Art Market: Buyers buck recession to pack cash and carry fair

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The Independent Online
DEALERS would kill for the sort of crowd that the Contemporary Art Society market fair attracted yesterday. Many of them have barely seen so many people in the last year, let alone at one event.

Despite the recession, there was a queue outside Smith's Galleries, central London, where the fair takes place each year. One woman waited an hour for the doors to open.

Although some were just looking, most were buying. Five minutes after getting inside, Andrew Hearn, a solicitor, was writing out a pounds 360 cheque for a large abstract painting. He said that the moment he saw it, he had to have it. Nicole Goldman, who bought 10 works at the first fair, was clutching one of three paintings she was getting this time. 'And I've not finished yet,' she said.

Part of the attraction of this event, in its eighth year, is that it is run like a bustling cash and carry supermarket (inspired by Sainsbury's, the fair's sponsors), rather than one of those intimidating galleries where you have to ring the bell to get inside.

People do not have to wait for an assistant's help to handle a work 'with care'. They grab pictures off the wall and sculptures from their plinths and take them to the checkout till. They even take their shopping home in a Sainsbury's carrier-bag. Staff immediately fill the gaps with more work by the same artist.

Several people said that the crowds and the pressure to make snap decisions was part of the fair's attraction. In previous years, fights have almost broken out over works.

Yesterday, it was much more civilised, though as soon as someone asked for a picture to be taken off its picture hooks, others swarmed round it, just in case they were missing a bargain. Two hours after opening, pounds 42,114 had been rung up on the tills, with the sale of 100 works.

The appeal of the fair also lies in the reputation of the Contemporary Art Society charity. With limited funds, it has, over 80 years, bought 5,000 modern works to give to museums - mostly by recognising talent before the artist has really made it and while prices are relatively cheap. (Francis Bacon was among early acquisitions.) Buyers are attracted by cheap prices, pounds 100 to pounds 1,750, and the selection of works by experts - though few say that they are buying for investment.

About 30 per cent of the Contemporary Art Society fair's proceeds goes towards its purchase fund for museums; the rest goes to the artists themselves. Several of those present yesterday said that they were conscious of helping a good cause in buying at the fair rather than elsewhere. They were also keen to be supporting young artists, of which the fair has many, as well as the more established names.

However, it was not the works by Howard Hodgkin and Dame Elisabeth Frink that were being snapped up initially. People seemed to be going for the cheaper works, by less well-known names, saying they wanted to find out more about the artist later. Most were spending around pounds 400. Powerful charcoal figures by Anita Klein and charming Chagall-inspired paintings by Sarah Wicks sold particularly well.

The fair continues until 1 November. Not making the first day matters little: the organisers emphasise that the best works are not necessarily displayed at the start of the show.

(Photograph omitted)