Published: July 17, 2007
There is no doubt. It is official: the general consensus of both visitors and exhibitors is that this summer’s Olympia Antiques Fair, which ran June 7‱7, looked better than ever.
Design-driven, the striking new look with wide aisles and boulevard-style entrances leading to freestanding, detached booths received well-deserved and lavish praise. The organizer, Clarion Arts, is clearly on target with its ambitious five-year plan to transform Olympia from an attractive popular British show into a top-level fair on par with the very best international art and antiques events.
Summer Olympia 2007 was indeed a marriage of the old, familiar event with its varied mix of dealers and the new, upscale, sexy mosaic of glamour and stars in the art and antiques field. The theatrical stands of some major dealers were inspired by (or borrowed from) those at Maastricht and, in fact, were constructed by the same company. So Olympia old and new are now wed †replete with special party and flowing champagne. Something old, something new, something borrowed †and blue, however, describes the feelings of some of the 300 dealers who are unhappy with the changes.
Established in 1973, Summer Olympia has had several incarnations through the decades, but this latest change for Clarion’s flagship event is a watershed event. The successful upward momentum, although carefully calculated, somehow manages to come across as a timely progression that is not likely to be stopped by its detractors. Judging by the comments made at the exhibitors’ meeting and the criticisms on a newly set up Olympia dealers’ web forum, however, there might be ongoing resistance from those who feel the revised fair has troubles. On the whole, critics lament Olympia the way it used to be. An imagined dialogue in typical old-boy English terminology could be: “Excuse me, sir, but, please, can we have our show back?” Management’s response so far: “Not bloody likely.”
There is some debate about the future, with heated discussions on both sides. Among the most vocal opponents of the new look of Olympia is American dealer Paul Vandekar, who specializes in pottery, porcelain, Chinese watercolors and China Trade items. Having exhibited at Olympia for the last ten years and surviving the vagaries of the dollar exchange rates as well as the post-9/11 slump, Vandekar believes that these changes could prompt him and other established niche dealers to reconsider signing up again next year.
With the strong competition of private dealer events and other specialist fairs in June in London, such as The Ceramics Fair in conjunction with the indisputable draw of Grosvenor House, Vandekar believes that collectors had to make choices, and this year Olympia simply was not one of them. Vandekar backs this up with numbers †of the 800 complimentary tickets provided by management that he sent out, mostly to past clients, he calculates that only 30 were returned.
However vocal, the naysayers seem to be in a minority at present, and although their ranks could swell, Clarion Arts’ new look and its take-no-prisoners approach is likely to prevail. There are just too many satisfied clients on both sides of the newly designed spacious aisles †dealers and collectors alike †who really liked this year’s Olympia and gave it their seal of approval, stamped with notable sales to English and overseas buyers.
As can be said of many antique fairs in the present industry climate, business was uneven. There were dealer complaints about too few buyers, and management acknowledged that the wide aisles did emphasize what seemed like sparse attendance at times. Curiously, this observation is contradicted by Clarion’s own statistics, giving a total attendance of almost 30,000, an increase of just under nine percent from 2006.
At the end of the day, perhaps the only numbers that really count are those in dealers’ invoice books. The postshow review reflects strong sales in many categories, with several dealers reporting an excellent fair and some achieving record sales.
This success was due in part to behind-the-scenes brainstorming between management and public relations firms. Under the guidance of show director Freya Simms, bold new initiatives paid off. American decorators and important collectors were courted with a new program titled “American Friends of Olympia.” Featured events offered an insight into English country house life with cocktails at the American ambassador’s residence, visits to private and museum collections, as well as an invitation to dinner at Partridges Fine Arts, hosted by Princess Michael of Kent, president of the company. This exciting addition was a clever strategy that translated into business from American buyers; top New York and West Coast decorators were seen seriously shopping throughout the fair.
While sales were strong in different areas, furniture proved to be the star. Period pieces to Twentieth Century designer works all sold extremely well. Guinevere’s collection of furniture by Gugliemo Ulrich sold to a fellow dealer on opening day and Autegarden Rapin, Belgian Twentieth Century design specialists, reportedly almost sold out. Pelham Galleries of Paris and London, Maastricht regulars and, until this year, exhibitors at Grosvenor House, made some major sales, including one in the last five minutes of the fair. Butchoff Antiques, known for exhibition-quality furniture, started the fair by finding a buyer for an outstanding Wedgwood writing table, priced at $500,000, and a library desk stamped H. Samuel for close to $100,000.
And from furniture makers to a maker of different kind: Frank Wilson of Worthing sold a Continental satinwood miniature casket to a client who plans to use it to contain his ashes when the time comes for him to meet his maker.
Roger Lamb from Stow on the Wold, Gloucestershire, who specializes in Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century furniture and accessories, echoed the resurgence of interest in period pieces, reporting 36 sales, many to American clients. Dining tables found buyers at all levels, and Edward Hurst of Wiltshire sold a vast Nineteenth Century banquet table to a Russian oligarch; Russian visitors, oligarchs or otherwise, were evident throughout the fair.
Paintings proved popular with several art dealers recording multiple five-figure sales. Among others, London Mayfair dealers Piano Nobile and Whitford Fine Art reported a strong show, with Piano Nobile selling an important canvas by Bryan Winter (1915‱975) and Whitford finding clients for more than 20 works.
Oriental specialists fared well. Jorge Welsh of London’s Kensington Church Street reported consistent six-figure sales throughout the fair, with sales of Chinese ceramics from the Neolithic period. Leading Dutch dealer Vanderven and Vanderven, whose specialty is Chinese Export porcelain and earthenware dating from the Han Dynasty, sold an important pair of Fourth Century Chinese horses to a French collector for his chateau. Both were pleased with the fair and both are Maastricht dealers.
The success of these superlative dealers and others underscores Clarion’s ambition to raise the quality and profile of the annual fair and reach its goal of becoming one of the top fairs in the world. It also, however, raises the question of balance.
It is doubtful that 300 glamorous, world-class dealers of the caliber of Partridge, Mallett, Pelham and those in their league can be available for Olympia in June, or indeed any one place in any single month. Management needs the critical mass to balance the critics. It will be a trade-off. When in time that balance is found, the new Olympia will lose its old nostalgia and find its new status.
The next Summer Olympia will take place June 5‱5, 2008, in London. The Winter Fine Art and Antiques Fair at Olympia will run this year November 12‱8. For information, 20 7370 8234/8212 or www.olympia-antiques.com .
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