by Zeynep Rekkali JensenSep 20, 2023
Masterpiece London Art Fair, which has taken place in the grounds of The Royal Hospital Chelsea every summer for the past 10 years, is renowned for showcasing the most sought-after luxury possessions and objet d'arts - from exquisite Van Cleef and Arpels jewels, to gleaming Rivas, to rare Roman-British mosaics. However, what is unexpected and intriguing about this year’s Fair is the steps that the organisers are taking to make it more inclusive.
For such a glossy event, selling some of the most highly prized objects that one can imagine, the Fair implements small but purposeful initiatives to make the experience more accessible and the pieces more attainable. It is a clever move to engage potential new young collectors, build confidence for buyers, and ultimately grow a sustainable market for the future.
Masterpiece describes itself as a 'cross-collecting' fair, spanning art, design, furniture, jewellery, and antiques - a blend designed to encourage visitors to engage with works of art with which they may be less familiar. Modern and contemporary pieces by artists and designers such as Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, and Marcel Breuer sit comfortably alongside Baroque portraiture, Chippendale furniture, and fifteenth-century illuminated manuscripts. Many prominent gallerists are showing a broad spectrum of periods and styles even within their own booths - carefully combining works across eras and genres; Axel Vervoordt's stand includes furniture by celebrated Brazilian designer Jose Zanine Caldas, archaeological pieces, and modern works of art. This cross-collecting approach creates opportunities for serendipitous encounters with pieces, and enables collectors to visualise works within their homes and existing (or perhaps aspirational) lifestyles.
Speaking on the subject, Chairman Philip Hewat-Jaboor said, "Rather than grouping our exhibitors by the kind of objects they present, we integrate them... We have seen how juxtaposing different works absolutely encourages collectors to learn about and buy works of art they may not usually have the opportunity to discover."
The organisers at Masterpiece London have made concerted efforts to include and assure first-time buyers, and remove the psychological barriers to engage with the works - sometimes by removing the physical barriers themselves. Exhibitors are actually encouraged by the Fair to not use cabinets or keep the works behind glass; a brave move when dealing with priceless artworks and antiques.
The sculptures presented are made from different and sometimes unusual materials, encouraging visitors to challenge their perceptions about sculpture. – Jo Baring, curator of the Sculpture Series at Masterpiece London 2019.
But, of course, these pieces do have a price. The Fair makes it a point to suggest to all exhibitors that they display prices for the pieces they present, to make the process less intimidating for those new to the game. It helps you to 'get your eye in' - budding collectors can acquaint themselves with names, styles and values, and ultimately feel more comfortable talking to the exhibitors. For the collector, information is power; for the gallerist, that first conversation is the key.
Other initiatives can be seen in curatorial decisions, such as the new Sculpture Series: supposedly not Instagram bait (despite having a dedicated staff member for taking photos of visitors, and a social media competition advertised next to Phyllida Barlow's immersive installation at the entrance) but intended to introduce a younger generation to sculpture as an artistic medium to collect. To be honest, it's probably both; but why should it not be?
The interspersal of the works in the Sculpture Series, strategically placed through the hallways, also softens the complexity of this extensive fair. The statuesque presence of Susie MacMurray's Medusa (presented by Pangolin London) and Tony Cragg's Bust (presented by Jerome Zodo Gallery) in the main hall help to break up the boundaries between the collectors mingling and the formality of the booth layout. With 160 international galleries exhibiting at the Masterpiece 2019, it could easily feel overwhelming - but the Fair succeeds in creating an elegant and enlightening experience, which dazzles at every turn.
Masterpiece London is a masterpiece of cultural enrichment and education, made up of carefully curated juxtapositions of aesthetics, disciplines, and ideas - from antiquity to the present day - encouraging visitors to consider what it means to be a collector and re-establishing the relevance and purpose of a fair today. Masterpiece consists of luxury, yes - but in implementing subtle structural, curatorial, and experiential reforms, it departs from archaic and exclusionary models to breathe new life into the fair experience for the twenty-first century collector.The Masterpiece London Fair 2019 took place from June 27 to July 3.