New eyes for new art? One of the world's largest antiques fairs will soon move aggressively into the business of selling modern and contemporary art and photography. The overhaul by new management is meant to address financial woes that are pushing some art fairs out of business; it's also a recognition, organizers say, that collecting tastes and trends have irrevocably changed.



Lee Ann and David Lester. 2007 ExpoShips, LLLP


David Lester, owner and organizer of the Palm Beach Art Fair, among others, earlier this month signed a deal to take over the veteran Olympia Art Fair in London. Now, the high-profile and somewhat controversial Lesters (wife Lee Ann is a key part of the business) promise a radically different, more art-centric event, changing merchandise, timing, and even the nature of the stodgy marketplace. "The last thing the world needs is one more boring art fair," says Lester. "If you're a movie theater, and you keep showing the same film, no matter, how good it is, even if it's the best film in the world, people will eventually stop going."

Lester bought Olympia just days before the rival Grosvenor House Fair shut down. "How often do you get a chance to pick up a fair that's 37 years old after its competition just folded?" he gloats. The event, rechristened the London International Fine Art Fair at Olympia, becomes the fifth fair in the Lester franchise, after three in Florida and SeaFair, a fair staged on a large custom-made ship. Lester is known for both his extensive market research into the wealthy and for upbeat claims of show accomplishments, sometimes in the face of slow sales. Over roughly the last two decades, the Lesters have opened and closed a handful of art and/or antiques fairs—Hong Kong, Los Angeles and New York are among their less successful—but hit the jackpot with a handful, particularly in Palm Beach. Their Palm Beach American International every February (and its benefit for the Norton Museum of Art) is without contest a destination, drawing visitors like Donald Trump, Regis Philbin, theater mogul Robert Nederlander, distressed-assets king Wilbur Ross, and the East Coast decorator set.

Olympia, held every June in the airy, domed 1892 Olympia Exhibition Hall, is more of a middlebrow fair, although Dustin Hoffman and various Hiltons dropped by this year. Dealers take small stands and some of what has been for sale is admittedly "tchotkes," says Lester. Olympia was "the English good old boys club fair," says Lester; now, "tchotkes are being priced out." Lester is raising booth rates so that flea-market style dealers will be priced out of the fair. He's eliminating restrictions common in antiques fairs that dicate what can and can't be shown age-wise, and he's adding more events for VIPs, and integrating the booths into surrounding performance art spaces and entertainment.

Lester sees some problems specific to luring contemporary art dealers to Olympia. Most dealers in older art own their inventories, so sales made at the fair go right into their pockets. Primary-market art dealers, though, only make half as much initially, as they have to split sales with the artists. "It's a cash-flow problem." He says he's asking dealers on the fence (somewhat optimistically): "How long will it take you to get 25,000 rich people in your gallery?"

In the Lesters' deal with Olympia's owners, they purchased a half-interest for an undisclosed amount and will manage the event, which draws a couple of hundred dealers (down from twice that a decade ago.)

Lester got the idea of bidding for the fair about when he was given a booth at the event after raising money for "Friends of Olympia" at a benefit at one of his fairs. "It was like letting the fox in with the chickens," he laughs. Soon, dealers began approaching him for organizational ideas, he says, and by the end of Olympia he had negotiated a half-interest in it.
 
The most radical change planned is timing. Olympia currently takes place in the first week of June, in head-to-head competition with the contemporary art juggernaut Art Basel in Switzerland. In 2011, Olympia will switch to the end of June, coinciding with the auction house Sotheby's and Christie's London sales of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art—and with Wimbledon, notes Lester.

In 2001, the Lesters sold their flagship Palm Beach fair to the Daily Mail group and, briefly and literally, retired to their yacht. But, last year, at the request of some dealers, they re-purchased and are now aggressively back in the fair business Next stop, says Lester: New York.