An aisle shot of Masterpiece London 2017 featuring Dickinson and Offer Waterman. Photo Chris Allerton, courtesy Masterpiece London

What Masterpiece — the ‘cross-collecting fair’ — tells us about the market

Malcolm Cossons looks at the resurgence of cross-collecting, canvassing the opinions of leading art world figures involved with this month’s Masterpiece London fair

The array of works offered in this spring’s Christie’s sales from The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller reveal that the notion of collecting artworks from a range of categories is nothing new. However, it is only relatively recently that the idea of cross-collecting has been reinvigorated and reset for a new generation of collectors.

In part this is due to a change in attitude among collectors, as outlined by Spencer Ewen, founder of London-based international art advisors Seymours. ‘It is easy to “box” collectors,’ he argues. ‘Some are highly focused and others are extremely broad in their areas of collecting. In general, though, I would say today’s collectors are more diverse in their buying trends than, say, 15 years ago. New collectors have greater access to a broader range of genres.’

Auctions have played a key role, both in terms of bringing a range of works to the market in one location and combining them unexpectedly. Last month, The Collector sales at Christie’s displayed European decorative arts from the 17th to the 19th century with contemporary art from Africa and the Caribbean. 

Art fairs play an important role too, offering variety and innovation. The next major fair on the calendar is Masterpiece London (28 June to 4 July), which styles itself as the cross-collecting fair and has therefore been tracking this curve more closely than most.

‘The cross-collecting ethos is absolutely crucial to Masterpiece,’ confirms chairman Philip Hewat-Jaboor, who has been involved since its inception eight years ago. ‘The fair has almost every discipline and we arrange galleries not by subject, but carefully mixed. A number of our exhibitors share stands with others from different disciplines, where there is an intellectual argument to engage the two. It is something we’ve strongly encouraged, and it works.’

Geoffrey Diner and Safani Gallery shared stand at Masterpiece 2017. Photo Andy Barnham, courtesy Masterpiece London

Geoffrey Diner and Safani Gallery shared stand at Masterpiece 2017. Photo: Andy Barnham, courtesy Masterpiece London

This cross-pollination of objects, periods and styles has been emulated by other fairs, and, importantly, it’s an approach that sees returning exhibitors keen to repeat the experience. One such example is Alan Safani’s eponymous New York antiquities gallery, which will again work in partnership with the Geoffrey Diner Gallery.

‘I lent Geoffrey some objects for Masterpiece five years ago,’ explains Safani. ‘It was exciting for both of us to experience the natural harmony that was created when you juxtaposed ancient art with a modern aesthetic. Last year, we finally had an opportunity to collaborate when we were accepted by Masterpiece to share a booth. It was a tremendous success for both of us.’ Among their intriguing combinations this year is a Nakashima table and chairs alongside armour from the period of Alexander the Great.

George Nakashima (1905-90), The Frosh Family Sanso ‘Reception House’ table and set of six conoid chairs, New Hope Pennsylvania, 1981. English walnut, American black walnut, rosewood hickory. Courtesy Geoffrey Diner Gallery

George Nakashima (1905-90), The Frosh Family Sanso ‘Reception House’ table and set of six conoid chairs, New Hope Pennsylvania, 1981. English walnut, American black walnut, rosewood hickory. Courtesy Geoffrey Diner Gallery

Contemporary art attracts a different type of audience, which is reflected in its increased presence at Masterpiece London in 2018. The entrance to the fair will feature a major installation, Five Stages from a Maya Dance, a group of five alabaster portraits by Marina Abramović, while contemporary exhibitors Vigo Gallery (showing Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi) and Hauser & Wirth make their bows this year.

Attracted by the global audience at Masterpiece London, Hauser & Wirth’s senior director, Neil Wenman, believes that collecting should be ‘guided by quality and innovation’. He also argues that cross-collecting is ‘certainly not a new phenomenon’, especially when collectors live with their works, and are ‘continually curating their own living environments’.

