"Eighteenth Century Isn’t Selling": A Report From the New Tricked-Out American International Fine Art Fair

Entrada da American International Art Fair de 2012
(Cortesia AIFAF)

PALM BEACH, Fla. — Before entering the American International Fine Art Fair, a Palm Beach show known for its vast array of blue-chip antiques, one might have various assumptions about the age of its attendees — probably pretty high — and the fair's cool factor — probably pretty low. Yet this year, the show greeted vistors with an exploding mass of painted, sculpted steel  (John Chamberlain’s "Camshaftmedley," 2007) standing in the center of a black pool of water at the entrance, as well as low, sexy lighting, and dark gray exhibitor booths with glowing fluorescent purple trim running across the top. When we entered the show's collectors' preview on Friday, one thing was immediately clear to us — this wasn’t going to be your grandmother’s antique show.

This year's edition, running now through February 12 at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, is a grand departure from its first in 1995. “When we started 15 years ago, people would've rather had a piece by an Old Master or an Impressionist rather than a Picasso,” David Lester, who co-founded the fair with wife Lee Ann,  told ARTINFO. “Well, Old Masters sales didn’t do so well this week. Eighteenth Century isn’t selling.” He had lost many once-successful exhibitors — Galerie du Post ImpressionismeJeremy LTDHotspur Antiques, and Anthony Marks, for example — after they went out of business. 

In response to shifting tastes in the market, and an increasingly diverse set of buyers that now include more Eastern Europeans and South Americans than ever before, the Lesters pushed this year's fair toward mid- and later 20th-century art, plus a few other surprises. There was a fair share of classic objects — 15th-century jousting armor from Peter Finer, second-century bronzes from Ariadne, and the most antique of all, a 50,000 million-year-old fossilized palm frond imprint from Eostone — but from the new minimalist décor to the wind-powered hybrid car, a new hipness was palpable. 

Blue-chip powerhouse Hammer Gallery brought its A-game this year, a dazzling flurry of work by Warhol, Wesselman, and Chagall (oh my!), a markedly different booth than the one that had exhibited 27 Renoirs the year before.  Although, to be fair, its main attraction was the very special 1822 Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. One of only three (one lost to fire, and another to Alice Walton), it was acquired by gallery founder Armand Hammer at a record-setting $205,000 at Park-Bernet  in the '70s. Today, it stands to fetch a cool $7.5 million. 

Equally as impressive was the Mark Borghi booth, full of highly coveted (and highly priced) works spanning the gamut from Cassat to Calder, with a bronze "Cat" and "Owl" by Louise Nevelson, and Robert Indiana's 1971 "Autoportrait Decade."

For the first time in the show's history, cars were included. While the 1934 Cadillac Convertible turned a few heads, it was the a sleek protoype of the patent-pending AlphaXXI that served as a hybrid showstopper of futuristic design and Jetsons aspirations. As far as attractions went, the sleekness of the streamlined hood and dramatic swooping of its wing-like doors were second only to its technological innovation — equipped with turbine blades on its surface, it stands to be the world's first wind-powered car. 

Nearby, the high-sheen frosting of Peter Anton’s larger-than-life-sized cake sculptures (made of inedible materials like acrylic, wood, and resin, unfortunately) were drawing crowds at the Arcature Fine Art booth. Despite the posted signs of DO NOT TOUCH THE CAKES, gallerist Ryan Ross actively had to block hungry onlookers from running their fingers through the glossy chocolate and candy pink frosting imitations. In a separate booth dedicated to solely to John Chamberlain, the Palm Beach-based gallery was also exhibiting 9 sculptures and 4 works of ink by the late artist, dating as far back as the '60s. Works of painted, twisted steel abound, including untitled two pieces that once belonged to Robert Creeley, the Black Mountain school poet who influenced the poetic nature of Chamberlain’s titles (see: “Valentine Cactus,” “Camshaftmedley,” and “Schadenfreude”). 

Another shining example of contemporary irreverence was Avant Gallery, whose booth boasted a shockingly realistic bust of a man screaming in agony as his head splits in two, crafted by sculptor Nathan Sawaya out of Legos. A pair of iconic Harry Bertoia diamond chairs reworked by Douglas Homer to look like black Hungarian sheep dogs sat in the front, hand-knotted throughout their metal frames with licorice-like black sponge cords.

Two large black-and-white frames from a roll of Harry Benson's film depicting Andy Warhol snapping a shot of Bianca Jagger at the Factory were the centerpiece of the booth by Holden Luntz, a Palm Beach specialist in fine art photography. On the outside wall, there was a classic print that fashion photographer Ormond Gigli had taken on a whim — looking out on an East 57th Street abandoned building across the street from his studio in 1960, Gigli had asked himself "What if all the window sills were inhabited by beautiful women?" After hosting a casting call of models, he made his dream come true, days before the building was demolished. Two hours into the collectors' preview on Friday, the print had had already sold for $30,000.