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The Masterpiece London Art Fair is back after a struggle

LONDON — Barring exceptional circumstances — such as a deadly pandemic — summer in London is the season for high-profile events such as the Wimbledon tennis tournament and Royal Ascot horse races.

Since 2010, the summer calendar has also included Masterpiece London: an art and antiques fair held in Chelsea whose eclectic mix of galleries, attractive layout and champagne bars are popular with visitors.

Heir to the Grosvenor House Art and Antiques show — a hotel event that closed in 2009 after 75 years of catering to an older, upscale clientele — Masterpiece, as usual, is planning a very wide range of offers this year: from antiques and old masters to contemporary art, jewelry and design, not to mention the stands of sports cars and luxury boats.

Since 2017, the fair has been 67.5% owned by MCH Group, the operators of the Art Basel fairs. The majority shareholder of the group since 2020 is James Murdoch, son of media owner Rupert Murdoch.

After two years of pandemic-induced postponement, this year’s Masterpiece show is set to return from Thursday to July 6 at its usual riverside location: the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea (a sprawling complex that houses some 300 veterans of the British Army). To welcome everyone this year, the entrance has been covered with very large drawings of yellow anemones by British artist Sarah Graham. Visitors will also discover two giant light installations by Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha.

Masterpiece 2022 “is a celebration of what we do, but also of the people who come together,” said Lucie Kitchener, the fair’s general manager since 2017. benefits for Masterpiece. to be part of a larger organization.

Ms Kitchener said the London art market was currently emerging from a “collision of Covid and Brexit – so we are definitely behind where we need to be, not necessarily as fair organizers but as as a country trying to open our doors and welcome people. in.”

Brexit made it “too complicated” for galleries and participants trying to do business in London, and it was “more difficult for people”, Ms Kitchener added. She urged fair organisers, dealers, auction houses and the UK government to ‘work together’ to preserve London’s status as a major global destination, adding: ‘We shouldn’t put anything on the people’s way”.

Advance ticket sales have been healthy this year, higher than in 2019, Ms Kitchener said. But fewer galleries took stands at Masterpiece: a total of 127, compared to more than 150 in 2019. She explained that it was either because the gallery in question had stopped doing fairs or because of the shock of the dates: Covid has led several art fairs to be held in June, later than usual, including Tefaf Maastricht and Brafa Art Fair in Brussels.

As a fair, Masterpiece London has something for everyone. The galleries represent art, antiques, decorative objects and design. As you stroll through its airy, carpeted halls this year, you might come across a Triceratops dinosaur skull over 60 million years old, a first edition of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” an emerald bracelet and a painting by the Anglo-Portuguese painter Paula. Rego, who passed away earlier this month. Also on display are two Ferraris and a luxury boat.

“It’s a very London fair, but it’s what I would call New London,” said Melanie Gerlis, author of “The Art Fair Story” (a recent book on the art fair industry) and columnist on the art market at the Financial Times.

Ms Gerlis said Chelsea’s location meant Masterpiece attracted ‘lots of bright young bankers’ and ‘undomiciled people’ – meaning UK residents whose permanent home was elsewhere.

Above all, too, it occupies a niche.

“It’s local, but when local it’s London, it’s a rather international local. And the timing is really good,” she explained, referring to Wimbledon and Ascot. Given the challenges of the global fair trade – from finance to logistics to the environment – ​​“the more local you are as a fair, the better.”

In its early years, Masterpiece struggled to find an identity. The first fair was “comparable to a teenage girl in her first pair of high heels,” Robert Young, a popular art dealer, said in a 2018 interview with the Art Newspaper. Offering everything from expensive luxuries and status symbols to antiques and designer items, it was “aspirational” and “a little difficult”, he said.

The luxury aspect of the show was then toned down, allowing Masterpiece to come into its own and become an attractive enough proposition for MCH Group to step in and buy it.

In its December 2017 purchase announcement, MCH Group said Masterpiece has a wide range of collectors and has the potential to expand to other locations in the United States, Asia, and the Middle East.

The pandemic has postponed these plans and so many others.

One change regular visitors will notice in the 2022 edition is that the champagne bars, which used to stretch to the end of Masterpiece London’s central aisle, have been moved to the end of the aisle. Why?

“We had 55,000 people at the fair in 2019, and there were a lot of bodies huddled around these bars most of the time,” Ms Kitchener said. “I don’t think that’s how people want to experience events.” She also noted that in the post-Covid world, more spacing was preferred and crowded bars “divided the fair into two halves”.

At this year’s show, the central aisle is narrower and filled with a series of sculptures.

Overlooking the aisle, in a highly visible location, is the Dickinson Gallery booth. Co-founded in 1993 by Simon Dickinson – previously a senior director at Christie’s – the gallery is a leading dealer in Old Masters, Impressionist and Modern art and contemporary art. The gallery is a faithful masterpiece: it has been exhibited there since the beginning in 2010.

Emma Ward, managing director, said that over the years at Masterpiece, Dickinson had sold important works by artists such as Picasso, Légér and the Impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte, sometimes valued in the millions, and had met new clients. great there, so “we’ve always been a huge fan and advocate of the fair.

She said Masterpiece was “very accessible” both in size and in the variety of exhibits. It attracted a variety of age groups, including very young visitors who, unlike other art fairs, weren’t afraid to walk around, browse the exhibits and buy something that could be the start of a collection.

Ms Ward confirmed Brexit had created bureaucratic hurdles and complexities for those working in the London art market. But she said that wasn’t going to bother international travelers drawn to the UK capital’s many attractions or art buyers. She recalled that in the same week as Masterpiece, auctions of modern and contemporary art as well as old masters were taking place.

“I don’t think we’ll see less attendance,” she said. “London is always a very popular destination.”