Phyllida Barlow, untitled floor vi; 2017, 2017, Collage with acrylic on paper. 23 38 x 27 12 in (59.3 x 70 cm). Photo Alex Delfanne © the artist  estate, Courtesy the artist  estate and Hauser & Wirth

Phyllida Barlow, untitled: floor vi; 2017, 2017, Collage with acrylic on paper. 23 3/8 x 27 1/2 in (59.3 x 70 cm). Photo: Alex Delfanne © the artist / estate, Courtesy the artist / estate and Hauser & Wirth

Hauser & Wirth is well known for its intriguing stands — not least the mock museum for last year’s Frieze in Regent’s Park. At Masterpiece it will create a ‘pared down’ wunderkammer  including works by Larry Bell, Phyllida Barlow, Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Paul McCarthy, David Smith and Bharti Kher.

Plenty of other exhibitors are prepared to innovate, including the David Gill Gallery, which will create a stand focused on Surrealist and collector, Edward James. It is not a facsimilie or homage, but what Gill calls a ‘tableau’ taking two Syrie Maugham bookcases as the starting point, and then ‘reinvigorating James’s iconic Surrealist vision’ with 21st-century works by Michele Oka Doner, Barnaby Barford and Mattia Bonetti.

‘From a collector’s standpoint we believe they enjoy the puzzle of placing objects and art together in unforeseen ways,’ says Gill of the attraction of such thematic stands. ‘One gains more enjoyment from the individuality of the visual you create from mixing objects that have never been seen together before.’

Michel Oka Doner, Atlas, 2009. Relief print from organic material, Black Palm wood frame. Courtesy David Gill

Michel Oka Doner, Atlas, 2009. Relief print from organic material, Black Palm wood frame. Courtesy David Gill

If offering a range of subject areas promotes interest and stimulates discussion, one could argue that it is Masterpiece London’s range of prices that encourages purchases. It is one of the few fairs where works bear price labels, affording art enthusiasts at all levels the chance to explore the 160 dealers present. 

This is something that chimes with Hewat-Jaboor, who is a collector himself. ‘It is all about quality,’ he says. ‘You can buy beautiful objects for a modest amount and it doesn’t diminish their value. I bought something for £800 last year and it’s no less an object because it’s not terribly expensive.’

Education is another means of promoting cross-collecting, as collectors learn more about new fields. The programme of talks at Masterpiece this year addresses this specifically, with a series of lectures entitled How to Look At…, covering everything from photographs to illuminated manuscripts.

Mori Marisa (Firenze 1900-1985), La divisione meccanica della folla (Mechanical Division of the Crowd), 1933. Oil on plywood. Courtesy Galleria del Laocoonte, which is exhibiting with Galleria W. Appolloni

Mori Marisa (Firenze 1900-1985), La divisione meccanica della folla (Mechanical Division of the Crowd), 1933. Oil on plywood. Courtesy Galleria del Laocoonte, which is exhibiting with Galleria W. Appolloni

Alongside Christie’s, Masterpiece is a supporter of London Art Week (LAW), which runs concurrently. This initiative, bringing together museums, galleries and auction houses, is a response to how collectors are evolving.

‘As the art world and collectors’ interests have changed, LAW has adapted,’ remarks Crispian Riley-Smith, its founding director. ‘Cross-collecting is definitely not new, but there used to be a time when serious collectors, within narrow fields, had the time and inclination to study at their leisure, and often to learn as much about their preferred subject as the dealers from whom they bought.’

If tastes are changing, they are being informed by new ideas and opportunities presented by galleries, auction houses and fairs. Innovations such as those on show at Masterpiece London are shaping how people approach living with art. ‘I think collectors no longer draw a line between the traditional and the contemporary art world,’ agrees Hewat-Jaboor. ‘Works of art are either good or beautiful or poor and not beautiful — it doesn’t matter if something was made yesterday or 5,000 years ago.’

Masterpiece London takes place at the Royal Hospital Chelsea from 28 June to 4 July