MAASTRICHT, The Netherlands — The European Fine Art Fair, known as TEFAF, was the first major victim of the coronavirus pandemic on the international art market. It was also one of the last to return to relative normalcy.
On Friday, VIPs attended the preview of the first in-person TEFAF Maastricht since March 2020, when the fair had to close early because an exhibitor tested positive for the virus.
The long-standing event, regarded throughout the ages as the world’s foremost art, objects and furniture fair, was canceled in 2021 and postponed by three months this year to an undisclosed summer slot.
“It’s good to be back,” said Sam Fogg, a London-based medieval art dealer, one of several exhibitors who contracted the virus during the 2020 edition. Fogg spent more than six weeks in the hospital after that fateful event. “I think I caught it from an Italian dealer and then gave it to my staff,” he added. “But I am now fully recovered.”
Fogg said he appreciated that the show, which is run by a dealership nonprofit, has managed to move the 35th edition just three months from its original date. The event was shortened to six out of 11 days, and the exhibitor list was reduced by about 14 percent to 242 out of 280. TEFAF will return to its usual March slot next year, rather than squeeze in between the Art Basel fair in Switzerland. an equally postponed edition of BRAFA in Brussels and Masterpiece in London, just like this year.
“It’s a busy time,” said Fogg. “But we sold a few things. It’s not a bad start.”
Exhibitors’ sense of a return to normalcy was dampened by the realization that the pandemic has profoundly changed their business. A new wave of younger, Instagram-aware buyers has entered the market, increasing the demand for contemporary art, particularly by young painters. Advances in digital technology at the major auction houses have made many wealthy collectors comfortable spending large sums of money on 21st century works that they have not seen in real life. Less fashionable older pieces, whose authenticity, condition and provenance must be verified, are harder to sell online.
“They need to be seen in person,” said London-based dealer Stuart Lochhead, adding that representatives of a major American museum had visited his TEFAF booth to see a rare 1530s French alabaster sculpture of the Virgin and Child. inspect. He declined to name the museum, but said it bought the work for a seven-figure price.
The presence of curators, restorers and donors of museums in Europe and the United States is an important attraction for dealers to exhibit at TEFAF Maastricht. Representatives from some 20 US-based institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, attended the fair, according to TEFAF’s media agency.
“American museums are ready to buy,” says New York-based dealer Nicholas Hall, who specializes in high-quality old masters. Hall displayed a beautiful “Virgin and Child with Saints Cecilia and Ursula”, from about 1495, by the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio. Offered for sale from a private collection in the United States, it had been set aside for the fair by another American collector, Hall said, priced between $10 million and $15 million.
Since TEFAF’s equivalent sister fair in New York was canceled in the fall (although it still holds its spring fair for modern and contemporary works), TEFAF Maastricht was now “the only chance for dealers to put together a group of photos to compete with auction sales of Old Masters’ houses,’ Hall said.
Certainly Hall’s Carpaccio, an Artemisia Gentileschi self-portrait as Cleopatra with Heim van Basel for about $8 million and the late Goya canvas “St. Paul,” featuring London-based Stair Sainty for $6 million, a more impressive offering than the flimsy Sotheby’s and Christie’s old master auctions in London in July.
Unlike the VIP crowd at contemporary fairs such as Art Basel or Frieze, TEFAF’s affluent clientele is mainly Northern European, white, male and middle-aged, with no designer sneaker in sight. Nevertheless, it gives the less fashionable side of the trade a chance to find buyers for exceptional pieces that cannot be sold online.
De Wit, a firm based in Mechelen, Belgium, specializing in the restoration and trading of tapestries, offered a spectacular early 16th-century Flemish panel woven with exotic animals in a walled garden. Formerly owned by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, and with vibrantly preserved colors, it cost about $500,000, a fraction of its value in the 16th or even the 19th century when inflation is taken into account.
Or there was the equally spectacular, recently rediscovered silver crucible dating from 1697 by the Transylvanian goldsmith Sebastian Hann the Elder that had been in the collection of Baroness Betty de Rothschild in the 1910s. Lavishly decorated with mythological scenes, this cost about $400,000 on German exhibitor Senger Bamberg’s booth.
“When people walk around here, they realize that paying $3.5 million for a work by a young female artist isn’t such a big investment,” said New York-based dealer Christophe van de Weghe, an exhibitor at the contemporary and contemporary section of TEFAF, “We’ll see what happens to these artists in 50 years,” added Van de Weghe.
Prices of $500,000 and up for paintings by young Instagram sensations have become routine at contemporary art auctions; TEFAF Maastricht is the ultimate showcase for age-old rarities that can be bought for the same money. The ongoing challenge for TEFAF and its exhibitors is to find a new generation of buyers who stand out and care.