LONDON — Few major sales were announced in the opening hours of Masterpiece London 2012, but most dealers seemed quietly confident that the fair will once again be crowned a success. Now in its third edition, Masterpiece features 165 galleries, 13 more than last year. Although it isn't buzzing with sales figures just yet, there's a distinct feeling in the elegantly-designed aisles that the fair has reached maturity, and is now a flagship for the recession-proof super rich clustering en masse in London.
Since its inception, Masterpiece has prided itself on the diversity of the goods on offer. Fine art sits alongside jewellery, design with watches, boats with furniture, and so on. The idea, creative director Thomas Woodham-Smith told ARTINFO UK, is to "break down the barriers of what people expect to see in a fair and what they recognize as master works," and gather "the highest achievements, the apogees, but it could be for anything."
For the first time ever in an art fair, a Caravaggio oil on canvas is up for grabs. "Saint Augustine" (1571-1610) hangs proudly at the booth of Whitefield Fine Art and comes with a £60 million ($93 million) price tag. Agnew's is also presenting an exceptional picture: a recently rediscovered Van Dyck sketch of Charles I and the royal family, executed as preparation for the "Great Peece" royal portrait of 1632, and priced in the region of £1 million ($1.55 million).
Perhaps a sure sign of the art trade's growing trust in Masterpiece is the recent addition of Gagosian Gallery. On site with no booth, the blue chip gallery is presenting Damien Hirst's "St Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain" (2008), a life-size, gold-plated silver sculpture of the saint holding his own skin. The gallery declined to share the price.
"I like the atmosphere here," said Christian Hemmerle, from Munich jewellery maker Hemmerle. "You get surprises at every corner. You can wander off and it's like a fairy tale." A rare gems specialist, Hermmerle has been doing TEFAF Maastricht for fifteen years but has only just joined Masterpiece — providing him a foothold in the British capital.
Direct sales are not the only aim. Swiss watch maker Vacheron Constantin — whose creations on display range from £13,310 to a cool £705,570 ($20,700 to $1.1 million) — uses the fair as a showcase to attract the attention of major luxury retailers in London, such as Selfridges. James Hyman Gallery, best known in London as a fine art gallery, has taken the opportunity to push the photography side of its activity. On their booth, a rare 1840 print by William Henry Fox Talbot is on offer for £285,000 ($443,000). Their selection also includes photographs by Eugène Atget and David Bailey, as well as a set of Brigitte Bardot pictures by Sam Levin priced at £6,000 ($9,300).
There's something for everybody with very deep pockets. Historic competition and classic car specialist Duncan Hamilton displays a stunning cream Jaguar C type, one of the only 54 C types ever made. Riva/Ventura has an Aquariva boat for €1 million ($1.24 million). Shaw Speed & Custom is showing Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Apparently an increasing number of customers order them for display in their living room.
At times, it's hard not to see the whole operation as a gigantic one-stop shop for the fantastically wealthy. Andrew Renton, director of the about-to-be-launched Marlborough Contemporary, doesn't completely disagree. "It's a fine line between the one-stop shop and a house of the things precious," he said. "It's too early to say if it's necessarily the best place for business," he added, "but what has been great is to see wonderful, serious collectors passing through." Sharing the booth with its mother company Marlborough Fine Art, Marlborough Contemporary is already introducing artists from the roster they'll be presenting at their brand new premises from next October. Particularly noticeable is the 2011 "Deep Stroke," a hyperrealist painting by Jason Brooks showing, to an astonishing level of detail, the close up of an oil painting, all rough brush strokes and shimmering hues. It is on offer at £55,000 ($85,500).
Reflecting on Masterpiece's first three years, creative director Woodham-Smith muses that they might slightly reduce the number of galleries in the future. The key, he explained, is to keep the focus on quality and diversity — and foster the creation of a sort of "Masterpiece Imprimatur." "If it's been vetted here, we want that to mean something," he told ARTINFO UK.
"Masterpiece London 2012," June 28-July 4, 2012, South Grounds, the Royal Hospital Chelsea, Chelsea Embankment, London.