The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF): Impressions 2011
Neither aqueous tsunamis bringing waves of tragedy to Japan and ongoing anxiety and peril in their wake, geo-political tsunamis buffeting the Middle East, or major cross-currents in world equity markets could counter the power of culture and cash during the opening days of the 24th edition of the European Fine Art Fair, better known as TEFAF (or TEFAF Maastricht, alluding to its host town in southern Holland).
By nearly ubiquitous consent amongst curators, collectors, connoisseurs, cognoscenti and arts writers comme moi, TEFAF is the mother ship of fine and decorative arts fairs, its bona fides a blue-chip gauge by any measure: 260 exhibitors from 16 countries offering over 30,000 works of art across nine categories, encompassing millennia of human creativity and expression, vetted by 168 experts in 29 specialist committees, and cumulatively valued in the ballpark of $1.4 billion—all under one roof, at the Maastricht Exhibition & Congress Centre (MECC) from March 18-27, with an invitation-only preview, or vernissage, on Thursday 17. IPhone impressions of this champagne drenched, oyster-fueled jamboree are below (the annoying but kind of addictive house music accompaniment is “New Dutch Shuffle” by DJ Jean).
Then there are the more amusing but no less indicative qualifiers, such as the number of private jets landing at the local Maastricht-Aachen airport. Carol Vogel, reporting for the NYT, put the number at 60 for Thursday alone, up from 43 last year; and Roger Webster and Jason Grant, writing for the haute website New York Social Diary, quote popular TEFAF board member Michel Witmer (who’s also TEFAF Ambassador to America, a post holding no diplomatic immunity) as saying that the airport was “fully booked with private jets for Sunday evening so that the biggest collectors and the wealthiest buyers can enter the fair on Monday morning, without the weekend crowds.” (In their article, Webster and Grant also offer the perfect quote from Winston Churchill to refute Washington politico philistines who see the already measly U.S. arts funding as a waste and/or subsidy for ne’er do wells and other elite subversives: When asked to cut arts funding in favor of the war effort in World War II, Churchill pithily countered: “Then what are we fighting for?” Nuff said).
Over the eleven days, crowd clickers clock in numbers north of 70,000. Last year saw 73,073, a 7.75% increase over the previous year. But TEFAF organizers aren’t interested in topping attendance records, not in regards to the hoi polloi, hence the ticket price increase of several years ago, with a single ticket now costing €55, or approximately $78, which includes one encyclopedic, luggage busting but irresistible catalog. Foot traffic is ever crucial, but it’s the well-heeled feet that matter most at this and all art fairs. How else prospectively to pay for the exhibitors stands, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in rental and décor, to say nothing of shipping and insurance?
Of course, the boldfaced provide yet another way to tabulate TEFAF’s importance. All the major museums—from the MET to the Getty to the Louvre to the Prado to the Hermitage to the National Gallery, etc.—send their peeps, as do the major auction houses. But it’s the billionaire regular attendees, among them Bernard Arnault, Alfred Taubman and David Koch, as well as members of ruling houses—for example, the acquisitive Sheikh Saud Al Thani of Qatar and home-court Dutch Princess Marilène van Oranje—who get dealers’ eyes popping the fastest.
Oh wait … I’m forgetting the art. Primo offerings this year included the much publicized late-career Rembrandt oil “Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo,” offered by New York-based Otto Naumann for $47 million (the painting is owned by Vegas hotelier and casino billionaire Stephen Wynn, who bought it at Christie’s London just over a year ago, in December 2009 for $32.8 million). A delicate Renoir of the first Madame Claude Monet (de-accessioned from the Sterling and Fancine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts). A stunning “Portrait of Mary, Countess Lawrence” by Sir Thomas Lawrence at Richard Green. The last known suit of late 15th-century German jousting armor in private hands, brought by London’s Peter Finer. A sleek and sexy oak and steel desk by Jean Prouvé at the Galerie Downtown François Laffanour. A pair of extremely rare early 18th-century porcelain leopards believed to have been made for the reigning Kangxi emperor (from London’s Cohen & Cohen). Munich’s Daniel Blau gallery’s Lucian Freud portrait entitled “The Painter’s Mother.” More Old Masters (among them several Frans Hals, a standout Frans Francken and lovely Gerard ter Borch) than you can shake a pearl earring at; roomfuls of Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele; walls hung with erotic nudes from Helmut Newton; an 18th-century Russian writing desk with Imperial provenance; an ancient Egyptian fragment of a water clock depicting and commissioned by Alexander the Great; there’s even a 118-carat yellow diamond that reportedly took over a year to cut. It’s an Alladin’s convention center of riches, an encyclopedic museum where every display is for sale.
Speaking of sales in macro, an additional aspect that renders this fair unique is an annual art market report commissioned by the TEFAF’s organizers, the European Fine Art Foundation. With the accurate, never to be a best-selling title The Global Art Market in 2010: Crisis and Recovery, the 170-page report is written by Dr. Clare McAndrew, a cultural economist specializing in the fine and decorative art market. While art market numbers, especially those given by dealers, are notoriously difficult to verify, Dr. McAndrew draws attention to several extremely interesting and significant trends and findings, among them: in 2010 the global art market rose by 52% to €43 billion; China became the world’s second largest art market with a global share of 23% of all art sales (totaling almost €6 billion) and overtaking the U.K.; the U.S. continued to dominate the art and antiques market with a share of 35% (although falling from a high of 46% in 2006). To order the report, available after April 1, click here.
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