The ebullient world of Adrian Sassoon
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Adrian Sassoon’s phone keeps reverberating. “It will go off one more time,” he says. “You can tell I care.”
One of the UK’s foremost dealers in contemporary decorative arts and antique French porcelain is deep in an online bidding war, in a Christie’s New York auction, for “a dark blue 18th-century thing — it’s for me, me, me.”
He has set the alarm at intervals in case he gets distracted. “Six seconds to go. Just the right amount of time for someone to torture me with a higher bid.”
He wins, of course. Sassoon twists his laptop to show me a picture of the piece, taking care to cover the price. It is a cup decorated with gold birds; slender, diminutive and much like the many similar cups that surround us.
We are on the first floor of his Kensington townhouse, which doubles as his showroom, a towering home built in the 1880s which the architect Eva Jiricna has pierced with a spiralling glass staircase. Set into the walls are glass-protected shelves laden with his private collection of antique French porcelain, mostly 18th-century Sèvres pieces in greens and pinks.
But everywhere else, as far as the eye can see, are fine contemporary objets. There are vases and boxes, ceramics and silverware, sculptures and curios crowding windowsills and littering tables. It is not cluttered, but it is abundant.
Here is an undulating urn by the Kenyan-British ceramicist Magdalene Odundo; there is a free-form hammered silver vase by the Japanese artist Hiroshi Suzuki (he represents both artists). Just about everywhere — “screaming at one” — are abstract works by the mid-century British ceramicist Gordon Baldwin, Sassoon’s school pottery teacher and the man who first fired his enthusiasm.
Sassoon — 59, ebullient, quick-witted — speaks in the same way he collects: with profusion. He is talking about his two forthcoming London exhibitions of contemporary works — one a collaboration with Sotheby’s, the other with Swedish gallery Modernity. There is a lot to say.
“It is so sad that PAD isn’t happening, it is so sad that Frieze is not really happening,” he says, speaking of the two art fairs that normally open in London each October. How will social distancing work? “Ha ha ha! I’d love to say there'll be a stampede. But no. There will be timed entry.”
The Sotheby’s show, which opened on September 28, takes place in the auction house’s New Bond Street retail showroom, part of a new series of handovers to dealers and other “tastemakers” for six weeks each. Sassoon will present more than 70 contemporary works by artists he represents, including Felicity Aylieff, Bouke de Vries (Sotheby’s current artist in residence, who has contributed an “exploded” installation made partly of fragments of broken antique ceramics); Kate Malone, Suzuki and more. All the pieces are recent (some created under lockdown) and many have been shown before.
For Sotheby’s and Sassoon, it represents a foray into luxury retail at a time when the art world is scrambling to find new ways to do business, a way of bringing contemporary work to antique collectors. “Sotheby’s doesn’t have a strong contemporary [specialism]; they are just beginning and it’s always under this banner of ‘design’,” says Sassoon. “But that means ‘made-in-workshops-in-editions’. Most of the things I show are made by one person, getting their hands very very dirty.” Prices, he says, will range between £1,350 and £81,000.
His exhibition with Modernity, which opens on October 5, will see the two dealerships staging collections side by side in a dilapidated Palladian mansion on Cavendish Square, all stripped walls, bare floorboards and exposed rafters. Modernity specialises in 20th-century Nordic furniture, to be presented “in dialogue” with ceramics, glass and metalwork from the Sassoon stable at prices between £3,000 and £90,000. Pieces by Malone, Aylieff and the Danish glassblower Tobias Mohl, among others, will sit alongside slender furniture by the likes of Danish architects Finn Juhl and Kaare Klint.
Sassoon knows that, given the circumstances and the cancellations of London’s leading contemporary arts events, these shows will attract far fewer visitors than would normally be the case. London’s Frieze drew 60,000 people last year; PAD nearly 30,000. Their absence will mean he has to attract attention in different ways. “Which is why we are doing what we are doing now — because the artists are still very much alive.”
He has thought about this, adjusting both his online offering and his expectations. “Our biggest problem is that we do five major art fairs a year: two in New York, two in London, one in Maastricht. This year, only one of them happened [the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht in March]. Next year, who knows?”
Sassoon is working on the assumption that fairs will continue to be disrupted. “So we’re doing the Sotheby’s thing because people can’t travel — it’s online. We’re doing the Modernity thing because people can't travel to see it.” Photography to present the work on show at the House of Modernity has taken a week.
The point now, he says, is not to make sales at the door, but to present his pieces digitally in a way that is as clear as possible, focusing on history, biography, dimensions, context: “I don't mind if people don't buy those things, but what I do hope is that people get familiar. So when the time is right for a curator or collector to buy — they think of us.”
“You don’t have to be slick, but you do have to be user-friendly . . . writing information that people absorb easily helps. I just think how bored I would be if captions went burbling on.”
Sassoon grew up in London, part of an extended family of Baghdadi-Jewish descent (he is related to Siegfried Sassoon, the first world war poet). At 19, he moved to California to work for the J Paul Getty Museum for five years, before returning to London to work in the antiques trade. His business opened in 1992, dealing first in antique French porcelain before extending into contemporary British decorative arts two years later.
The swerve was down to “addictive tendencies” and a realisation that collectors of antiques were likely to be equally interested in the processes behind fine modern ceramics. Now he includes international artists, particularly from Australia, Japan and Korea.
Sassoon also sells to museums, including the British Museum in London and the Cooper Hewitt design museum in New York. Under lockdown, he sold a hand-carved box containing a split crystal by British hard stone carver Ben Gaskell to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, after a fundraiser held via Zoom.
What does he look for in an artist? Mostly, he says, it’s maturity. “Everyone thinks you must steal marvellous artists out of art school, but when someone leaves the Royal College of Art, often they are not quite sure of themselves. Most of our brilliant artists are not at that stage — they’re away from the person who taught them who may be a bit too influential. And they are continuing to have good ideas.”
Who are the artists who got away? “There must be someone. I wish I could think who . . . ” Then he remembers: there is one he would love to represent, who is represented by another gallery. He won’t name her, “because I don’t need to be a stalker. But her gallery is going around saying a piece of hers sold at auction for a record price, that pushed the price up, and that they are really excited.”
“What no one knows is that it was me who bought it — for myself.”