Life in the Frieze frame

MID-October and the Frieze phenomenon is in full swing in London with press coverage blanketing not just the art columns but also the lifestyle, fashion and, of course, gossip sections.

The Times had a fashion feature not on what they were shopping for but what self-regarding revellers at the preview of the 12th Frieze London were wearing. Frieze is now a fashion as well as an art world statement. Incidentally, I think Stella McCartney and Birkin bags were favoured at an event which is as much about being looked at as looking.

Headlining Frieze Week, Frieze London runs until October 18 in Regents Park while just across the park the third edition of its sister fair Frieze Masters closes on October 19, the same day as PAD in Berkeley Square, Mayfair.

Frieze Masters may be a sister fair but it is definitely not a little sister, and in just two years it has established itself as an international destination in its own right with the big guns of the international trade in attendance or queuing up to join. It already has a stock of a quality only matched by Maastricht, which is why TEFAF regulars will be familiar with many, if not most, of the Frieze Masters exhibitors.

There are around 110 of them but I noted at the preview on October 14 that the fair seemed even bigger. This is a fair of substance over style and like TEFAF is worth more than one visit.

Every year exhibitors must re-apply for a stand, which keeps even the trade’s top names on their toes and guarantees top quality and a good mix of disciplines – although Frieze Masters emphasises this is not a mainstream antiques fair, there is, for example, no furniture.

Bur perhaps there are still too many fine art dealers, and despite their numbers not enough of them in Old Masters. But I would like more objects and although there are more, and more interesting, dealers in objects this year there are still an awful lot of pictures.

Just less than a quarter of exhibitors are new to the fair, and they are well-chosen. At the preview I spoke with St. James’s dealer Daniel Crouch who was proud to be the first rare books and maps specialist to make Frieze Masters.

A highlight on his stand was what he termed a “frieze to Frieze”, a free-standing, four-fold screen of an atlas of Europe (illustrated) comprising 21 maps by George Willdey and Thomas Jefferys, London 1750.

There is only one other example of such a screen and that is in the British Library, so the asking price of £70,000 does not seem unreasonable. It was bought by a private collector at the preview.

Very welcome was the Munich Kunstkammer dealer Georg Laue whose stand always wows Maastricht. He teams up with Peter Freeman and his Renaissance and Baroque objects sat well with the New York gallery’s 20th century art.

Eminent London contemporary art dealer Ben Brown this year switched from PAD to Frieze Masters and another boost to the strong contemporary representation is Pace Gallery of London, New York and Beijing (also at Frieze London).

Rejoining the fair London art dealer Helly Nahmad’s stand proved a showstopper at the preview. He showed some fine Modern masters in a reconstruction of the 1968 Paris apartment of a committed collector, a beguiling chaos of stacked catalogues and art books and even a flickering black-and-white television.

An inspired recreation which may not have been best for business but certainly proved the best crowd-puller. If Frieze Masters did anything as crassly mainstream as have a ‘Best Dressed Stand’ award then it would go to Mr Nahmad, who put a smile on the face of many a serious fairgoer.

Daniel Katz and Sam Fogg have their expected superb displays while Marlborough Fine Art devote their whole stand to an appreciated selection of works by Francis Bacon.

The fair looked better this year and has lost some of the rather forbidding starkness of two years ago. Its layout and decoration is still somewhat minimal with a uniform grey colour scheme designed to make visitors focus on exhibits and not stand decoration.

Newcomer John Berwald, a Mayfair Chinese art specialist, has done many international fairs and praises the policy of uniform decoration. He told me at the preview it is a welcome change not to have to think of the way stock is presented but just to present its obvious quality.

The policy has worked. Although dealers with flair, like Oceanic art specialist Anthony Meyer from Paris and London antiquities dealer Rupert Wace, still arrange their stands with panache the fairgoers know this is the fair which has captured the moment and broken the mould.

Frieze Masters is about the excellence of the things on sale and all the exhibitors find that approach a winner. It puts Frieze Masters into a class shared only with mighty Maastricht, although to their credit the organisers never make any comparison.

And talking of organisers, in November Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover step down as directors of Frieze London and Frieze New York to “focus on developing new projects” – as yet unannounced.

Frieze Masters director Victoria Siddall will become director of all three fairs, a big job. But the big question is just what “new projects” will Frieze come up with next?