A fair fight for the punter's purse: While shops and auctions feel the recession, antiques fairs - from the muddy to the glitzy - have become a boom industry, says John Windsor

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Question: What, besides bankruptcies, has the antiques trade produced in abundance during the recession? Answer: Antiques fairs. This year there will be nearly 10,000 of them, not including car boot sales: glitzy multi-million-pound fairs, modest middlemen's fairs, muddy middle-of-the-field affairs. Clearly, many buyers find it less daunting and more convivial to browse at a fair instead of pressing the security buzzer of an antique shop or putting a hand up at an auction.

'Everyone has jumped on the bandwagon,' says David Pettifer, this year's co-chairman of Britain's glitziest antiques fair, the annual Grosvenor House event. 'You can now go to a fair every day of the week. They are here to stay because the public has become used to supermarket shopping. But there are now far too many of them.'

This year will see the launch of an international art and antiques fair at Harrods in London in November, as well as the first fair to be held by the British Antique Dealers Association (Bada), in Chelsea in May. Dealers cooped up in their shops, worrying about their unsold stock, have felt an urge to join with others in creating a mega-market under one roof.

'Quality' fairs have expanded most - that is, fairs of up to five days' duration with official vetting of merchandise and a dateline (selling, for example, nothing after 1910). In 1991 and 1992 there were about 500 a year. This year there will be nearer 600, many in the North and Scotland where, according to Philip Bartlam, editor of the monthly Antique Dealer and Collectors Guide, private buyers are 'less highly borrowed' and have more disposable income.

Caroline Penman is the promoter of eight fairs a year, including the biannual Chelsea and Westminster antiques fairs and two annual events, near Haywards Heath, Sussex, and Chester. 'Fairs have become so commonplace,' she says, 'that they are throwing antique shops into oblivion. Why should buyers go traipsing round country antique shops when they can find 50 or even 300 dealers under one roof? Fairs are fun. That way, more money gets spent.'

But, like Mr Pettifer, she thinks fairs have 'reached saturation'. So does William Weston, a London print dealer who exhibits at two American and two UK fairs a year. He said: 'Dealers and customers are beginning to forget which fair they met at. And even though the numbers of exhibitors and visitors are going up, I think you would find the number of sales per 100 visitors is going down.'

Organisers of quality fairs have been jostling for the most auspicious dates in the antiques market calendar, and the losers may disappear altogether. Among the less buoyant are the Park Lane Antiques Fair, which had fewer than 60 stands in September, the Barbican Antiques Fair in November and the Bath Fair, cancelled last year and now watching its largely Bada clientele head for Bada's first Chelsea show.

An expanding fair at national level was recently established by Lapada (the London and Provincial Antique Dealers Association). This month it moves into the NEC in Birmingham following its two much-acclaimed appearances at London's Royal College of Art. The Solihull Antiques Show was successfully launched in November.

Compared to fairs, the auction houses have had a rotten year. Although an off- bottom upturn in picture prices was detectable last month, there is still an embarrassing procession of unsold lots. Profits at Sotheby's and Christie's have been cut to the bone and there have been more redundancies.

Many fair folk felt the news of Sotheby's and Christie's hike in buyer's premium to 15 per cent, starting this month, was evidence that the auction trade is in trouble. Fair-goers declare that, at an auction, buyer and seller cannot get to know each other, or even eyeball each other over price and condition, and that buyers are not safeguarded by the vetting of such bodies as Bada and Lapada - to which the auction houses retort that all their lots are catalogued by experts available to both buyers and sellers, and that auction prices tend towards the wholesale.

It was the vetting issue that helped a British couple, Brian and Anna Haughton, to launch America's first international antiques fair in New York in 1989. They announced it would be vetted, a practice unfamiliar to Americans. From the start, their International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show (Americans say 'show', not 'fair') was one of the big four, throwing into confusion the organisers of America's best, the annual Winter Antiques Fair in New York.

Back in the Sixties Brian Haughton was a repertory actor, touring in plays such as The Reluctant Debutante, buying underpriced ceramics to sell in London. His show last October, with 78 dealers in New York's Seventh Regiment Armoury building, captured the aristocracy of American society for the fourth consecutive year. The 'New York X-Rays' were out in force - those pencil-thin society women borne down by jewellery and the occasional face-lift. Names such as Rockefeller, Ford, Trump, Hearst and Gimbel joined the 'reception line' at the charity gala opening and shook hands with the Haughtons.

It took the couple more than three years to 'case' the American fairs scene before stepping into a wide-open niche. The Winter Antiques Show in New York, America's most prestigious, had long resisted vetting and overseas dealers. It caved in to both too late. The al-Fayed brothers then invited the Haughtons to stage a fair at Harrods in November, the store's season of maximum 'foot fall' (customers). It is already 70 per cent booked by dealers.

The trade is now wondering whether the Haughtons can import American-style glitz to Britain. Our fairs have never been the see-and-be-seen events they are in the US where, in October, tickets for the charity opening at the Armoury cost dollars 500, carried a dollars 445 tax deduction and raised more than dollars 450,000. Grosvenor House will charge a mere pounds 100 for its charity gala reception in June. With traditional but stunning lack of foresight, the opening ceremony - usually by a member of the Royal Family - will take place on the previous day. Or could the deliberate separation of royals and punters be a new trend?

Fairs listings appear in: the Antique Collector, annual subscription pounds 30 (10 issues) (0444 445577). 1993 fairs listing pounds 1.30 inc p & p from Antique Collector, Eagle House, 50 Marshall Street, London W1V 1LR (071-439 5000). Antique Dealer and Collectors Guide, annual subscription pounds 33 (12 issues). The magazine's 1993 wall chart of quality fairs pounds 3 inc p & p from PO Box 805, Greenwich SE10 8TD.

(Photograph omitted)

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