What lies behind the demise of British art and antiques fairs?

Britain’s economy is struggling. And so, too, is its art and antiques trade.

Over the past few months, several well-established fairs at various levels of the market have announced their cancellation: the thrice-a-year Art & Antiques for Everyone in Birmingham; the Antique Home & Vintage Fair in York; and in London, the Chelsea Antiques Fair, the Alexandra Palace Antiques & Collectors Fair, the summer edition of Art & Antiques Fair Olympia, the Open Art Fair and—perhaps most shockingly—the upscale Swiss-owned Masterpiece London. In their heydays, Masterpiece and Olympia both attracted more than 30,000 visitors.

The flurry of cancellations suggests that something fundamental is happening to this particular sector of the UK economy. Is this just a momentary local difficulty, or do we have a wider international problem?

In terms of the global financial context, the International Monetary Fund has predicted Britain will be the only G7 economy in recession in 2023. A triple-whammy of Covid, Brexit and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed up the cost of living and trading in the UK.

MCH, the Swiss owner of the Art Basel fair franchise, cited “escalating costs and a decline in the number of international exhibitors” as the two main reasons why it decided that Masterpiece was “not commercially viable this year”. In 2022, with just a fifth of the 130 or so participating dealers headquartered outside the UK, Masterpiece had effectively become a British art and antiques fair.

Following its first edition in 2010, Masterpiece “just got better and better”, according to Rhonda Long-Sharp, the founder of the US-based exhibitor Long-Sharp Gallery, specialising in modern and contemporary prints. “But Brexit and the pandemic left problems in their wake,” she says. As it became more difficult for international galleries, particularly from the EU, to participate, “many just stopped doing so”. “The same is true for collectors from the EU,” she adds.

Nonetheless, Long-Sharp says around 30% of her business originates in the UK and she will continue to visit. Her gallery is currently considering participating in the new London Summer Art Fair in June, which will be half the size of Masterpiece, held in a smaller temporary space at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea.

Britain’s middle market fair scene may be shrinking post-Brexit, but there is still plenty of money in London. A recent report by the Equality Trust charity says that, last year, the number of UK billionaires increased by 20% to 177. In February, the FTSE 100 index of blue-chip shares reached an all-time high. Last year, more than 600 homes valued in excess of £5m were sold in London, the highest number ever recorded by the estate agents Savills.

“London has always been good for us,” says Isaac Pineus, co-director of Stockholm-based Modernity, specialist dealers in “rare and high-grade” 20th-century Nordic design, priced mainly between £5,000 and £50,000, who were stalwarts of Masterpiece.

“We’ve done very well over the years at Masterpiece,” says Pineus, who hasn’t been overly concerned about the extra costs and paperwork created by Brexit. “But last year the fair wasn’t so successful. It seemed that many people weren’t doing so well.”

Pineus says Modernity will no longer be exhibiting at a summer fair in the capital. The dealership will continue to show at TEFAF New York in May and PAD London in October, when thousands of international visitors are in town for Frieze. Modernity will continue selling 20th-century furnishings at its new 2,100 sq. ft gallery in Pimlico. “We’re doing very well there,” Pineus adds. “We’re selling to clients from all over London.”

A two-tier structure

The many thousands spent on tasteful Danish dining tables and Swedish chandeliers to decorate multi-million-pound homes in Chelsea and Notting Hill exemplify the “two-tier” structure that now prevails in the art and antiques trade.

In 2013, the economists Branko Milanovic and Christoph Lakner used data from the World Bank to publish a graph that showed global income gains from the poorest to the wealthiest during the period 1988-2008. The graph rises rapidly on the left to show improved outcomes in the developing world, then collapses when it reaches the working and middle classes in developed economies, before finally soaring upwards when it shows the gains of the global 1%. This graphic illustration of how neoliberal capitalism has shaped the wealth of the world’s population resembles an elephant. Updated versions show the trunk of the wealthiest 1% rising almost vertically.

Britain’s post-Thatcherite economic settlement has made it difficult for the country’s professional classes to maintain long-accustomed standards of living. Now, if they have a few thousand to spare, they spend it on helping their children get on Britain’s ever-steepening housing ladder, not on art or antiques.

“Their priorities became different,” says Charles Plante, a London-based dealer in 18th- and 19th-century works on paper in the £1,000-£5,000 range, who was previously a successful exhibitor at Olympia’s summer Art & Antiques Fair. He has transferred his business to the US and now concentrates on the San Francisco Fall Show in October. “There’s more money in America, and there’s an appreciation of objects and connoisseurship,” he says. “I’m not finding that in England.”

“Olympia declined so rapidly,” he adds. “Magazines had a huge influence. One day, House and Garden would feature interiors with interesting objects and porcelain. The next, it was all swept-out rooms.” He might also have mentioned the influence of television—game show-style programmes like Flog It!, Cash in the Attic and Dickinson’s Real Deal encourage a culture of selling rather than collecting.

Events with a primary focus on modern furnishings or contemporary art still seem to have a future in post-Brexit Britain. There was plenty of business being done in January at the Winter edition of the thrice-yearly Decorative Fair in Battersea, which drew around 10,000 visitors. And collectors and curators still regard Frieze London, owned by the California-based Endeavor entertainment group, as one of the most important dates in the contemporary art world calendar. However, with the demise of Masterpiece, more of a question might hang over the longevity of the Frieze Masters fair, also aimed at the wealthy “cross-collecting” community, albeit at a more business-friendly time of year.

But the elephant graph in the room remains the way that Middle Britain’s traditional collecting culture has been eroded by local and global economic forces. This isn’t just a post-Brexit British phenomenon. “New collectors no longer buy at a low level and work their way up,” says Jill Newhouse, a New York-based dealer in European master drawings at what has traditionally been viewed as the “affordable” end of the market. “They now start by buying works for $20,000 or $30,000. It’s not a question of money.”

Where did these new collectors make that money? “Some have inherited,” says Newhouse. “We’ve got a writer. And someone in the film industry.”

Over in San Francisco, Plante says he’s selling to “upper-class Americans” who buy half a dozen of his drawings at a time to create a French “salon style” in their beautiful homes.

So, there we have it. Quietly, without anyone really noticing or reporting it, the lower tier of this particular business has been squeezed. And Britain’s art and antiques fairs have been the pips.