Arts & Culture

All the Treasures at the Masterpiece Design Fair in London

Our design correspondent on the gorgeous acquisitions at the art event of the season.

Ah, Masterpiece. The London show in its ninth year opened to the public Thursday, and what a show it is. The surviving iteration of the venerable Grosvenor House Antiques Fair has become a cross-category powerhouse, the premiere event for “looking,” in the words of Chairman Philip Hewat-Jaboor, “at thousands of years of art history under one roof for one week.”

This reputation is deserved for two reasons. In terms of atmosphere and design, Masterpiece is cheerful, light, and a pleasure to peruse. None of the gloominess of New York’s TEFAF at the Park Avenue Armory; the tent is so pleasantly top-lit and well laid out it adds hours to one’s capacity to walk the show. The food is excellent, with pop-up representations of London favorites like Scott’s and Le Caprice, although service was an inefficient mess.

Vigo Gallery and Lullo Pompoulides 

The works you will find on offer are dazzling and consistently un-cynical, meaning dealers are not treating the show like an ATM and bringing easy-to-sell warhorse favorites. Masterpiece deserves its title, to say the least, but along with the prestige, there is lots of sincerity. One dealer told me he collected things and put them away for a year for this show.

There are daredevil surprises, like a portrait of Jimi Hendrix by Patrick Procktor (1973) at Christopher Kingzett, where courage and connoisseurship are conspicuously hand in hand. Given the shriveling of the London antiques market, one reassuring feature is the strong presence of traditional English “brown furniture” taste, with dealers like James Graham-Stewart and Edward Hurst holding the line with superb presentations.

The works you will find on offer are dazzling and consistently un-cynical.

Henry Moore, reclining figure. (Curved 1977 Black Marble, Unique L: 144 cm./ 56 1/2 inches)

If the 1928 Arp wall piece at Hauser & Wirth is not in the cards, two categories of collecting still provide an opportunity to get the very best for what amounts, in Masterpiece terms, to good value: antiquities and 18th century silver. Galerie Chenel has a Roman porphyry cinerary urn in exceptional condition from the 2nd/3rd century, and the pair of pilgrim bottles at N&I Franklin are superb examples of the silversmith's art of two eras, 1890 and 1930 (these beauties were not born as a pair, but do bear the same Scottish coat of arms.) The Georgian tureens next to them are even better.


The question to ask of any top fair is “What have I learned? What did I see that surprised me, baffled me—because it’s important but I didn’t know what it was?" Lullo Pampoulides has an epic 1866 Italian charcoal drawing, reminiscent of Delacroix but by Andrea Gastaldi titled “The Thirst of the People of Tortona.” It is an astonishing work, with a toe in several periods. From DAG of Mumbai we meet Tyeb Mehta, an Indian modernist who admired Francis Bacon and painted the monumental “Diagonal” portrait (1972) in vaguely fauve style (note to self, bone up on Indian contemporary art).

Rupert Wace Ancient Art (left) and Hauser Wirth (right).

The question to ask of any top fair is “What have I learned? What did I see that surprised me?"

Good times, but let’s end on a cautionary note. After a few days in London, particularly in the very social month of June during events like Royal Ascot and the opening of Masterpiece, one begins to experience the unsettling feeling that what is happening here is not real, not sustainable—and most conspicuously of all, not British.

The weight of international money bearing down on the city, much of it sinister, affects every level of experience. From the supercars in the street to the supercilious way the doormen greet you at the new pimps-and-hos-themed Annabel’s, should you have the misfortune to be taken there instead of the supremely elegant 5 Hertford Street. It amounts to a vibe of gilded oppression, the only cure for which is to rent a bike and ride around looking for normal British people.

It’s not so easy in Mayfair in June to find the other London—gritty, wry, indomitable, what one might close one’s eyes and wish hard to still call the real London. Sitting in Phillips’ contemporary evening sale after a few days of this looking at art/looking at money, I found myself thinking not of art but of the great Woody Guthrie. His words about the dual truths of my adopted home state ring just as true of Berkeley Square:


“California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see, But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot If you ain't got the do re mi.”

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David Netto
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