A fair of the heart

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Simon de Pury

Arts & Culture

A fair of the heart

Words by Lucy Muir

For eight days in summer, the small legion of British war veterans who reside in the Royal Hospital Chelsea brush up their scarlet coats and welcome Masterpiece London into the grounds of what has to be the capital’s most prestigious retirement home. Often described as the most imaginative and glamorous art and antiques fair in the world, it offers for sale museum-quality works including fine art, jewellery and furniture from over 150 leading galleries worldwide. Its art sector alone boasts 4,000 years of art history.

Now entering its seventh year with Chief Executive Nazy Vassegh at the helm, the event saw record sales of over £100 million in June 2015, including the purchase of a magnificent diamond and ruby Boucheron cuff for a seven-figure sum at jewellers Symbolic & Chase. Modern British art was also in demand, with a previously unknown work, a lead Helmet from 1950 by Henry Moore, discovered by the Osborne Samuel gallery and sold to a private Canadian collector who flew in especially for the fair.

Alberto Burri at Mazzoleni Art in Mayfair.

I meet Vassegh at the Mazzoleni gallery in Mayfair, where a show of post-war works by the Italian artist Alberto Burri is just coming to a close. The paintings – tactile collages in unconventional materials including pumice, black tar and hessian – are bold in stature and colour. They provide the perfect backdrop to Nazy’s black ‘Maje’ dress with its red fluted collar and her shock of red lipstick.

Mazzoleni is one of many contemporary galleries to do business at Masterpiece London, which also attracts a growing number of international museum curators and directors. To date, they include: Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Carlos Picon, Sir Nicholas Penny from The National Gallery and Rita Freed from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Vassegh’s 24-year career in the art world began at Sotheby’s, where her passion for the finest masterpieces led her to the post of Managing Director of the Impressionist and Modern Art Department. Later, she founded her own independent advisory firm focusing on 20th-century art, working with a number of major banks and high-end luxury brands. She has also sat on various boards, including the Mayor of London’s Advisory Board for Arts & Culture, and is a prominent supporter of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA).

Well-liked and respected by the greater art world, Vassegh was born in Tehran, and spent her formative years in Los Angeles before attending a boarding school in the UK and settling in London, which she now calls home.

Masterpiece London was initially set up in 2010 with the idea of cross-collecting its main aim, and it has continued in that direction year-on-year. As Vassegh explains: “Masterpiece is a multi-disciplinary fair and in many ways is the equivalent of seeing an entire auction season in just eight days. Furthermore, you have a structure for world-renowned specialists and experts in their fields. They’re always willing to share their knowledge with visitors, so never be intimidated to ask questions.”

The art market is one of the most interesting industries to work in and I feel really lucky to be a part of it... I love the interaction with the art works, the collectors and the museums.

Meanwhile, each piece on show carries with it exceptional provenance, having undergone a strict entry process by the fair’s selection committee. There are 36 vetting panels made up of over 150 independent experts. After an initial edit of works online, they then physically inspect every single piece before it can be accepted into the fair. With an estimated 15-20 thousand pieces to take in, split into 40 different categories, they certainly have their work cut out for them. When the event takes place at the end of June – the period when most international collectors head to the British capital – London is at its most vibrant. “It’s undoubtedly one of the top three biggest international art hubs in the world,” says Vassegh.

The surge in popularity of art shows isn’t unique to London of course. “There are more art fairs and biennales around the world than ever before, and I think that’s an indication of how important art fairs have become,” she notes. “The art world has changed immensely in the past five years. I have come to expect its fast pace – it goes hand-in-hand with the large sums of money that are transacted in the sector today. Just when you think it can’t get any bigger, it continues to surprise and excite us every season.”

Suffice to say, when it comes to the curious twists and turns of the art and antiques business, this art fair CEO has seen it all. “The art market is one of the most interesting industries to work in and I feel really lucky to be a part of it. No day is ever the same. I love the interaction with the art works, the collectors and the museums. I’m continuously learning, and as long as I continue to learn I’m going to continue to be excited by this unique environment.”

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