Week 65 - Silence


Last Thursday night the drain burst outside the Oval tube station, in the Clapham Road, where I live. That most disturbing partnership of the words 'raw' and 'sewage' came into play as the road and its neighbours were awash to above waist height. Disgusting certainly, but the following days brought a closed road and men in high viz clothing power-washing everything; and only cyclists were left rolling along. I have never known such a hush. The normally raucous, siren and horn rich road is dawn-like. I hear trees sway, I can hear bird song; the world seems strange - uncanny but at the same time delightful. It puts me in mind of the great silences of this art-dealing world.

The best or possibly one of the most important silences in the art world is the one that lurks portentously between a client and the dealer. Standing before a work, the dealer says his piece: he praises its line, its colour, its quality and rarity. He moves on to express what good value it represents and that quite astonishingly he might consider taking even less than the already good price at which it is being offered. The client stands beside the dealer, listening and occasionally asking a question and soaking up all the proffered expertise. Then, when the dealer has finished his speech, there comes the silence. It is a fat silence, full of all that has come before and full of anticipation for what is coming next. For this is the silence of an impending sale. The silence can drag on a bit long but the cardinal rule is that the dealer must not be the one to break it. If he or she does so, then the spell is broken and the sale will not be made. The client speaks and the dealer can exhale. Business has been done and noise can re-enter the room.

The second great silence is the silence before the hammer drops at the end of an auctioned lot in a sale. The bidding flits between the auctioneer, the bidders in the room, and, these days, those on the phone and internet. The bidding slows and then stops, the auctioneer says ' Final warning' or some such phrase and then his gavel hovers. The silence that follows has the highest bidder willing it to drop and the vendor hoping for another bid from elsewhere. It has the uninterested bidders waiting for a later lot and impatient for it to arrive. It has the train-spotting types who write down the results of each lot in their catalogues, whose pencils are poised. All eyes are on the gavel and all ears are waiting for the bang that signals the final figure. Sometimes this silence is fleeting, sometimes it takes what seems like a lifetime.

One of the most exquisite silences is the one endured waiting for Oscar Humphries to arrive for lunch. I met Oscar when he was editor of Apollo - he has now left and we remain good friends. I have agreed to meet him at Sumosan, the Japanese restaurant I adore in Albemarle St. I have tried to institute a rule by which if Oscar is late he pays - but it never works. Fifteen minutes late, he rings to say he is going to be fifteen minutes late. Almost inevitably he is 45 minutes late by the time he actually arrives. As always, he is instantly forgiven as his febrile brain and winning charm puncture any rising annoyance. He is full of exciting plans and though I have no idea whether any of them will bear fruit, they are fascinating and intriguing to debate. He shoots off after lunch, currently only a little late for his next appointment.

On Thursday, in an ante-diluvian (before the Oval flood) moment, I went with the Masterpiece CEO Nazy to the VIP opening of Art14. The hall at Olympia is a venue I know so well and I had memories of Mallett and other stands from past summer fairs spinning in my thoughts. Nazy's view of the hall is not blurred by any distracting nostalgia. She studies the art and weighs up the quality of the dealers and their displays. The show looked good - the organisers seem to have done well with gathering a very international roster of exhibitors. The overall appearance is the international pared down look and no-one uses much colour. The floors are bare and everyone employs lights of the most basic variety. Though this could not be more different to the Masterpiece aesthetic, it is what contemporary dealers seem to be most comfortable with. There were plenty of people there but it was hard to judge at this early stage whether deals were being done. One of the gloomiest silences in the art world is that of a fair where the traders are all standing around with no visitors and the aisles echo with a dead silence. Art14 was not like that.

I have a dealing friend who is a great single-handed exponent of the silence. He tells wonderful trade stories about people and things. They are unusually insightful - by listening to the end you invariably find that there is some special pertinence to the tale he is recounting from years gone by. He cunningly begins by asking you if you remember something or other. This trick both includes you in the conversation and excludes you because of course there is no way you could remember. His memory is elephant-like. He picks you up and nimbly trots along with his story - but once you are ensnared, he slows down to a snail's pace. Sometimes there can be a full minute or even two between single words, as you drool and perspire desperate for him to continue - let alone finish. But woe betide you if you try to anticipate or try to guess which way a sentence will unfold. He gets irate and looks reproachful and disconsolate, so you have to just sit back and engage in the ever-lengthening silences. It is always worth it.

I finished the week chatting to Adrian Amos, owner of the antique and salvage company Lassco. We had coffee in Brunswick House in Vauxhall, which he owns and is developing. It is a beautiful 18th-century house which sits on Vauxhall Cross roundabout below a Leviathan housing development. The poor building is dwarfed by its surroundings but it has retained its dignity and is now a rambling antique shop with a low-key but charming restaurant attached. Adrian is first and foremost an entrepreneur and has a portfolio of interesting and quirky spaces in London and beyond. One day I would like to do business with him as he is the epitome of creative. But my idea this time is not for him, so the dream will have to wait. Nonetheless, the coffee was delicious, and that is my last great silence for this week - the one achieved in anticipation of the first sip touching your palette.