The announcement that the 2023 edition of Masterpiece London, Chelsea’s high-end summer fair, has been scrapped sent shockwaves through the trade last week.
News of a cancelled fair is met often with knowing nods and tales of the good old days – the cancellation of the summer Olympia fair is a classic example (see News). But to onlookers, this writer among them, and participants alike, Masterpiece appeared to be in the ascendant.
“Every itinerant billionaire walked through the fair last summer. You were turning from one top client to another so that it became an exercise in diplomacy”, said Kieran McCarthy of Wartski, as he recalled the fair’s last run.
It took place as usual from June 30-July 6 on the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, hosting more than 100 exhibitors.
Some of these counted the stagings as among their best showings at Masterpiece.
“That’s why the news was so surprising for us”, McCarthy added. “It was a tremendous success, and that last fair was part of the cultural moment, part of the social season.”
But in the closing days of December, the board of MCH Group, which owns the fair, decided that it was not viable for the following year.
In a statement “escalating costs and a decline in the number of international exhibitors” were credited as reasons to close.
“The decision was really driven by cost. It was not because the fair declined or that we had bad visitor numbers”, Lucie Kitchener, managing director of the fair, told ATG.
From 2019-22, she added, costs to stage the event rose by 30%. Having held stand prices for several years, they rose by 9.3% for 2023 – but even this increase, she said, “only partly covered on costs. Passing on these costs in full would have made the event untenable for most exhibitors, who are themselves facing increased costs.”
For some European dealers, however, trouble has been brewing for a while.
Antique jewellery specialist Véronique Bamps last stood at Masterpiece in 2019 but did not return “because of Brexit”, she said. Entering the UK with a large shipment of jewellery had become a process of wading through red tape. On top of that was the 5.5% VAT to transport.
“It is too expensive”, she said. “I spoke to a lot of friends and they had the same problem. It’s Brexit, it’s now very difficult. I like the fair. It was a very good fair and I love to go there but the taxes were killing.”
Organisers noted such reactions as part of a larger downward trend. Between 2018-22, Kitchener said, the number of European dealerships halved, with only about a dozen attending last year. With UK’s political situation unstable last autumn, further attrition was feared.
“We felt it was important that we make the decision early to minimise impact on exhibitors”, Kitchener added.
Even so, it came as a bolt from the blue for some, such as London dealer Robert Young who has been at Masterpiece since the beginning. It was one of two fairs he stood at annually and last year he decided to cease standing at the other (The Winter Show) and make Masterpiece his sole outing.
He said: “It is a huge loss for the art market in London and a great sadness for all of those involved in building it up to what it had become.”
Masterpiece was founded in 2010 as the spiritual successor to the Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair by Mallett, Asprey, Apter-Fredericks, Ronald Phillips and Stabilo in 2010. The team behind it shifted several times before MCH Group, which also owns events such as the Art Basel series and Design Miami, acquired a majority stake in 2017.
Distinctive for courting high-end clients partly with the trappings of conspicuous consumption, Masterpiece devoted stands to speedboats and luxury cars. Last year its ‘official champagne partner’ was Champagne Pol Roger. The entrances and halls were lined with social-media friendly, highly coloured art installations.
While this approach could raise eyebrows from more traditional dealers, it drew crowds to the previews and did well for many of its participants.
“Masterpiece was not just another art fair to us; it was something special and ironically we enjoyed one of our best fairs there this last summer”, Young said. “We always saw a good international crowd, made significant sales and new clients every year. So it is not likely that we will jump into another event just to fill the vacuum it will leave in our calendar.”
Last summer, after two years of lockdowns, its run partly overlapped with TEFAF Maastricht. Some exhibitors did double duty between the two (Charles Ede, Bowman Sculpture and Oscar Graf, for example), while others plumped for Masterpiece alone (such as MacConnal-Mason and H Blairman & Son).
For them, it was worth staying close to home to capitalise on the international clients who historically flocked to London for its summer season.
Will the same be true this year? London Art Week and the usual raft of auctions are set to go ahead. But there is no large-scale high-end fair – something which has been a fixture in the calendar since the days of Grosvenor House.
“It is deeply worrying for London”, said Errol Manners of E&H Manners. “We desperately need a flagship fair in June and July.”
A specialist in porcelain, he is considering an in-gallery exhibition or ramping up his digital newsletter to compensate for the loss of the fair.
He added: “I do fear that we are sleepwalking into the decline of London as a great art market centre.”
At around the time Masterpiece was launched, the summer calendar included Art Antiques London, West London Art & Antiques Fair, Russian, Eastern & Oriental Fair and Olympia International Fine Art & Antiques Fair (later Art & Antiques Fair Olympia).
None of these remain.
Meanwhile, several other British fixtures recently closed. Art & Antiques for Everyone at Birmingham’s NEC scrapped all future stagings two weeks after its last edition in November. Chelsea Antiques Fair, launched in the 1950s, was revived by buyer 2Covet – but future editions were indefinitely postponed last October. And after its post-lockdown return in September, the Alexandra Palace Antiques & Collectors Fair has been called off by organiser IACF.
All cited rising costs among their reasons for scrapping events.
Charles Wallrock of Wick Antiques stood at Masterpiece since the beginning and is also co-founder of 2Covet.
“I personally fully understand the huge headwinds that are facing them”, he said of Masterpiece organisers. “It has been a perfect storm. Brexit, Covid, supply chain issues, a European war and the rapid increase in base costs. I am not surprised and take my hat off to them for taking the decision.”
He was joined by many other dealers paying tribute to organisers including Kitchener and the late Philip Hewat-Jaboor.
Not every Masterpiece dealer needs the event for its bottom line. Plenty stand to boost their profile and bolster relationships. But some did rely on it financially. So too did many of those standing at the events listed above.
Dealers may take advantage of remaining UK events such as The Decorative Antiques and Textiles Fair which retains three editions a year, art-focused events such as British Art Fair and Connect Art Fair.
The Open Art Fair and LAPADA Fair are slated to return this year. For high-end dealers there is still Frieze Masters and a number of international fairs (though it is worth noting that the traditionally focused TEFAF New York Fall has also closed).
Chance of revival
Organisers of Masterpiece have said the brand could be revived. Indeed when MCH bought its stake in 2017 it was with the stated intention of expanding it internationally. For now, as organisers work to get the Masterpiece house in order, there is little forthcoming on the subject.
Kitchener said: “At the moment it is a blank sheet of paper. We should only do things that create a real opportunity for dealers. It is not going to be quick.”
Vote of confidence
Meanwhile, some dealers are managing to keep positive.
Peter Osborne of Osborne Samuel admitted that the loss of Masterpiece “leaves a big hole in the summer schedule” and will change the gallery’s approach to the year.
However, he added: “I have been asked a couple of times whether London is under threat as an art world hub, and my answer is I don’t think so.
“People still want to come to London for all sorts of reasons and the auctions are strong as well as everything else.”