Are antique fairs making a comeback?

New antique fairs, impressive figures and an iPhone app shows how the antique market is fairing, says Annie Deakin

Against all odds, business is booming for antique fairs. With more new fairs opening, the release of an Antiques Roadshow iPhone app and soaring sales figures, life is looking up for British dealers. Next week is Battersea Decorative Antiques and Textiles Fair (18-23 January) and expectations are high.

If last year’s figures are anything to go by, scouting for hidden treasures at antique fairs has become a national pastime. LAPADA Art and Antiques Fair in Berkeley Square gained 15 per cent more visitors than previously. Similarly, the two largest antique fairs in Europe, Newark and Ardingly, reported an average rise of 12 per cent on the attendances across their 26 shows in 2010.

With such a growing interest in antique fairs, it was only a matter of time before tech geeks designed an iPhone app. Launched last week, the Antiques Roadshow iPhone App demonstrates how antique fairs appeal to a young demographic. Players virtually collect, appraise and bid on antiques based on images of real objects. ‘Antiques Roadshow remains a huge hit on-air, and local events draw large crowds,’ says Marsha Bemko, Executive Producer of the Antiques Roadshow. ‘The series is part adventure, part history and part treasure hunt, and now the app takes it to another level, allowing players to become antiques dealers-in-training.’

Whether this app will boom or bust is yet to be seen but what is certain is that antique fairs are a growing sector in the antique industry. This is a welcome respite after years of hardship. The late Nineties were tough for the antique market as shoppers veered online for bargains and withheld spending. Fairs and markets responded by getting smaller forcing many stallholders out of business. But those dreary days are coming to an end.

Why the renewed interest in antique fairs? ‘Despite the recession over the last couple of years we have seen an upturn in business,’ says Robbie Timms of S&S Timms Antiques. ‘I think one of the reasons surprisingly was the recession itself. Interest rates dropped so low that antiques and art became a viable long-term investment compared to elsewhere in the market.’ People take comfort in the (perhaps delusional) belief that spending on antiques is a way of hanging onto their money.

Finances aside, the rise in antique fairs is also due to a change in taste. Nostalgia and the traditional look are back in the game as we hope to give our homes more personality. Most of us aren't looking specifically for antiques, more for pretty things to live with. 'The market for antiques is subdued generally, but what people like to do is surround themselves with a look, an image that reflects themselves as a person,’ says Matthew Adams who holds monthly antique fairs at Chelsea Town Hall. ‘They want a bit of fun and a bit of creativity and there is a plethora of makeover shows on television.'

These home makeover TV programmes encourage us to look beyond the high street when furnishing our homes and introduce antique fairs to the mainstream. ‘After ten years of a more minimalist look being featured in magazines, now buying vintage and antique items is trendy with programmes such as Kirstie Allsopp’s Homemade Home,’ says Timms. Allsopp described Ardingly antiques fair as her ‘Nirvana’ and was filmed browsing the stalls at Shepton Mallet antiques fair. The result was instantaneous with the fairs’ websites receiving 4,000 extra hits.

‘Another reason I think business is improving is that looking round antiques fairs and shops is becoming a more popular pastime,’ observes Timms. Whether you spend or not at an antiques fair doesn’t seem to matter. People enjoy the experience of browsing through the unknown and chatting to stallholders.

Next week is the thrice-yearly Decorative Fair at Battersea that will specialise in vintage and antique lighting and mirrors. If the last show – the Autumn 2010 Decorative Fair – is anything to judge by, it should be a triumph. Described by exhibitors as ‘a feeding frenzy’ with people ‘queuing to buy,’ the September show was a resounding success with some dealers almost selling out on the first day.

‘Antique fairs are not making a comeback because they never really went away,’ insists Pippa Roberts of the Decorative Antiques and Textiles Fair. ‘Having said that, in the past 18 months ago, there are more new antique fairs; a couple are upmarket boutique fairs and there are at least ten new regional ones. Demand for more antique markets comes from exhibitors, many of whom are shop owners who aren’t getting the footfall in their local shops. Demand also comes from customers who find it much easier to shop under one roof. Lovely as it is to trail around regional antique shops, most of us don’t have lots of time to spare at weekends. Dealers are looking to meet customers and the customers are looking for convenience.’ Comeback or not, business is booming for antique fairs.

Annie Deakin is interiors writer for sofa and interior design website mydeco.com.

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