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Swellboy on… the Masterpiece art fair

A supremely civilised place to view unaffordable objects

Swellboy on… the Masterpiece art fair

Image: Brijesh Patel

July 06 2010
Nick Foulkes

One of the benefits of getting older is that it offers the opportunity to describe something by saying that it is like something else “used to be in the old days”. Granted, this is not a huge compensation for the effects of the passing of time on the body. Nevertheless, there is some satisfaction in being able to point out to someone young that while they may be prettier/slimmer/more hirsute/more energetic than you are, at least one is able to demonstrate a superior level of experience.

I most recently overheard this gambit at Masterpiece, the chic London art and antiques fair, where some wizened grandee vouchsafed the information that it was rather like Maastricht used to be, leaving his younger interlocutor to infer that he had somehow missed out on a golden age. Of course, having never been to Maastricht’s world-famous car boot sale, I am unable to offer any comparative insight. But I can say that Masterpiece is an utterly brilliant idea, pretty much flawlessly executed.

The catering came courtesy of Richard Caring’s restaurants, with replications of everything from Harry’s Bar to Le Caprice, and would have been enough to lure me there even if the exhibits and exhibitors had not been top notch. As it was, I could have spent all day gawping at the treasures on offer, among them a giant, elaborately chased Victorian silver vase about the height of one of my children; sufficient busts, bits and pieces from classical antiquity to fill a sizeable chunk of The British Museum; what appeared to be entire rooms ripped from French châteaux and painstakingly re-erected in SW1; and such indispensable bibelots as a 17th-century narwhal tusk.

The founding committee included my old friend Simon Phillips, a second-generation antiques dealer. About 20 years ago he was selling a candlestick that cost about as much as the flat I was then living in; these days if I wanted to sell my house, car and family I could probably just about afford to get one of a pair of console tables upon which to put the candlestick that I never bought.

And yet, wandering around Masterpiece, it did not seem to matter that everything was beyond my means; it was just wonderful to be in a really civilised environment where you could talk about such aesthetes and collectors as Charlie de Beistegui and the Baron de Redé without being thought bonkers.

Moreover, the atmosphere was relaxed. I wore a pair of seersucker trousers, a cornflower-blue linen shirt, a pair of two-tone shoes, and felt as if I was at a friend’s cocktail party, where I just happened to be fortunate enough to bump into a number of old chums who scrape a living supplying billionaires with bric-a-brac. Of course, the irony was that this collection of exquisitely beautiful objects thrown up by centuries and, in some cases, millennia of human artistic endeavour was located on the site of the Candy brothers’ doomed development, which, had the Prince of Wales not mentioned his misgivings, would probably now be another monolithic monument to remote-controlled, fully concierged contemporary living.