TEFAF: Art World Royalty in Maastricht, The Netherlands
By Bobbie Leigh
You can think of TEFAF as an encyclopedic museum without walls where 7,000 years of art are on display and everything is for sale. Held at a huge convention center in the city of Maastricht in the Southern Netherlands, TEFAF attracts art royalty. It is the world’s leading art fair, where the most important international and serious buyers of fine art, antiques, and decorative arts gather. On Sunday, March 27, when the doors finally closed at The European Fine Art Fair, some 73,000 visitors from 55 countries had attended.
The art a-listers are a mix of newcomer hedge-fund and real estate types whose pockets are deep and wallets fat. They are drawn to brand names with hyper-reputations. Then there are the time-tested art royals who still find ways to add to their collections in spite of an anxious economic climate. They are museum curators (six from the Met alone) , museum trustees (Agnes Gund, president emeritus of MoMA), serious collectors like developer Mark Fisch, specialists and other glitterati (Baron Philippe Lambert, scion of the Belgian banking family) plus a few collecting sheiks and true titled royals. So many private planes parked at the tiny Maastricht-Aachen airport that it had to convert one of its runways into a parking lot during the course of the fair.
The VIP vernissage, the day before the fair officially opens, is an invitation-only event where dealers invite their most prestigious clients. In a sea of men in dark suits and women in haute couture, young uniformed women served champagne to blue-chip visitors who crowded around sea food bars eating freshly shucked oysters, clams, and shrimp. The non-descript space was transformed by thousands of carnations, tulips, anemonies, and huge branches of magnolia.
The official opening, the day after the preview, has a tab of about €55 or $80 per person. The fair arranges for buses and vans to shuttle guests from the convention center to their hotels. The crowd-pleaser that everyone wanted to see was Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo” from1658, priced at $47 million at Manhattan dealer Otto Naumann’s booth. It is one of the last works from Rembrandt’s late period, painted two years after he declared bankruptcy. (The Frick’s Rembrandt Self Portrait of that same year is one of the finest masterworks in any collection.)
This year, the fair’s 24th anniversary, there were 260 exhibitors from 16 countries displaying 30,000 works of art ranging from the Neolithic Age to the present day. The breadth and quality of the work dealers bring for exhibition and sales are exceptional. Every single object on display has been studied and vetted by 168 international experts to ensure quality, authenticity, and good condition. Currently, more than 100 dealers are waiting to be accepted for next year.
According to several dealers, the preview attended by about 10,000 visitors was off to an optimistic start. No surprise as most dealers save their most impressive work to present at the fair. TEFAF is known as the fair where dealers bring works fresh to the market that have not been previously available.
One “new” rare work that was quickly snapped up was the Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1554) 1540’s oil painting The Virgin and Child with the Infant St. John. It was sold by Senger Bamberg Kunsthandel to a private European collector for €3.5 million. Joan Miro’s Oiseau Lunaire (Moon Bird) had been off the market for 40 years. It too was sold within opening hours of the preview by Montreal’s Landau Fine Art for €5 million. Among the contemporary early sales, a Russian collector bought Ganaian artist El Anatsui’s billowing tapestry for $965,532. This stunning piece is made of beaten red and gold bottle tops. You can see Anatsui’s Earth and Heaven sculpture in the Met’s African galleries.
It was fascinating to watch which dealers attracted the most attention at the preview. Russian TV crews made a beeline for the glitz and glamour of high-end jewelers like Van Gelder Indian Jewelry, which showcased South Seas pearls and precious antique stone jewelry fit for a maharanee from Hyderabad. The Chinese appeared to be interested in Japanese antiquities and Old Masters.
The most compelling reason to visit TEFAF if you are not a collector is for its wealth of great art. And if you’re interested in cranking yourself up from art 101 to PhD level, there’s no better place to learn. Unlike most fairs closer to home, the dealers seem interested in chatting with you. Instead of art snobbery, dealers at TEFAF seemed quite happy to tell stories about their objects and the artists who made them, perhaps a guideline handed down by the fair’s organizers.
The town itself has many charms — Maastricht has great churches, a terrific museum, cobbled squares, international restaurants, and a few good hotels. First settled by the Romans, it is the second oldest town in the Netherlands. For the non-collector, TEFAF is probably a place to visit once-in-a-lifetime, but as Michelin says, it is well worth the visit.
For more information and to plan a trip to the next fair, scheduled for March 16 to 25, 2012, visit TEFAF
Visit Maastrricht for more on The Netherlands’ oldest city
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.