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|Decorative Arts Diary
by Brook S. Mason
|Forget Modernism and all that funky furniture! What was on a high at the recently completed European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht were period decorative arts with real hallmarks of history dating from the Medieval and Renaissance times.
Long called simply "works of art," such goods are now fiercely coveted by clients from all corners of the globe, according to dealers from Germany, France and the U.S. at this fair.
"The past five years have been booming," says Munich dealer Florian Eitle-Böhler, whose family has been hawking all manner of reliquaries, Renaissance furniture and iron caskets along with carved saints for five generations. Their pedigree is impressive: the Bohlers were named Purveyor to the Imperial Court of Germany and the Royal Court of Bavaria in the 19th century. Eitle-Böhler spent the late 1980s at Sotheby's New York as head of European sculpture and joined the family firm five years ago.
The level of sales at the booth he shared at Maastricht with the New York dealer Tony Blumka shows just how hot this area is. Before the second weekend of the fair, they had commitments on 31 pieces, which ranged from alms bowls and relief plaques to a carved boxwood Madonna and a $150,000 Madonna and child in carved Lindenwold with original gilding and polychrome.
Just this past February, Blumka sold 50 works of art, including an alabaster St. John from 1430 that was priced at $190,000. With his head cradled in his hand, St. John looks both poignant and pensive. Blumka says he could have sold the Netherlandish sculpture four times over.
Many medieval objects began as church commissions. But as time passed, with wealthy royalty and landowners snapping up items for their castles and estates, this kind of material was on a roll. "By the mid-19th century, fine Gothic sculpture was more valuable than a 17th-century Dutch painting," points out Eitle-Böhler.
In New York in the 1930s, there were close to a dozen high-end art dealers serving the needs of tycoons from J.P. Morgan to John D. Rockefeller.
In the 1950s, truly great collections were amassed, most notably including that of Ernst and Martha Kofler-Truniger. Both Böhler and Blumka played instrumental roles in forming that collection and have since been selling important pieces from it. With such works of art, provenance and condition are paramount.
The client base in this area is changing vastly. Four decades ago, an overwhelmingly German clientele shopped at Böhler. Today, the collecting base is worldwide, with clients from England, France, Belgium, Holland and the U.S. Germans make up 25 percent of Eitle-Böhler's client list today.
The interest is soaring in part due to the increasing number of museum shows like "Tilman Riemenschneider: Master Sculptor of the Late Middle Ages" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Böhler and Blumka have objects on loan. Böhler has sold to more than 50 museums spread across Europe and the U.S.
Yet with all the players on the market now, sourcing objects is more difficult than ever before. Very little appears in the salesrooms. "I fly to Paris, London or Zurich twice a month to comb the market," says Eitle-Böhler.
For clients, part of the appeal is the impressive lineage of pieces that date back centuries. What clients particularly crave are rarities, like the 12th-century reliquary casket made of horsebone in the Böhler-Blumka catalogue. Saints carved from bone line this Cologne casket. The price is $450,000. Another top piece is a 15th-century Pieta of chalkstone. From Salzburg or Prague, this work is carved with a surprising sensitivity and costs $900,000.
Eitte-Böhler and Blumka are not alone in seeing a global client base. Stephane Bresset of Paris has clients as far afield as Japan and Australia. "American clients are more diverse now with those under 40 and living outside the East Coast entering the field," says Bresset, whose grandfather started the French gallery still bearing his surname. Yes, some are the newly dot-com rich and some also collect contemporary painting. "They like the look of Renaissance furniture with very abstract art," says Bresset. Others like to accessorize. One Maastricht client picked up the ultimate desk accessory -- a 17th-century Italian stone inkwell.
Like Old Masters, medieval and Renaissance pieces appear to be a bargain compared to Impressionist and contemporary painting. "For $1 million, you can have a masterpiece ivory," says Bresset. On his stand is a demure Madonna and child ivory plaque for $35,000. Plus, works like these have never suffered the roller coaster dives of contemporary painting.
Shoppers take note: a 12th-century book cover in enamel and gilt copper is still up for grabs with Eitle-Böhler. Depicting Christ surrounded by angels and assorted animals, this piece is ablaze with color. The price is $400,000.
Blumka Gallery, 101 East 72nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10021 Tel.: 212 734 3222.
Julius Böhler, Arco Palais, Briemner Strasse 10, Munich 80333, Germany Tel.: 011 49 89 28 11 65.
Bresset, 5 Quai Voltaire, Paris, France 750057 Tel.: 011 33 142 6078 13.
BROOK S. MASON writes on art and antiques.