David Lester’s ship has not yet come in, but it should arrive in a few more months. Lester, the cofounder and coprincipal of the SeaFair company, claims steel shortages that arose in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath delayed construction of Grand Luxe, SeaFair’s first art fair exhibition vessel, and forced him to postpone the yacht’s December launch. (Robb Report previewed Lester’s SeaFair project in the October 2005 issue.)
The 228-foot yacht, which Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland, Wash., is constructing, will accommodate 28 art and antiques dealers and their wares as it visits ports along the eastern seaboard and Florida’s gulf coast. Originally scheduled to launch at the Art Basel Miami Beach fair, the yacht instead will begin its initial summer season in early June with a five-day stop in Greenwich, Conn., and proceed to engagements in the Hamptons; Newport, R.I.; Nantucket, Mass.; and points in Maine.
Lester intends Grand Luxe to be the first of SeaFair’s five exhibition vessels that will travel along America’s coasts; he plans to launch a second ship for fashion and jewelry vendors in fall 2008. In subsequent years, he will launch vessels on which vendors will sell Italian-designed products, pharmaceuticals, and real estate. Lester declined to specify how much Grand Luxe will cost to build, but he did say he expects to spend $60 million during its first five years of operation.
Lester, who with his wife, Lee Ann, established, nurtured, and sold the fair now known as Palm Beach! America’s International Fine Art & Antique Fair, is convinced that Grand Luxe will transform the art and antiques market. “I am 2,000 percent certain that it will work,” Lester says. “The art market needs this boat because dealers have to find a new way to reach clients, and the luxury market needs it for the same reason. They have to reach out in a more geographically convenient way than waiting for the clients to come to them.”
Because the yacht’s capacity is limited to 600 art and antiques shoppers, only invited guests will be allowed to climb the gangplank. Lester says this policy enhances SeaFair’s appeal to dealers. “The dealers have embraced this because they know who will be coming on board before they sign,” he says, noting that two-thirds of the dealers who have reserved space aboard Grand Luxe are European. “We demographically qualify who will be on the boat.”
Among the notable dealers who signed on for Grand Luxe’s inaugural voyage is Michael Cohen of London’s Cohen & Cohen, a gallery that deals in Chinese export porcelain. He showed his support for Lester’s venture by booking exhibition space on Grand Luxe in June. Cohen normally would reserve a booth at the Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair, which also takes place in June, and which is widely considered to be Britain’s foremost art fair. “For someone who is as American-based as we are, it makes more sense for us to attend a good U.S. fair than a good English fair, anytime,” Cohen says. “Until David set this up, there was no alternative, and Grosvenor was the best in June. Now, in my opinion, SeaFair is the best in June, and probably in many other months as well. If it works, I think some of us [European dealers] will give up their galleries for SeaFair. It could happen. I know people who are thinking about it.”