What do you get for the museum with everything?

Rob Hastings sees how the V&A chooses a work fit for its collection
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The Independent Culture

Berkeley Square could hardly be a more appropriate choice for an event that attracts deep-pocketed art buyers from all over the world. The central London landmark is surrounded by showrooms for Rolls-Royce and Bentley on one side and Georgian houses with blue plaques on the other, while it's a Cuban cigar end rather than cigarette butts that nestles in a tasteful pot plant.

The place screams money – this is hedge fund country – and the organisers of the Pavilion of Art & Design fair hope that a lot of cold hard cash will change hands during what has quickly become one of Europe's most important modern art fairs.

The Independent was offered a rare glimpse into the often shady world of art dealing yesterday in the company of one man with a relatively modest £15,000 to burn in Mayfair, where Picassos jostled for attention alongside works of contemporary furniture from less-established artists.

Christopher Wilk is no regular customer. As the Keeper of Furniture, Textiles and Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum, he has the power to make or break careers. His job this week was to give an artist a permanent place in one of the most prestigious museums in the world.

The Moët-Hennessy-PAD London prize, which provides a more than 20-strong jury including Jasper Conran and Tom Dixon with £15,000 to select a gift for the V&A, has become one of the highlights of the fair. Wilk's job was to choose the works to present to the discerning judges.

The first choice was Fragile Future Concrete Chandelier, a construction of LED lights delicately decorated with dandelion seeds, suspended on copper wire emerging from a central block of concrete. This juxtaposition of warm softness and cold solidity, created by the Dutch pairing of Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta, was an early hit.

"It's absolutely exquisite," enthused Mr Wilk. "The electric current goes through the bronze circuit, and each of the seeds are stuck on to the lights individually."

"But why didn't you choose the better one, Christopher?" asked Dixon, pointing towards the chandelier's partner piece, a lamp based around the same concept but enclosed behind panes of glass.

Feet shuffled at Mr Dixon's challenge as the judges prepared themselves for their first debate. "Doesn't Tom like the piece?" asked a quiet voice at the back. "Oh, he's just being cantankerous," replied another.

Mr Wilk smiled as he defended his choice. "I prefer the idea of the lights floating." What he didn't reveal was that perhaps the real reason he had passed over the lamp – another member of the jury had purchased it for himself. Good art waits for no one.

Later the panel saw a silver hairpin by George Rickey, a wool carpet by Elizabeth Garouste & Mattia Bonetti, a lamp by Mario Bellini & Steven Holl. Even a Billy Childish poster amusingly advertising National Art Hate Week was considered humourous.

Fashion designer Jasper Conran was taken with a red glass bowl by Frantisek Vizner. "I like its pure, simple but dangerous lines," he said. "I'm not a fan of overly decorative pieces."

But the man from the V&A wasn't so sure. Mr Wilk recognised the bowl's beauty, but diplomatically hinted that it was not as striking as the other pieces. "I'm not sure it would have the same impact in the collection," he said.

Soon it was lunchtime and time for jury to retire and deliberate. After two hours the news filtered out. The concrete chandelier had won.

Architect Nigel Coates, the jury's chairman, said that the work had been a clear winner but it proved to be a controversial choice for Mr Wilk, who apparently preferred the hairpin. "Christopher was concerned the chandelier does not fit into the existing galleries," said Mr Coates. "But that galvanised the view of the jury that it was a really important object to show. It will be an inspirational, if difficult, object to present."

Despite the challenge he now faces in finding somewhere to exhibit the chandelier, it was one Mr Wilk was nonetheless very satisfied with. "The museum only has a £1m annual budget for new acquisitions, so Moët Hennessy's help with this addition is very welcome," he said.

Artist Ralph Nauta could barely contain his joy, calling a spot in the V&A a "childhood dream".

At the end of the day, as the men with real money prepared to swoop from the moneyed perches, everybody left happy. Mr Conran didn't get to see his favourite bowl win – but then he could have bought it himself.

A winning team

Dutch duo Ralph Nauta and Lonneke Gordijn are graduates of Design Academy Eindhoven. They formed the design studio Drift, and in 2005 began their Fragile Future project, which comprises a variety of installations in which LEDs are decorated with real dandelion clocks, with most of the workmanship done by Miss Gordijn. Nauta says the patience and intricate handiwork involved requires a woman's touch. Fragile Future has received awards from the German Design Council and first prize in Dutch art competition Artiparti