Unveiling a Masterpiece

In England, posh women still wear hats, especially when they're attending an art fair, such as Masterpiece London, which had its third season (June 28–July 4) on the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. To wear a woven straw hat festooned with pink roses is to announce to everyone in attendance that “I am here to buy art, and I can afford whatever you have to offer.”

The first such woman to arrive at the fair parked herself on a chair at W.W. Warner Antiques, a Kent (England) dealer of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century porcelain, pottery, glass and furniture. That she arrived on the press preview day at the moment it opened, no less, was yet another unsaid announcement that proclaimed, “I am so serious about buying fine things that I need to come before anyone else snatches the best and finest away from me.” 

Such is the kind of posing and posturing (and buying) that characterizes many of the top art and antiques fairs—from New York to Paris, Shanghai to London. But unlike many other art fairs, Masterpiece London attracts not only ladies in sculptural millinery creations but also aficionados of vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Indeed, in sight of the W.W. Warner cases displaying porcelain Bow candlesticks with birds and Staffordshire figurines of cows were several motorcycles, set on their kickstands, for sale by Shaw Harley-Davidson of East Sussex. Steven C. Willis, team principal of the firm, told us that the bikes they make are “retrofied” for buyers who like motorcycles that evoke the 1940s, but which make use of current technology and machinery. “We customize bikes so that they have the style of something old, but ride like something new.” The lady eyeing the pottery seemed not to take an interest in his Flatliner, Rockstar or Mission Impossible models. Had she paid attention to the Pop Art model, however, detailed with Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist-esque imagery, she might have stopped for a mount—though we suspect she’d feel more comfortable getting into the back seat of a white Rolls-Royce Ghost that was also on display, flutes of Champagne awaiting on the armrests.

A man who runs a competing fair in another city, and who insists on anonymity, confided to us that if this year’s Masterpiece is a bust, this will be its last. “Who in Europe is buying anything these days,” he says. “Now, if we can get the Russians and the Chinese here, that will make the difference.” But from the way the crowd, even on the preview day, was negotiating the grid of aisles and the numbers of red dots that sprouted throughout the day like a healthy contagion, this fair appears fit. It’s certainly among the most attractive and comfortable of fairs to attend—within the temporary building erected for the event (itself a marvel of trompe l’oeil), the aisles are wide, the ceilings high, the on-site bars and restaurants are chic and staffed with waiters handsome enough to be muses, and there are views to the lush grounds of Royal Chelsea Hospital with the occasional strolling red-coated pensioner.

The joy of attending an art fair like this (apart from the chance to finally find a use for that fine hat you have on your top shelf) is to see some of the finest art and antiques in the world that are for sale. At London's Sphinx Fine Art, we came upon such masterpieces (a fair use of the fair’s name) as Tintoretto's Portrait of a Venetian Senator and Frans Hals’ A Tronie of a Young Man in the Costume of an Actor. Meanwhile, New York's Sperone Westwater, that gallery on the Bowery where you might expect to find an Italian Renaissance master paired with a circa 2012 minimalist sculpture (and one of 16 American dealers out of a total of 160), shared space with Rome’s Alberto di Castro. The dashing Guido Moscati, di Roma, pointed to the booth's most prominent work, a quasi homoerotic Gladiators at Rest by de Chirico. “This has been exhibited at many museums, including the Guggenheim in New York, but it remains for sale.” He told us the price, but asked for a promise that we would not print the seven-figure Euro figure. The most arresting image in his booth, though, is a recto-verso painted scene on lapis depicting Joseph and his brothers by Antonio Tempesta (1555–1630). Moscati pointed out areas in the scene in which the natural veining of the lapis served as the “pigment” for the painting—the fire within a torch, the pattern on a warrior’s outfit, the sky.

Emma Rutherford, a consultant for London’s Philip Mould Fine Paintings, was hanging seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century portrait miniatures in one area of her booth. Yet another reason to attend a fair like this one is to be able to get an art history lesson on a topic from an expert as experienced as she. Rutherford revealed the backs of many of her miniatures, some of which included locks of hair. “When women powdered their hair,” she explains, “it wasn’t easy to tell the actual color of it. When a man was presented with a miniature of his betrothed, it might be the first time he really knew the color of his bride’s hair, something he would witness on the wedding night.” Prior to 1720, Rutherford explains, most miniatures were painted on vellum, some examples of which she showed us; after that, the watercolor images were done on ivory. One of the most surprising depicts a woman named Anne Lefroy, a friend of Jane Austen’s and the subject of a poem by Austen.

Ellie Shusan, a Philadelphia dealer of portrait miniatures, meanwhile, displayed her inventory, which included American miniatures (not often seen) and some (disconcerting) contemporary works by Elizabeth Berdann, known for her tight focus on wrinkled brows and men sporting Mohawks.

If you’re not in the market to buy a masterpiece, a visit to Masterpiece London is akin to attending a museum arranged like a flea market. You’ll wander from Marsden Harley seascapes (Collisart) to Belle-Époque diamond jewels (Siegelson) and six-pack-abbed torsos of Roman gods (Safani Gallery) to effervescing glasses of Champagne (Ruinart/Moet Hennessy UK). You have the option, of course, to “Add to Cart” or simply admire, learn and be enlightened. 

—David Masello





This writer so "got" it. The Fair is exactly as he describes it. I was there to actually buy some objects for my collection (miniatures are among the things I seek out). Very clever and insightful writeup.

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