The End of an Era

Editorial Staff

The Grande Dame of art fairs is, reluctantly, retiring. Organizers of the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair, held in London nearly every year without interruption since 1934, announced yesterday that it will close.

They cited problems with the event’s longtime venue, the Grosvenor House Hotel, which last year was renovated and re-branded as a JW Marriott. But what really happened to end the prestigious event’s 75-year-streak? Dealers, appraisers and collectors say a perfect storm of economic, demographic and real estate trends came together to finish the fair—at least in its current incarnation. (Some participants are already talking about creating a new alternative.) From the shifting definition of what’s an antique to a backlash against huge-home McMansions to a change in what collectors expect from an event, experts say that the world that created Grosvenor House is as gone as the famous fair may soon be.  

“I really think it’s a shame, it’s always been a highlight of the London season,” says Konrad Bernheimer, owner of the paintings gallery Colnaghi-Bernheimer, long a stalwart and star of the Grosvenor House fair. Nonetheless, he pulled out after last year’s event. The fair’s problem was economic, he says. “It didn’t make financial sense for the hotel,” which could gather more income from the daily rental of its Great Hall in June than the fair was providing, so it charged dealers heavily. As a result, “it was far more expensive to exhibit at Grosvenor than Maastricht,” he explains.

At its height of popularity, Grosvenor House, held in the glamorous great hall of its namesake London hotel, was a de rigeuer highlight of the London social season. Along with Wimbledon and Ascot, it drew thousands of wealthy Britons and Americans since the early years of the depression. By contrast, New York City’s venerable Winter Antiques Show is about a half-century old, and rising rival Maastricht in the Netherlands, a more varied fair, only dates back to 1975. Both have a significant space advantage, as they can expand, while Grosvenor is limited by the hotel’s restrictions. But Grosvenor long had the edge in glamour. The opening night was traditionally hosted by a member of the British royal family, and guests at its opening-night charity gala have included Annie Lennox, Elizabeth Hurley, Liza Minnelli and Sir Bob Geldof.  

This year, sales were reportedly stronger than expected, but the defection of so many previously key dealers like Jeremy and Hotspur (both have closed) was taking its toll. Insiders say the organizers had originally planned not to announce the fair’s closure, but the news started leaking when dealers were surprised not to be asked to sign a contract for next year’s event.

Critics cite confusion in the fair’s message.  In recent years, Grosvenor House has loudly heralded a redesign or change in merchandise almost annually. This year, the stands featured wine, photography and even movie posters along with more classic wares. It, like many antiques fairs, has struggled with the definition of “antique,” attempting to seek new buyers without alienating old ones or lowering quality.

Some also see a shift in taste away from some of Grosvenor’s traditional wares, at least temporarily. Demand has cooled for average examples of “English brown furniture”—the breakfronts, bureaus, sideboards, sofas—that were long the backbone of the event. “It’s not just the economy, it’s a generational issue,” says Victor Wiener, former executive director of the Appraisers Association of America.  Children of the wealthy grew up with antiques so “they think they’re making a statement by buying furniture made of particle board,” he says. “Some dealers at shows tell me sales are down 25%.” Of course, collecting trends “will turn around again, they always do,” notes Sue Bond, who represents several of the dealers who show, or increasingly have shown, at Grosvenor.  But the wild success of the Art Basel Miami and Frieze fairs played a role in the decline of the British event, some participants say. People who traveled to fairs began to expect a huge menu of related parties and events.

Instead of taking a stand at Grosvenor this year, Konrad Bernheimer will be part of a lush new event organized under the umbrella title “Master Paintings Week.” About twenty London dealers are piggybacking onto Sotheby’s and Christie’s Old Masters sales in July with a series of parties, openings and exhibitions. “Johnny Van Haeften and I cooked it up over lunch,” he says, referring to the well-known paintings dealer. Galleries will host invitation-only shows on Sunday, July 5 (some in new locations), but other events will run from July 4 through July 10.
So the London art scene is changing, radically. David Lester, organizer of the Palm Beach American International Fair, says he’s been approached by dealers at another major London fair, Olympia, to take over the management of that event. Lester is interested, and is in talks with Clarion Events, which owns Olympia, he says, because he believes the worst is over. “The dealer’s ‘bleeding’ and the client’s ‘sense-of-panic’ seem to have abated considerably,” he says in an email. “New fortunes—thus new collectors—will be created in the current economic downturn.”