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For many years the European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf), which opens in Maastricht on March 14, staked its territory firmly in Old Masters and antiques. This was where the moneyed classes of northern Europe indulged their love of Chinese porcelain, Limoges enamels, Dutch genre paintings and Venetian glass.

But over the 27 years of Tefaf’s existence, the market for Old Masters has changed radically. Supply has diminished and tastes have changed, with the big money in the art world being spent on modern and contemporary art. In the words of Jonathan Green, a member of Tefaf’s board of trustees who is chief of London-based international dealers Richard Green: “In Old Masters new collectors only want the very best, whereas the market for impressionists and modern is very strong.”

Given that those very best Old Masters, as recent sales in New York have shown, are now fetching upwards of $2m at auction, you also need collectors with deep pockets – perhaps those used to buying Picasso or Gerhard Richter.

So Tefaf is caught in a dilemma. Its strength has always been its diversity, but with hugely varying price levels in the different categories that it fields, can it continue to attract the right combination of collectors and dealers to serve all those different interests? As Green puts it: “We have got to look at our identity.”

Over the years, Tefaf has shown itself agile at adapting to a changing art world. In 1991 the fair welcomed modern and contemporary art, a section on which much of the success of the fair now depends. Classical antiquities arrived in 1993, design in 2009 and works on paper as recently as 2010. Giles Hutchinson-Smith, chief executive of Mallett in London, says: “Fairs have to be multidisciplinary. They are very expensive to run and to attend. Contemporary art and design bring in the architects and designers as well as a potential crossover collecting audience.”

It is this elusive crossover audience that all exhibitors seek. Hutchinson-Smith says: “There are definitely people who go to Tefaf knowing they are going to buy a 15th-century ivory or a Cuyp, but also people who are surprised by wonder.” Mallett adapts by bringing attractive objects – such as a pair of late 18th-century mahogany table globes – to draw people to its stand of fine 18th- and early 19th-century furniture. The firm is also bringing 20th-century design: “There is amazing hunger for 20th-century design. We are mixing it all together.”

gallerist David Koetser
Scene at Tefaf 2013: gallerist David Koetser

Others adjust by ensuring that what they bring is the very best of its class – so acting chairman Robert Aronson, scion of leading Dutch Delftware specialists Aronson Antiquairs, is bringing a very rare fluted rectangular tea canister and lid in black Delftware, decorated with flowers, from 1730; meanwhile Helga Matzke, based in the German city of Grünwald, is bringing two particularly fine silver beakers from late 16th-century Nuremburg.

Robert Bowman, a London-based dealer in sculpture from 1860, who is bringing 18 sculptures by Rodin, identifies the auction houses as Tefaf’s main competitors: “We are continually having to adjust to new markets – not just China. There are an awful lot more individuals in Asia, the Americas and Europe able and willing to buy these expensive things than 10 years ago. But we are in direct competition with the auction rooms, as well as more tightly focused modern and contemporary art fairs.”

Buyers’ confidence is paramount, and since 2000 Tefaf has tightened up its vetting criteria for every object to include “good title”, along with authentication and quality. The look of the fair – the elegance of the stands, the spaciousness of the corridors, the glamour of the opening party – is also of primary importance

“Of course we dealers have to keep finding more wonderful things,” says Bowman, “but we have also to ensure our stands are glamorously lit.”

Cinema chair (1950) by Pierre Jeanneret
Cinema chair (1950) by Pierre Jeanneret

There has also been a ramping-up of the talks and events programme. This year there is a symposium on vintage design, as well as guided tours of the fair by well-known interior designers, in a bid to attract those ambitious collectors of contemporary art looking to match their art collection with some Scandinavian modern or French mid-century furniture. Mark Weiss, a London Old Masters dealer who is bringing a luscious Lucretia by Lucas Cranach the Younger, applauds the organisers’ efforts to “amplify the experience”.

Fortunately, there seems to be no problem attracting visitors (more than 70,000 last year, 72,000 in 2012, with 44 per cent from outside the Netherlands), and sales last year were reportedly good too.

As Jamie Ede of London antiquities dealership Charles Ede puts it: “The fair has a very wide audience with very wide pockets.” Ede’s antiquities fit very comfortably: he is bringing, among other things, a fine Egyptian limestone low relief carving of a falcon from the Ptolemaic period. Meanwhile, Jonathan Green adjusts to the times, leaving behind the Dutch landscapes he would once have brought for an atmospheric Monet oil painting, “L’Ile aux Orties” (1897), of a wooded island in the Seine, approximate price $15m, alongside an attractive large genre painting, “The Village Lawyer”, by the ever-popular Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1615), priced at £2.75m.

Rather than envying their contemporary and modern counterparts, the Old Master dealers have sensibly chosen to join them.

Tefaf, Maastricht, March 14-23 tefaf.com

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