The Petworth Park Antiques & Fine Art Fair, originally scheduled for May and postponed due to Covid-19, will run from September 11-13 on the grounds of the West Sussex stately home.
It is a major moment for the trade. Many eyes will be on The Antiques Dealers Fair Ltd as it stages the first physical, higher-end vetted event in the era of ‘the new normal’.
Organiser Ingrid Nilson is keenly aware that the event will be scrutinised by dealers, collectors and fair organisers alike. While other similar fairs were called off as restrictions on indoor events were prolonged, Petworth managed to get classification from The National Trust as an outdoor event, since its marquee is set on the Capability Brown landscape behind Petworth House (see ATG No 2453).
“There’s obviously a lot to take on board and we have to make sure we’ve covered all the angles,” she says. “People are watching, and they’re interested to see how it all goes.”
Nilson and her team are working to collate information and confer with local authorities on the safety measures put in place. Hand sanitiser, social distancing and signage will be major features of this year’s fair, along with the usual supply of art, antiques and collectables.
After a summer without physical fairs, many dealers are keen to start meeting clients in person again. But standing at Petworth is a serious commitment: exhibitors are taking part at their own risk and are liable for their stand rents should there be a Covid-19 related cancellation late in the day. Those who have chosen not to take part have already rolled over their bookings to the next edition planned for May.
Even so, 50 dealers are down to attend, many for the first time.
Timothy Millett is among the newcomers. He was one of the dealers whose last official fair appearance was at Chelsea’s Open Art Fair in March, which closed after just two days of its planned run of more than a week. It was the last major vetted fair to physically take place in the UK. After a few months of trading from his website, Millett is ready to get back on the circuit.
“I always knew I liked doing fairs, but I never realised to what extent,” he says. “After six months we [dealers] are like caged animals. I’m putting rather a lot of hope into it just to get things going again.”
He specialises in historical medals and works of art. Among the highlights he brings to Petworth is an enamel portrait of Queen Victoria by the firm Walery, which he offers for £2500. The monarch was known to be fond of these enamel images and gave them out as royal presentations, sometimes engraving them to the reverse.
Will the right buyers come along to the fair? Millett is cautiously confident, thanks in part to the cultural appeal of the local area.
He also praises the work Nilson and her team have done, from a virtual edition of the fair earlier in the year to their persistence in staging the physical event. For the rest, he adds: “I’m just trying to do the best I can and as safely as I can.”
For fellow newcomer Thomas Mehigan of Thomas Spencer Fine Art the chance to get back out in public will be a good exercise if not crucial for business at this point. He used lockdown to work on his website and Instagram site, and the effort paid off. Since lockdown eased, he has been on the road busy making deliveries.
The success of his website has made him change the way he thinks about his business, which has been based mostly on fairs. “At a fair you’re guaranteed all these eyes which will convert into a certain number of sales,” he says. “As a result I was always disincentivised to work on my website.”
But Mehigan is still excited to return to the world of physical dealing: “I’m keen to do a fair to change things up a bit. I’m looking forward to seeing people. Selling on the website can be quite passive.”
He specialises in Modern and Contemporary art with a focus on works that are either misattributed or damaged, using some training in paper restoration to get them back to desirable quality. One work he exhibits at the fair, for example, is a Julian Trevelyan print that he “brought back from the dead”. When he acquired it, the piece was covered in dirt and had been run over by a car. Now cleaned and reframed, Camel Corps, priced at £1250, is ready to go on display.
Another Modern British highlight comes from the stand of returning exhibitor Ottocento which brings Walter Richard Sickert’s oil on canvas board Maquereaux. It was painted before the artist left France for Venice, when he became involved with a divorced fishwife, who may have obtained the subjects for this still-life, offered for £25,500.
Ottocento’s Max Andrews tempers his enthusiasm with a sense of caution as he returns to what is essentially his local fair.
“Petworth is a good fair to do to see how it’s going to work, and I sincerely hope people will come and support us,” he says. “Everyone’s got to take their necessary precautions. It will be good for people to come by and see what’s on offer. If it’s done responsibly it should be alright.”
Among the other exhibitors standing are Fileman Antiques, Stephen Kalms Antiques, Precious Flora and Richard Price.
“A lot can happen in two weeks,” organiser Nilson says. “It’s all about being aware of the known unknowns. We’re going into untested waters.”
But, she adds, “as far as the fair goes, we hope for the usual things: plenty of visitors, plenty of sales.”