Summertime at the Olympia

Summertime at the Olympia
The Olympia Fair, which was held June 7-17 in the Grand Hall of the Olympia Exhibition Centre in the far west of London, has always been difficult to get to, but a pleasure once there. Its glass-roofed Victorian building offers lots of air and space, some 280 exhibitors, and a choice of places to eat, drink, or sit.

This year’s fair was whittled down from 400 in the past two years, as its organizers strove to improve the quality of the booths and the exhibitors and include more international vendors. While there was still something of a flea-market feel, it was much less than it used to be—and the fair remains a favorite of many American decorators, because of its variety and quirkiness.

“We are pleased to be at Olympia, where we have space to breathe and show large-scale pieces of furniture,” says Dennis Harrington of Pelham Galleries, a first-time exhibitor. (Pelham dropped out of the concurrent Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair because it was planning to exhibit on David Lesters floating expo center, SeaFair, which was to launch in June but was postponed until late September.) Pelham’s booth—designed as a neo-classical pavilion after a drawing by Sir William Chambers, the official architect to King George III—was given pride of place at the front of the center aisles, where the most spectacular and fancifully designed booths are found.

Koopman Rare Art, who exhibited at both Grosvenor House and Olympia, had room in its booth to show an enormous Victorian silver four-handed vase made by Edward Barnard & Sons in London in 1855. The vase, which was too large for the Grosvenor House stand, measured 42 inches in height and weighed 121 pounds. “It’s the largest piece of Victorian silver to come on the market in 20 years,” said Timo Koopman. Priced at £1 million, the vase had not yet sold at this writing, but it had attracted the interest of decorators and institutions, according to Koopman, who pointed out that at the time the vase was made it cost £933, “twice as much as a house in Mayfair.”

One of the most expensive works sold was on the stand of Butchoff Antiques: an Adam Revival-style Wedgwood writing table made by Wright & Mansfield for Brook House on Park Lane in London. Commissioned in the 1870s by Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks, the first baron of Tweedmouth, the table contains 67 signed and named, black basalt Wedgwood plaques of emperors and philosophers set in cartouches. It sold in the vicinity of £250,000.

Vanderven & Vanderven Oriental Art sold five Tang horses, one sancai glazed and the others unglazed, all for five figure prices.

Meanwhile, Geoffrey Breeze, who showed antique canes and umbrellas, sold a rosewood cane with a silver handle that belonged to Winston Churchill to a dealer from New Orleans for £12,000.

Joanna Booth, a dealer in European sculpture, tapestries, and Old Master drawings, sold a 17th-century Flemish cupboard bed for £7,800 to an American who bought it as a gift for his daughter.

And in perhaps the strangest sale of the fair, a buyer paid £1,000 to dealer Frank Wilson for an 1840 Continental satinwood box to hold the buyer’s ashes after his death.

Attendance at the fair overall seemed sparse during the times I was there, especially on the upper level, but the fair’s organizers said the numbers were up from last year and that they expected 30,000 to have attended by the fair’s end. Many exhibitors would likely agree with Fleur Van Gelder of Van Gelder Indian Jewellery, who said: “We don’t need thousands, only the five best.” For the second year, the Van Gelder booth was a bright, beautiful Indian pink, echoing the late Diana Vreelands dictum that “pink is the navy blue of India.”

As Olympia goes steadily forward, it must eventually confront the rivalry with Grosvenor House, which opened in London on June 14 and overlapped this past weekend. Thomas Woodham-Smith, a director of Mallett, which also shows at Grosvenor, wonders about the future of two London fairs competing for the same clients at the same time. “The Olympia Fair lacks the grandeur and history of Grosvenor House,” he said, “but it has the space.”