Lisbon Arts and Antiques Fair 2023 – a blend of the sacred, the classic and the contemporary
“I like designer pieces from the 1960s and 1970s, they’re so much bolder and creative” reflects Isabel Lopes da Silva, the current President of the Portuguese Association of Antique Dealers (Associação Portuguesa Antiquários) at the opening of the 20th edition of Lisbon Art and Antiques Fair (LAAF) 2023.
“It’s a bit of a misnomer because our formula for success is to incorporate not just Portuguese antique dealers but also traders and creators of contemporary design pieces which seems to have been a most successful formula”, says the seller of fine designer jewellery and table pieces who has a smart shop in Rua Escola Politécnica in Lisbon, in between talking to a wealthy Brazilian customer attracted to some 1960s designer silverware with a €4,000 price tag.
In fact, everything at the annual fair which runs until May 13 has an expensive price tag — this is not like some flea market at Feira da Ladra or regional antiques centre you’d find in Scunthorpe, UK; this is sophisticated and classy with top-quality and often one-off original pieces on display at the expensive looking stalls under discreet golden museum lighting that bathes the central corridor covered in French bleu royale carpet at the Cordoaria Nacional near Lisbon’s Belém district.
I am immediately attracted by a gold and enamel jewellery set with diamonds and rubies with leopard heads and comment how art deco and Cartier they look, and reminiscent of pieces from the Duchess of Windsor’s jewellery collection, only to be informed that it was in fact designed by the Italian ‘zoology’ jeweller Pierino Frascarolo from the 1960 whose animal inspired pieces regularly fetch €10,000 and above at auction houses like Christie’s.
The former mathematician who developed a love of art and design pieces for the beauty of their symmetry and “poetry” as much as the precious metals and stones they contain (“after all isn’t everything maths”) says that many of her buyers are from overseas, some of them come expressly to Lisbon to buy from Isabel’s shop.
Isabel doesn’t like the 1980s designs for jewellery, which of course was slammed as ‘de trop’ and tasteless in the 1990s, but that may be a sense of personal taste now that the abstract design pieces in yellow gold and brightly coloured stones is back in fashion with auction house Bonhams reporting a surge in customers paying above estimate prices for the over-the-top jewellery.
Recent sales include £11,000 for an amethyst and ametrine choker, and £17,000 for a moonstone and gem set necklace, both by US designer Tony Duquette, while an 18 karat gold and diamond necklace by Cartier which was expected to sell for £5,000 went for £11,600!
Unlike some of the designers at the fair, Isabel doesn’t create the pieces she sells herself, she does make alterations where necessary for clients and in what she buys there is a certain coherence in terms of era, design and boldness in what she calls “catering to a niche market” as she shows me around a scrumptious assortment of glittering bijou gorgeousness sparkling in cabinets.
“My market is really super niche” she admits and says that the influx of foreigners to Lisbon over the past few years had done nothing to hurt her business, but stresses that overseas buyers are not her main market, and that she has always had a lot of Portuguese buyers.
While Isabel says the world of antiques, art and contemporary art is not always very united – she has sat on the committee of the A.P.A for many years – she explains that the goal is to open up the market as much as possible to a wider public, not just to the antiques market, but also to contemporary art and design, and even wants to bring fashion design into the mix to cover all of the arts which she thinks is essential since the antiques market on its own is very small in Portugal and a large fair needs a broader range of pieces in different styles, mediums, and from different epochs, both ancient and modern, in order for the fair to work.
São Roque – mixing art with education
I then move on to stand 30 and São Roque, Antiquidades & Galeria de Arte which features a beautiful collection of Indo-Portuguese pieces that reflect the wealth and riches commissioned and traded from trading outposts in India and Asia in the late 16th and 17th centuries when Portugal discovered half the world, and Lisbon was one of the main commercial cities and centres of art.
The pièce de la résistance at this sumptuous stall which to all intents and purposes mimics the same kind of baroque and sacred elegance seen in the actual store at Rua de São Bento in Lisbon, just a stone’s throw away from the Portuguese parliament building, is the pair of terrines which are fashioned into the heads of wild boar. These remarkable pieces were designed by Tomás Brunetto between 1767 and 1771 at the Real Fabrica do Rato (Royal China and Porcelain Works).
I spoke to founder Mário Roque (Pictured) who is a well known figure in Portugal on the antiques scene and whose website sports the slogan “This is the sea that I have for you to see’ (‘Este é o mar que tenho para vos mostrar’).
For 30 years São Roque has carefully selected top pieces of art from furniture to tapestries and paining and table pieces. In that time it has become a reference not only for collectors, but also international museums which today have an important role in the art and antiques market both in Portugal and overseas.
“Today São Roque has two large antique shops in São Bento, Lisbon but we have a vision that is somewhat different to antique shops. Apart from the commercial side, we also organise a series of events linked to art including conferences and even traineeships for budding artists at the Lisbon School of Fine arts”, he says.
“We have various partnerships with museums, two exhibitions overseas at TEFAF Maastricht (March 11-19) (as well as the exhibition Around the World – The Portuguese Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries) while in 2022 we were very much in evidence at the Fine Arts & La Biennale 2022 in Paris”, he says.
This unique approach, which involves seminars and conferences, has enabled São Roque to attract a broader public, not only because of this singular and eclectic approach which involves striking pieces from various periods, particularly Portuguese porcelain works. Like Isabel Lopes da Silva, Mário Roque also did not start off in the antiques business, having originally been a doctor by profession.
Over the years he has dealt with a paintings by Chagall, Miró, the famous Franco-Hungarian artist Arpad Szenes and Portuguese artist Paula Rego to name but a few big international names of the 20th century art scene.
