“Do you know, if a visitor spends two minutes at each stand at this fair it will take 111/2 hours to get around,” said one prominent dealer at Olympia on the penultimate day of the Fine Art and Antiques Fair, which was held at the West London exhibition halls from June 5 to 15. Actually, it would take a little over 13 hours, but no matter.
There were varying opinions on all manner of matters related to our biggest and arguably most important quality fair, but there was one point on which exhibitors and visitors were unanimous. Summer Olympia is far too big.
With 393 standholders it was mercifully a tad down on last year, but still far too large for comfort. This is not a showground event where size is what matters. It takes an awful lot of visitors with an awful lot of money between them to give a profit to some 400 dealers.
Consequently, the fair never looked that busy and it would seem the Olympia buzz is now just a memory.
However, the organisers’ publicity people give it a different spin when they say the attendance of 33,500 represents an average figure of 85 visitors per exhibitor. That gate is just five per cent down on last year, which is understandable, but the 85 per stand ratio becomes a bit meaningless when hardly anyone gets more than halfway round the fair. I went three times and still missed stands.
Still, although the acreage was forbidding the new layout and design was worthy of praise. And from the moment the doors opened on the first morning there was justifiably lavish praise for the overall look of the event, particularly the superb design of many of the stands, perhaps most spectacularly those of Vanderven and Vanderven, Talisman and Guinevere.
The stands proved a major talking point and there is no doubt that the more effort people put into presentation then the better the business.
However, for the large majority of standholders this was not a good Olympia. Indeed, for some it was their worst ever and I am afraid we are going to have some casualties, and by that I mean dealers going out of business.
I hear reports that some of those who spent a fortune standing at Olympia in the hope it would save the day will now be forced to call it a day.
For most it was a struggle to cover costs and possibly more did not cover costs than in past years. But that is the state of the market and I would not in any way blame the organisers, who worked harder than ever to make the fair work.
But as with every Olympia there were many success stories. So many stands looked so good that they deserved to pick up serious business. And, in typical Olympia fashion a number of dealers who felt pretty doomy on the Saturday evening achieved enough sales on the final day to pull it off.
The question of Americans is a mystery. Of course, there were not as many as there used to be, and some decorative dealers who rely on the American decorators found life difficult.
American private buyers were scarce and standholders cited the lack of Americans as a cause of bleak business. But a surprising number made big sales to Americans, especially American trade.
London dealer in fine early English country furniture Robert Hirschhorn had a tremendous fair and on the first day sold non-stop to American dealers and decorators.
Furniture was cited as a casualty at this fair but a number of the furniture dealers with elan, like James Brett, excelled. Straightforward period brown furniture had its moments with W.R. Harvey, Billy Cook and Patrick Sandberg selling traditional pieces well.
American television superstar Oprah Winfrey turned up and bought enough to give a good few standholders a big boost, among them London’s J. Roger who sold her a Regency bookcase, apparently a new collecting area for the big-spending diva.
And Olympia does continue to attract celebrities, including the ubiquitous Liz Hurley, Bryan Ferry, Joan Collins and Sirs Paul Smith and Bob Geldof.
Oriental work sold with Jorge Welsh, Jeremy Knowles and Vanderven all making big sales – in the latter case a £70,000 Tang horse and £150,000 Tang camel.
Some stands sold out and there were rumours that one dealer took £750,000 on the first day. Selected pictures sold at high prices, textiles did well and the vogue for later 20th century furniture paid off for specialists in this area like Gordon Watson and the Berg Brothers.
So, plenty of spectacular sales and quite a few delighted, some ecstatic dealers. But for too many business went much as expected – and that was poor. However, as I have said in the past, even those who did not sell will probably be back – which is why Olympia is so big.