‘It’s much more free-flowing than a traditional art fair, and that encourages the exchange of ideas’
Nazy Vassegh, founder of Eye of the Collector, on why she has teamed up with Christie’s to present a global online platform for her art fair, alongside the physical event in a spectacular neo-Gothic mansion in central London
Eye of the Collector is a new art fair for a new era. ‘I felt that collectors were fatigued by the formulaic “white wall” fair model,’ says Nazy Vassegh, its founder and CEO. ‘I wanted to bring the joy of collecting back to the art fair and curate a collaborative show that delivers something fresh and exciting to the market.’
In two short years, Vassegh has done just that. The inaugural edition of Eye of the Collector — postponed for a year due to the pandemic — opened last September to rave reviews from collectors and dealers alike. A smaller, more creatively driven fair, it eschewed the big white tent in favour of a grand domestic setting, with no booths or aisles.
‘It was such a euphoric relief to finally open the doors and watch the joy on people’s faces as they wandered around and reconnected with each other,’ says Vassegh. ‘I didn’t know what to expect, but the response was really positive.’
Part of the fair’s allure, it seems, is its carefully curated cross-category offering. Some 5,000 years of art history, from ancient artefacts to contemporary sculpture, are presented as if in an imaginary collector’s home. ‘I think what people particularly enjoy is the fair’s immersive nature,’ says Vassegh, ‘and the sense of discovery and intrigue that comes from juxtaposing artworks old and new.’
‘At Two Temple Place, one of London’s architectural hidden gems, you can really imagine living with the art. That’s a very important element’ — Nazy Vassegh
This unique curatorial approach resulted in a number of sales that Vassegh believes wouldn’t have happened otherwise. ‘The fair pushes the cross-category element in ways that no other fair is doing,’ she says. ‘You might be looking for a contemporary painting and then unexpectedly fall for a piece of mid-century furniture that you would not have stumbled across in a single-category auction or gallery.’
Ting-Ying Gallery, for instance, sold a work by the porcelain artist Su Xianzhong to an important collector of contemporary art, while Katie Jones sold a piece by Japanese bamboo master Hafu Matsumoto to buyers with no previous experience in that collecting area.
Another of the fair’s distinguishing features is its splendid home: Two Temple Place, a neo-Gothic mansion commissioned in the 1890s by the American-British businessman, collector and philanthropist William Waldorf Astor (1848-1919), and designed by the architect John Loughborough Pearson, renowned for his work on churches and cathedrals. It boasts opulent interiors with wood carvings, frieze reliefs, high ceilings and stained-glass windows by Clayton and Bell.
‘It is one of London’s architectural hidden gems,’ says Vassegh. ‘The palazzos in Venice, with their encyclopaedic collections and ornate interiors, were a huge inspiration, and the minute I walked in I felt that it was a fitting place to showcase artworks.’
After all the online-only browsing of the lockdown era, the sensory experience is more important than ever. ‘Collectors are still looking for those moments of surprise,’ says Vassegh. ‘They still want to connect with the art and feel that sense of visual wonder. At Two Temple Place you can really imagine living with the art. That’s a very important element.’
With no booths to oversee, gallerists are more likely to roam around and strike up conversations with new collectors. ‘Our format is much more free-flowing than that of a traditional art fair, and that encourages the exchange of ideas,’ adds Vassegh. ‘Our galleries are only too happy to share their knowledge, which gives people the confidence to push the boundaries of their collecting.’
The second edition of the fair, which runs from 11 to 14 May, features 25 local and international galleries, with nearly half of the works on show by female artists. ‘As a female founder, I thought it was really important to address the gender inequality that still exists in the art world,’ Vassegh explains. ‘I’m happy that I’m in a position to highlight the vitality of women artists, both historic and contemporary.’
Among those she is particularly excited to show is the Ethiopian artist Tizta Berhanu (above). ‘She delves into human emotions and explores the idea of being together and being separated in the most intimate way,’ says Vassegh. ‘Her work feels especially relevant now, after such a long period of isolation.’
Another is the Chilean-Argentinian artist Catalina Swinburn (above), who tackles urgent contemporary themes such as displacement, gender inequality and geopolitics. ‘I find her works so dramatic in scale, yet the materials and construction are incredibly delicate and emotional,’ says Vassegh. ‘Because many of her works can be worn — like the piece she’s bringing to Eye of The Collector — she often performs in her own creations. She is the fabricator and the performer, if you like, which is extremely powerful.’
Other notable highlights include a sculptural dining table by Lukas Wegwerth, made of willow, shellac and slate, which is offered by Gallery FUMI, and a recently discovered early work by Pauline Boty. Presented by Whitford Fine Art, the 1959 painting Golden Nude (below) reflects the young Boty’s love of Pierre Bonnard’s bathing images and his bold use of colour.
Also offered for sale is a black-figure Greek eye-cup, circa 520 BC (below left), with a Medusa on the inside of the bowl.
There’s another Medusa in Nasty Woman II (below right), a large-scale painting by Eleanor Johnson, which is offered by Gillian Jason Gallery. ‘It’s a feminist reinterpretation of the Medusa,’ Vassegh explains. ‘The artist is questioning society’s long-held presumptions of her experiences: victimised and liberated, powerless and powerful. For me, this fair is all about creating new dialogues that will inspire and engage, and this cross-disciplinary pairing does exactly that.’
Nasty Woman II is one of 10 works especially commissioned for Eye of the Collector. ‘If you are going to be representative of artistic creativity, you should champion contemporary artists as well as the historical greats,’ says Vassegh. ‘It’s incredibly important to me that we support new talent via our platform.’
An online edition of the fair will run alongside the physical event at christies.com from 11-28 May. It will feature curated ‘rooms’, with selected highlights set against the digital backdrop of Two Temple Place. ‘This will ensure that Eye of the Collector reaches a truly international audience,’ says Vassegh. ‘Last year we had several enquiries through the online viewing rooms from people who were unable to travel to the fair, with some resulting in notable sales.’
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As for partnering with Christie’s, Vassegh says: ‘Christie’s has been a pioneer in supporting artistic endeavours throughout the pandemic and beyond. I noticed that the company was collaborating with other art fairs, supporting charity events and generally pushing the dial in regard to digital solutions. So I got in touch, and here we are.’
For Vassegh, collaborative partnerships are integral to the future success of the art market. ‘We’ve all got to keep innovating to stay fresh and relevant,’ she says, ‘and sometimes this can be achieved more effectively together.’
Alongside the fair at Two Temple Place in London, 12-14 May, Christie’s has partnered with Eye of the Collector to offer an online curated viewing room of available works, until 28 May 2022