Art Market: Ascot of the antiques set: The socially aspiring Grosvenor House fair is 60 this year. Geraldine Norman reviews its troubled history

NEXT Wednesday, the Princess Royal will open the Grosvenor House Art and Antiques Fair at the lavish hotel in Park Lane from which it takes its name. It's the biggest event of the year in the British antiques trade. Dealers who take stands in the hotel ballroom like to suggest that it rivals Ascot and Henley as a magnet for the social elite.

It is always spectacular. The huge ballroom is filled with elegant displays of furniture, porcelain, silver, paintings, jewellery and a rich variety of other crafts. Britain's top dealers and a carefully vetted selection of overseas galleries tend to keep their best works for the fair and there are always some extraordinary exhibits. Whether or not you can afford to buy - and prices are set at the highest level the participants hope the market can bear - the show is fascinating.

The number of art and antiques fairs worldwide has escalated dramatically during the recent recession. The public finds it much less intimidating to wander round a fair than to enter a grand dealer's shop - and those who look at antiques often buy them. Art fairs have become the dealers' way of competing with the auction rooms.

This is London's big week. Besides Grosvenor House, there is the Fine Art and Antiques Fair at Olympia, which opened last Thursday and runs to 12 June. There is also the Ceramics Fair and Seminar, a popular annual event since 1981, held at the Park Lane Hotel from 10 to 13 June. Not all fairs are successful, however, and there may now be too many. Brian and Anna Haughton, the London porcelain dealers who have become major fair organisers, dropped their Silver and Jewellery Fair two years ago; and two weeks ago they had to send out confidential letters telling exhibitors that the Harrods Fair, launched as a potential annual event last autumn, would not be repeated.

Grosvenor House, the father of them all, is celebrating its diamond jubilee this year, and to mark the occasion the loan exhibition - a central feature first suggested by the Duke of Kent in 1936 as a means of encouraging people to come in and look without feeling they had to buy - will be a show of historic diamonds. The

V & A is lending a shield- shaped breast ornament set with table-cut diamonds,

dating from around 1630, while De Beers has contributed its Fancy Collection of

naturally coloured stones.

It was the Depression in the Thirties that prompted two London dealers to develop the idea of the Grosvenor House fair (between 1930 and 1933 many antiques traders made no sales at all). Initially, dealers were reluctant to exhibit side by side with their competitors. But the first, modest fair, which opened on 21 September 1934, proved an instant success - 15,600 people paid the two shilling entrance fee. There was no difficulty in tempting exhibitors the following year, and attendance rose to 23,500.

The late Queen Mary, a voracious art collector, became patron in 1937, and the royal connection has continued to this day. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, has been its patron since 1954 and virtually every senior member of the family has taken a turn at the opening ceremony.

The fair closed in 1939 for the duration of the war but opened its doors again in 1947, despite the prevailing austerity. All ran smoothly until 1978 - when a crisis was sparked by a chambermaids' strike. With only a week to go before opening day, employees of the contractors who were erecting the dealers' stands refused to cross the chambermaids' picket line. Charles (now Lord) Forte, who had bought the hotel, cancelled the fair and refused to hold any more if unionised labour built the stands. The dealers angrily withdrew. Subsequently, they made a deal with the Royal Academy and the Burlington Fine Art and Antique Dealers Fair opened its doors for the first time in September 1980.

The Royal Academy was never as good for business as Grosvenor House. For one thing, the timing was wrong. The Academy could not accommodate a June fair because of its own Summer Exhibition. So when the Grosvenor House management had second thoughts in 1983 the British Antique Dealers' Association agreed to come back. From 1983 to 1989 there were two rival fairs, but Grosvenor House soon proved to be doing better business and in 1990 the two were reunited.

There has been one hiccup since. From 1983 to 1992 the fair was run by Evan Steadman, a rumbustious publicist with a fancy taste in waistcoats and little knowledge of art - the Fortes chose him, so dealers had to put up with him. In 1988 Steadman sold his company to Robert Maxwell. On Maxwell's death, the liquidator sold off Steadman to a rival. The Forte family now handles the fair itself; Steadman is an impresario - he chanced his arm with Maxwell, the Musical earlier this year. -

(Photograph omitted)

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