Vetting is an anxiety-generating ritual enacted in private. According to the fair's rules, exhibitors must stay out of sight of their stand while each of 26 committees rubs and scrapes and huffs on the artworks they are offering for sale. Then they tiptoe back, some with more trepidation than others, to snatch up a slip of paper bearing the committee's verdict. If a piece has caused offence, the exhibitor is obliged to carry it (tiptoes again) to the Sold Store for eventual removal. It is the antique trade's equivalent of the batsman's long walk back to the
I was invited by Leslie Weller, chairman for 20 of the fair's 21 years, to be the first reporter to mingle with the committees as they wended their inquisitorial way from stand to stand. But first, at 8.45am, continental breakfast and briefing for some 150 'vetters' amid the fake marble of Olympia's Pillar Hall. ('Just let them try calling it the Marble Hall,' said one.)
Except for the croissants and marmalade, it resembled a Hill Street Blues morning briefing. 'Be fair and be seen to be fair,' the portly and jovial Mr Weller exhorted the assembled sleuths, as an over-excited member of the furniture committee fell noisily off his chair.
Within minutes, the eyes of the 'Japanese and Chinese Porcelain,
Furniture, Objects and Works of Art Committee' (to give it its full name) had locked on to the 18in- high Chinese vases converted into table lamps. The two committee members I spoke to were incensed. 'There's a 17th-century vase under there, somewhere,' said one, 'but it's been shattered, mended and completely repainted to hide the cracks. You're looking at the art of the restorer.'
It would have fooled me. 'Touch it here,' the other insisted. 'Now move your fingers along the surface. Do you feel the
texture change from smooth porcelain to matt? That's where it's been sprayed. If you look closely, you can even see the difference.' A recent restoration? 'Yes.' During the past decade, perhaps? A hurrumph: 'More like last week.' He guessed that the vase could have sold for pounds 1,900, but reckoned its value was actually pounds 200-300. A minor earthquake took place after I left, when the dealer attempting to sell the vases confronted Mr Weller for having allowed the press to witness their denunciation. Mr Weller is well able to withstand minor earthquakes, being fortified by a laconic sense of humour that came to the fore when he auctioned the late Robert Maxwell's possessions for Sotheby's two years ago. Sample quip: 'I suspect the arts
were not his main interest.'
At Olympia last year, between 80 and 120 pieces were submitted to him on appeal by disappointed dealers. He upheld almost all the rejections. There were tantrums, one exhibitor told me, and frantic attempts to enlist the support of experts at the British Museum.
All of which does no harm to Olympia, whose reputation as the leading 'trade' or mid-market fair is founded on its vetting. Mr Weller's own record is 18 years as managing director of Sotheby's Sussex saleroom, head of the company's European furniture department and now chairman of Michael Norman Antiques, the furniture dealers in Hove, Sussex.
He can point to vetters at Olympia, both dealers and auctioneers, who are connoisseurs at the top of their profession, a few with a couple of dozen standard textbooks to their name. The secret of appointing good vetters, he says, is to choose people who handle the same antiques or artworks day in, day out. Their role is the equivalent of peer-reviewing for academic publications.
'It's getting stricter every year,' a member of the glass committee told me. 'In a way, that makes our job easier, but there always seems to be a first-time exhibitor who thinks he can empty his shop into the fair.'
Vetting is a peculiarly British invention. Five years ago in New York, when the British-run International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show made its debut, it threw into confusion the established Winter Antiques Fair, which had resisted vetting. The Winter fair was obliged to follow suit, but not until after some resignations had taken place.
Moving on, Mr Weller and I briefly scrutinised a William Scott longcase clock, dated 1790-1810, priced at pounds 10,000 and said by its exhibitor to have been 'cleaned but not restored'. The Clocks, Barometers, Watches and Ormolu committee had passed that way, leaving a trail of indignation. 'They say it should have a green ground, not a blue ground,' said the dealer, clearly upset. 'I can't believe it. My restorer can tell you exactly what he did with it.'
'The green glaze has disappeared,' said Mr Weller, as we strolled away, 'and the gilt will have been applied later. Also, the movement is not right for the case. The case is 1720-40, the movement much later.'
The dreaded but well-worn verdict was 'over-restored' and therefore 'un-fairworthy'. Artworks are also vetted out if they are in poor condition, outright fakes, cobbled-together 'marriages' of more than one piece, or if their dates are held to be later than vetting datelines - pre-1890 for most antiques but pre-1940 for textiles, carpets, paintings, art deco, guns, armour and musical instruments, among other things. The most recent date is 1960, for jewellery. The Grosvenor House Fair (see Auctions) has abandoned datelines this year.
In the past year or two, South Sea or 'baroque' pearls have been a headache because they are virtually impossible to date. Verdict: vetted out on grounds of dateline.
Listen to the latest problems of the vetting committees year by year and you will find out what is moving in the antiques trade. Mr Weller, for all his experience in the auction room, said: 'I learn most about the
antique trade by being at fairs.'
Among today's knottiest problems: painted country-style furniture which is not as old as it looks, especially pieces painted at a later date. The value of a medieval coffer can jump from about pounds 1,500 to pounds 10,000- pounds 15,000 if it is painted.
'We're concerned because the stuff seems to be coming from everywhere - a burgeoning industry,' said Mr Weller. A new section in this year's vetting guidelines decrees: 'Complete repainting, even if in the character of the original, is not acceptable.' Heavy
restorations must be acknowledged by a printed label. Artificial patination, distressing and coloured wax finishes are acceptable only when applied to damaged areas, not complete surfaces.
Old wheezes that no longer fool vetters include the enlarging of silver vessels that have desirable hallmarks and the 'letting in' (insertion) of wrong hallmarks. Huff on the hallmark and the solder will show as a line - silver vetters, identifiable by the pristine white gloves provided by the fair organisers, must be quite out of breath by the end of the day. Or fire a suspect piece and watch the solder melt.
Vetting committees report 'wrong' silver to Goldsmith's Hall, the assay office in Foster Lane, London EC2, which then requests the owner to submit it for examination by the Goldsmiths Company's antique plate committee. The committee stamps unauthorised added parts with a 'partmark' and obliterates unauthorised marks. The piece can then be re-assayed and hallmarked as modern.
The late Seventies and early Eighties were the era of 'baked marines': nave marine paintings baked to imitate craquelure, the network of fine cracks on old paintings caused by ageing of the pigment or varnish. Provincial auction rooms were full of them.
It was Mr Weller who discovered the source of the fake French animalier bronzes that were the bane of the trade in the early Eighties. Fakes of the big names of the 1850-90 animalier heyday were cropping up (Emmanuel Fremiet, Pierre Mene, Antoine- Louis Barye), some with suspiciously fresh-looking wooden bases that had probably not spent enough time buried in the dung heap. Sotheby's had to abandon an entire sale.
Then, doing a probate valuation in London of the property of a director of a multinational company, Mr Weller wandered into the garden shed and came across a foundry with a complete set of moulds. The wealthy man had been a part-time forger. While the man's widow is alive, Mr Weller is keeping his name a secret.
Anxious to meet my own dateline, I took my leave. 'Pity you can't stay,' he said. 'By the end of vetting day they can be on the verge of coming to blows.'
Olympia Fine Art and Antiques Fair: 11am-8pm daily to Sunday 12 June, closed Monday 6 June. Early closing weekends (6pm), final day (5pm). Entry pounds 10.
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