', and apologies

June 26 2014

Image of 'Masterpiece', and apologies

Picture: Lawrence Hendra

Further apologies for the patchy service lately. As I mentioned below, it's that time of year when all the fairs and Old Master auctions happen at the same time. So things have been a little busy.

We set up our stand at the Masterpiece fair over the weekend (see above, can you spot the Titian?). Then Monday was vetting day. Happily, we had no casualties. Tuesday saw the fair open with a 'Patrons evening', and yesterday we had the 'preview' day, from 10am to 10pm. The setting up days were fuelled by cheeseburgers from the builders tent. From now on it's over-priced sandwiches from the Mount Street Deli in the fair. The free champagne, which flowed endlessly yesterday and on Tuesday night, also ceases today. Boo.

Vetting is a curious business. Each category (paintings pre-1900, sculpture, etc.) has its own sub-committee, and is taken very seriously. At some fairs it isn't (and it shows). The picture committee is made up of a collection of museum curators and former directors, and also some fellow dealers. I've never understood why the latter are there, to be honest - if it were up to me, I'd make it exclusively curators and scholars. But the system seems to work well enough anyway.

Exhibitors are not allowed into the fair when vetting takes place in the morning, but must return to their stands by 2pm to look for the dreaded blue stickers, which are stuck to anything that doesn't pass muster. Last year one dealer returned to find an infestation of the things; it was a vetting bloodbath. He's not come back this year.

Our preview day was reasonably successful. Our consultant for portrait miniatures, Emma Rutherford, sold six works, and had another four reserved by clients. We've also sold three paintings, with another reserved. The atmosphere is quite upbeat; the fair, in its fifth year now, has hits its stride, and I'm pleased to see a few more picture dealers have come on board too (like Lowell Libson and John Mitchell). I think Masterpiece's position as the pre-eminent London fine art fair is pretty secure. Frieze Masters, from what most dealers tell me, hasn't quite worked out (at least for Old Masters). It's at the wrong time of year, and the centre of gravity is inevitably weighted towards modern and contemporary.

This year Masterpiece is a week earlier than previously, so fortunately it's not at the same time as Master Paintings Week (which is when all the central London galleries open their doors during the Old Master sales). This means I won't spend half the day in taxis, shuttling back and forth from fair to gallery, and auction room.

Master Paintings Week is lucky to have the support of the National Gallery, and its director Nicholas Penny, who writes on the MPW website:

We do not know who invented the term ‘Old Master Painting’.  It seems to have emerged in the London art trade two hundred years ago. ‘Master Paintings’ is the not very felicitous but very useful new term which combines Old Masters with art that cannot yet be called modern.  Etymological enquiries of this kind draw our attention to the shifting definitions essential to the history of taste as it evolves not only in the art market, but in museums and galleries.

If the National Gallery’s collection is in some respects canonical it should be noted that since 2000 it has acquired by gift and purchase works by Maulbertsch, Calame, Balke, Menzel and Gallen Kallela – Austrian, Swiss, Norwegian, German and Finnish artists.  And by the time this is published will have acquired a major North American painting by George Bellows, whose work has perhaps never previously been shown in the context of European art.

How are such changes made?  What are the preconditions for an institution redefining itself in this way?  These are not easy questions to answer.  The personal interest of a Director or the enthusiasm of a Curator, the support of Trustees (or their indulgence) are all significant forces, and so too is the work of academic art historians and critics.  But perhaps the most important factor is the eye for new opportunities, the sense of discovery, generated by dealers and collectors.  It is in the art market that new reputations are most commonly made, at least at first.

This is a fairly random post before I head off to the fair for the day. Can I say thank you to the readers who said very kind things to me at the fair yesterday. And I look forward to seeing more of you both there and at the gallery in the coming days.

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