The Palm Beach Art Fair Played to America's Leisurely Tycoons With a Glittering Array of Paintings and Design

"We're a cultural entertainment producer," says David Lester of his Palm Beach-based American International Fine Art Fair, one of six art fairs that Lester hosts annually in Florida. "Just like a theater, we have to constantly adjust our programming — because even if you like 'Casablanca,' you don't want to see 'Casablanca' every year."

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Now in its 15th edition, the fair opened this past weekend with a gala preview that drew 8,000 guests to the Palm Beach County Convention Center. Collectors who come to the annual event have eclectic taste, or at least wide enough interests to accommodate jewelry from Graff, Scottish pistols from the London-based armor specialist Peter Finer, and paintings of nude women by Tom Wesselman and Fernando Botero, courtesy of Art Link International and Antoine Helwaser Gallery, respectively. This year's iteration, on view through February 13, offers more contemporary art than previous editions and also includes modern furniture, brought by New York's Todd Merrill for his first year at the fair. Despite a bit of grumbling among longtime exhibitors about the caliber of newer additions to the roster, the mood seemed optimistic.

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One of the most eye-catching booths belonged to Munich's Galerie Terminus, which had taken a large stand facing the entrance for the second year running. Gallery director Wilhelm Grusdat stressed his own personal relationships with many of the artists he sells, including John Chamberlain and Gerhard Richter. "I think it's one of the finest art fairs of this quality in America," Grusdat said. "Here in Palm Beach there is a concentration [of wealth] I've not seen elsewhere." A trio of works in bright, Florida-appropriate colors — by Anish Kapoor, Chamberlain, and Allen Jones — seemed designed to draw in local fairgoers. Two Richter abstractions were available for $1.1 million, with a third — a larger, brighter piece from 1986 — carrying an asking price of $2.9 million. Yet Terminus was also banking on the prospects for a young German artist, Jan Davidoff, who had several large paintings on sale for under $10,000 each.

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Waterhouse & Dodd took two booths at the fair. (The London dealer opens a New York outpost in Soho in March.) One booth held the work of photographers Georges Rousse and Jean-Francois Rauzier, as well as whimsical, optical-illusion assemblages from Patrick Hughes. One of the latter, "Eyewitness" (2007), was being offered for $110,000. A few booths down, the dealers had sold a small 1905 Renoir watercolor, "Paysage a Essoyes," for an undisclosed sum; they were offering a larger 1900 oil by the artist, "Deux Pommes et Un Coins," for $560,000.

Over at Barry Friedman's booth, the nattily dressed, white-bearded New York dealer was selling contemporary fare, such as large photographic prints by Michael Eastman and exquisitely detailed, charcoal-based works by Ian Ingram, who has been working solely in the medium of self-portraiture for the past seven years. Two pieces, involving materials like gold leaf, tulle, beads, and string — were available for $36,000 each.  

Art Link International — which is based in Lake Worth, Florida — mixed classic modernism with newer names, offering a 1982 Botero oil-on-panel painting ($235,000) along with a handful of Mattas, Karl Appels, and Paul Klees. Art Link also brought a work on canvas, priced around $45,000, by the graffiti-art legend John "Crash" Matos, whose work is collected by Eric Clapton and John Mayer.

On the design front, Mallett of London and New York was showcasing a new commission from their contemporary Meta line — a sleek marble "Carina" table from the British duo Klauser and Carpenter, for $85,000. "It's based on the design of a boat," says Mallett's Ana Gutierrez-Folch. "It's a beautiful table, especially good for outside. It has a special curvature on top; if it rains, water just flows off."

Meanwhile, Todd Merrill had a prominent space for his debut year at the fair. On opening night he had already sold what he termed a 1970s "disco-era-wild" sectional couch by Harvey Prober for $45,000. Fairgoers, he says, were discovering that it was possible to mix old and new styles with ease. Other highlights included a pair of serpentine-front dressers designed by Samuel Marx, offered for $120,000 list or $90,000 net, an Ado Chale black-resin-and-malachite coffee table, and three Jan Yoors tapestries from the 1970s. And for those eager for even more refined luxury, Monaco-based jewelry dealer Veronique Bamps was offering an exquisite yellow gold necklace, made in 1945 for Princess Irene of Greece, for $585,000.

Outspoken New York-and London-based dealer Michael Goedhuis, whose booth specialized in Chinese works on paper, discussed his own experience at the fair — the dealer has been showing there since its inception. This year, he brought an array of works at prices ranging from $28,000 to $375,000 (for a large work by the Taiwanese painter Liu Kuo-Sung). But it seems what drew Goedhuis to Florida is more the relationships he's built with deep-pocketed men like Jack Welsh and Wilbur Ross than the foot traffic at the fair itself. "You do have very serious people" in Palm Beach, he said, also citing Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone. "You've got the big tycoons of America who come down here, so there is vitality here."