“These exhibitions were important because we wanted to educate the wider international public about Portuguese art because we realised after attending some of these International fairs no one knew much about Portuguese art.”
“We also have an increasing number of foreigners who come into our shops in Lisbon and who say “we’ve come to Portugal because we liked your lectures at TEFAF because we learnt so much about Portuguese antiques,” he explains, adding that today it has to be blend of the commercial and educational events.
Coming from a country in which going to auctions, antique centres and watching programmes such as Bargain Hunt, the Antiques Roadshow and Floggit! are almost national pastimes in the UK, I ask Mário Roque if the Portuguese are becoming more antiques aware.
“I think the general public in Portugal is becoming increasingly more aware and knowledgable about art and antiques, but the market is somewhat on ‘standby’ since the driver here in Portugal is very much contemporary art at present”, he says.
Galeria Bessa Pereira – an eclectic mix between the ancient and modern
I then delve deeper into this temple of treasures and discover the Galeria Bessa Pereira – Fine Art and Furniture (Lisbon-Milan) and chat with its founder Carlos Bessa Pereira who also happens to have a well-appointed shop on Lisbon’s Rua de São Bento.
Here we have an eclectic collection of pieces including a 1950s Pierre Jeanneret committee chair in teak and leather, a 1970’s Lumenform lamp in chrome and steel from Italy, and a beautiful Regence (not to be confused with English Regency) desk from the second half of the 19th century in rosewood and mahogany.
Carlos came into the business later than some of the people we interviewed having set up shop 10 years ago.
“I got into dealing because initially I had been a collector and then became the owner of a gallery and gave up being a collector because I just couldn’t manage to do the two things at the same time,” he says, adding that collectors generally save the best pieces for themselves, but the gallery owner had to keep the best pieces for its clients and so there was a conflict of interest.
“While we are collectors, we think we have to hold on to a piece because we’ll never find another like it; as a dealer we have to think that we’ll always find another piece that is better than the one we’re selling, and that’s how you have to think about it,” he adds.
I am immediately drawn to some classical stone work including a reclining figure that I believe to be Roman but in fact is Etruscan – The Etruscan civilisation was developed by a people of Etruria in ancient Italy with a common language and culture who formed a federation of city-states. After conquering adjacent lands, its territory covered, at its greatest extent, roughly what is now Tuscany, western Umbria, and northern Lazio,[ as well as what are now the Po Valley, Emilia-Romagna, south-eastern Lombardy, southern Veneto, and western Campania. They were conquered and absorbed by the Romans.
Another piece dates from 100 years BC while there is also a piece from Yemen which is even older – Yemen is one of the oldest centers of civilization in the world. Between the ninth century BC and the sixth century AD, it was part of the Sabaean, Awsanian, Minaean, Qatabanian, Hadhramawtian, Himyarite, and some other kingdoms, which controlled the lucrative spice trade.
“We think of art as transversal and we don’t have stylistic or period barriers, basically we are motivated by a passion for art and ideally we believe that each person who likes art should be able to build their own internal narrative.
“I personally like pieces from antiquity to the contemporary and have built a gallery around this, while always seeking a dialogue between the various pieces that we sell,” explains Carlos.
Oitoemponto – contemporary production with an art deco and 1950s Brazilian influence
For those who admire contemporary 20th and 21st century design, Porto-based Oitoemponto provides a window onto fine furniture pieces, including a beautiful tableware cabinet in African teak, white lacquer, brass and glass mounted on a forest green base, and a simple table centre system by Moss Architects (2009) originally commissioned for Johnson Trading Gallery in the US and fashioned in black anodised aluminium.
“We focus on contemporary production” says Jacques Beck (pictured) who founded the company 30 years ago with his business partner Artur Miranda. “While we are well known in Portugal, we mostly work for overseas clients on interior architectural and design projects, but we do have a lot of vintage pieces which we buy from all over the world.”
Artur Miranda (pictured) explains that as antique dealers they specialise in pieces from the 20th century and contemporary design while for the interior design part of their business they design and produce their own exclusive pieces.
Both dealers work mostly with private clients, but also do a lot of work for the interiors of premises in the hotels and hospitality sector and have just completed a project for the Hotel Ritz in Lisbon where they redesigned the rooms with interior architects Vector Mais.
In the first phase of the restoration of the rooms which was begun in 2020, Oitoemponto was responsible for designing 73 rooms and 11 suites. The talented duo are also responsible for the interior design of the Monumental Palace Hotel in Porto which features stunning Art Deco inspired interior designs in the bedrooms, looking like a muted version of Cedric Gibbons film sets with the only thing missing being a 1920s jazz baby elegantly draped over the bed.
The pair have also just finished the interior designs of the large cruise ship World Navigator with 100 cabins for Atlas Ocean Voyages.
But it is clear looking at all their designs, both for interiors and furniture, that the clean lines and bold geometric shapes that mark their work echo the glamorous Art Deco 1920s and 1930s while using lacquer, marquetry and rare woods in their pieces, some of which pay tribute to the Brazilian masters of architecture from the 1950s and 1960s revisiting their vocabulary with a contemporary approach.
The pieces come with a hefty price tag with an Oitoemponto ‘Artur’ Armchair costing a cool €13,310 while a ‘Paulo’ sideboard will set you back over €30,000! — the price of a sizeable downpayment on a mortgage.
“A lot of the pieces that are commissioned from us never get published in magazines or appear on our website. They adorn private homes of the affluent discerning collector and are never seen by those outside the family and close friends of these patrons”, they admit. “We’ve done some amazing projects in Portugal for private clients who don’t even allow us to take our own photos of the works we’ve designed for them in high resolution because they are afraid they will be disseminated in newspapers, magazines or on the internet,” Artur Miranda concludes.
Text and photos: Chris Graeme