The virtual fair, absent tyre kicking
June has been the keystone of the London season for nearly a century. At the tail end of the months preceding it with a series of balls, at homes, levees, and ultimately presentations of the young ladies of quality at court, the ultimate has always been antiques and fine art fairs, providing the great and the good the opportunity to purchase some exquisite piece of furniture or silver or bibelots, before decamping for the summer to whatever country estate one occupied.
I’ve written often over the last few years, decrying the change in fortunes of the established fairs, with the venerable Grosvenor House fair the grandest, and now for many years existing only as a blessed memory. The Olympia Fair has carried on, changing itself, and its ownership, frequently over the last decade, in order to survive.
Now, though, in this age of COVID-19 and all it’s wrought the fairs will be virtually virtual, with tours of the exhibitors’ stands virtual, and all auxiliary events where traditionally the flesh is pressed whilst holding a champagne flute, social distancing will only allow one to enjoy any of this from the safety of one’s own home via one’s computer screen.
And what of this for the exhibitor dealers? Of course, virtual is cheaper, but in a business inherently tactile, to name just one of the senses that influence the decision to make a purchase, how is it to consider purchasing a lacquered bureau cabinet in the mid 6 figures without, pardon the expression, kicking the tyres?
Mind you, sales platforms have existed for quite some time, and nearly every exhibitor either at Olympia, or Masterpiece London- Grosvenor House’s surviving progeny- are reasonably represented on the commercial sales platforms and those maintained by accrediting bodies, like BADA and LAPADA, that exist only for the accredited trade in art and antiques.
But what of the opportunity for those who really want to become serious collectors, who want to develop an eye, to discern what’s very, very good, as distinct from an item less good? In short, how does ‘virtual’ contribute to connoisseurship? The short answer is, it doesn’t, or at least not much. Using the same lacquer cabinet as my trope, what is it that can be seen virtually- the craftsmanship, quality of decoration, indeed the patina that can be wrought only over time- and then find that it is nearly indistinguishable, in a virtual environment, to a similar piece made in the last year. ‘Virtual environment’? Hardly. Nothing substitutes for personal inspection- pulling out the drawers of an 18th century bureau, say, and giving the inside a good, old whiff, taking in the very distinctive musty pong. Yes, indeed, kicking the tyres, that’s what’s missing and cannot be duplicated in a virtual environment. ‘Kicking the tyres’- am I excused for using this expression as a euphemism for connoisseurship?