MORE than 100 dealers braved gales to be at Olympia at 9.30 on the morning of November 18 for a meeting called by Florida impresario David Lester. They were there to discuss the London International Fine Art Fair, the renamed June Olympia which he co-owns with Clarion but very much runs himself.
This was not going to be a walkover for Mr Lester, over from his Florida base. He has faced a deal of animosity from middle to smaller dealers in his plans for June, and even more hostility to his considerable price hike and insistence on dealers signing up for three years.
All those present were Summer Olympia exhibitors and almost all were currently standing at the Winter Olympia – many had been doing the former for 15 or more years.
The first half an hour or so went off in typical Lester style as he emphasised his commitment to the summer fair, how he had been attending since the beginning 37 years ago and how, of the five or so projected June fairs next year, this had the highest profile and the highest chance of success.
He talked of his proven marketing skills and his past successes (but not failures) very convincingly, and there were some nodding heads around the room. He also repeated how he owns the best fair in America and none could argue that he was brought in to end Summer Olympia’s downward spiral.
Strong on morale boosting, if not on specifics. If he sells Olympia as well as he sells himself, every exhibitor would be a David Lester convert. More surprisingly, though, he apologised if he had offended anyone by being a brash American – a good move because we all know he had. But then he said a little brashness was necessary to get Olympia going again, an equally good point.
When questions commenced, Cambridgeshire dealer Mark Seabrook took the gloves off straight away, saying prices should remain as they were and before they went up Mr Lester should show what he could do.
Mr Seabrook said what Olympia exhibitors wanted was to “get rid of furry stands and get 400 dealers back”. He said signing a three-year contract in a recession was folly and in dramatic Dragon’s Den fashion declared: “I’m out”.
When the applause died down, David Lester, stirred but not shaken, insisted his was a competitive price and lower than the other summer fairs (which caused some quiet debate around the tables).
He said Olympia was a high-priced big building and that no prices can remain static.
To further questions the organiser explained vetting would remain and be rigorous and he would seek cooperation with LAPADA and BADA.
In conciliatory mode, David Lester said he was flexible and positions taken earlier might have to be reversed, even a few times. He agreed that perhaps there was a case for putting the name Olympia back in the title of the summer fair, and he also suggested some wavering on the three-year commitment issue.
David Lester, though, does have his admirers who will follow him in changing the old Olympia. Harrogate picture dealer Ian Walker welcomed the American intervention and Olympia veteran, Kensington furniture dealer Patrick Sandberg declared: “I’m in”.
After so many different stories regarding just how much of the Summer Olympia is firmly sold, the organiser went on the record to say at the moment 40 per cent is contracted.
There are those who definitely will not do Summer Olympia, and those who said they welcomed the new Lester era. The majority, though, just want to get out and do the Olympia fair they have known and often loved for many years. They are glad to be shot of Clarion, who did not come well out of this meeting.
David Lester put on a good performance, as he is accustomed to doing. But he is not so accustomed to an undercurrent, if a polite one, of hostility and he now realises that handling a British fair is very much new territory for him.
David Lester on a learning curve?
By David Moss