Multi-million dollar sales highlight first Naples International Art & Antique Fair

Patrons view Pierre-Auguste Renoir paintings from the Hammer Gallery during opening night of the Naples International Art & Antiques Fair at the Naples International Pavilion on the corner of Immokalee and Livingston Roads in North Naples. Hundreds of people attended the event where  about 40 vendors displayed items such as Renoir paintings, a signed photograph of Abe Lincoln - his first taken as President of the United States. The event is a fundraiser for the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts. Lexey Swall/Staff

Photo by LEXEY SWALL // Buy this photo

Patrons view Pierre-Auguste Renoir paintings from the Hammer Gallery during opening night of the Naples International Art & Antiques Fair at the Naples International Pavilion on the corner of Immokalee and Livingston Roads in North Naples. Hundreds of people attended the event where about 40 vendors displayed items such as Renoir paintings, a signed photograph of Abe Lincoln - his first taken as President of the United States. The event is a fundraiser for the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts. Lexey Swall/Staff

Inside the art and antique fair

Jewels, paintings, books and more

— David and Lee Ann Lester promised big things from their first art fair hosted out of a refurbished Albertson’s shopping market in North Naples.

And by Tuesday, at the 6 p.m. close of the four-day Naples International Art & Antique Fair, it was clear they had delivered.

“I’m exhausted and exhilarated,” said Jacqueline Smelkinson, of Moylan/Smelkinson, a dealer of porcelain and antique jewelry. “Every day there was a line of people waiting to come into the show, and there was never a letup. We did very well. I think the show has enormous potential.”

By some accounts, the show is already fulfilling that potential. Smelkinson said she deals mostly in smaller items with a median range of $3,000 to $5,000, and while she had plenty of those sales, many dealers with six- and seven-figure items saw stratospheric sales.

M.S. Rau Antiques, based in New Orleans, sold an original Norman Rockwell painting for $2.7 million and an 1889 Jean-Leon Gerome painting for $1.4 million. Attendance hit roughly 3,000 people on Saturday and Sunday, and dipped to about 2,500 people Monday and Tuesday. Those stats set the bar high for a contemporary art show, Art Naples, coming to the same location March 18-21.

“This show is one of the top five shows in the United States now,” said David Lester, the organizer of the event and the owner of International Fine Art Expositions in Bonita Springs, which owns the retrofitted Naples International Pavilion on Immokalee Road and hosts shows in Miami, Palm Beach and London. “There are no shows in Naples that are anything close to this.”

To support the show and future ones, the Lesters transformed a stripped-down strip mall that failed to support a grocery store and a gas station into a mecca of high-end art and couture jewelry.

Lester said it was impossible to say just how much had been sold — some vendors were still negotiating sales as of Tuesday night and others shy away from broadcasting their earnings — but he estimated that sales hit between $10 million and $20 million.

Lester attributed it to his and his wife’s notoriety for organizing art festivals.

“That’s the reputation that Lee Ann and I have built over the last 20 years,” he said. “Our shows are the most prestigious shows, and that’s why.”

Pressed to talk about vendor reactions to committing to a first show in a new location, Lester struck a slightly more objective note about the challenge.

“You say to a dealer, ‘Look, I’m having an art sale in an old supermarket in Naples’ ... that’s an inherently hard sale,” he admitted. “So, you have to hand it to our clients.”

But true to Lester’s conviction about his ability to sell a show, the clients were all too happy to sign on with him.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Andrew Vogel, with Wellesley House, a Lake Forest, Ill., seller of English antiques. “I had seen the facility ahead of time. The Lesters have always done an incredible job of marketing any event. I anticipated that word would get out and our people from Port Royal and our old clients would come out.”

The four-day show also brought new clients, which means plenty of fodder for Vogel and other sellers to turn into old clients by securing repeat business.

Lester estimated that about 80 percent of the festival’s patrons are Naples locals, but in future years the show is anticipated to start drawing people from all over the country, and maybe even outside it.

It’s the next step in Naples’ growth as a world-class art destination, said William Meek, of Harmon-Meek Gallery in Naples. As of Tuesday evening, Meek was working with two buyers interested in a $150,000 painting titled “The Battery,” by 20th century American artist Adolf Dehn, featured by his gallery at the show.

“People may say, ‘How can it be happening now?’” said Meek. “But these two shows are making it happen right before our very eyes.”

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