With war looming (250,000 U.S. troops stationed in the Gulf are poised to fight any moment) and a dire financial picture, the time hardly seems right for a worldwide gathering of dealers in Old Masters. Yet The European Fine Art Fair, currently on view Mar. 14-23 in the small Dutch border town of Maastricht, is still masterful. Surprisingly, the 16th version of this glorious art exposition remains unmissable, unbeatable and undeterred.
No other fair can match the staggeringly high quality of art and antiques on view, whose cumulative value is said to approach $1 billion. Maastricht represents the height of a rarefied European taste and connoisseurship, and on the floor are reams of German 16th-century gilt silver, Meissen dinner services par excellance, engraved glass goblets from the services of 18th-century Popes, Gothic alabaster reliefs and carved Madonna's beyond compare.
Yet, among the 203 stands representing 13 countries, the scarcity of top masterpieces appears more apparent than ever before. No mega-Rembrandt, no mighty Rubens. Overall, the fair has more first-tier paintings by second rank artists, such as the 17th-century painter Dirck Verhaert or the later Chaim Soutine.
If you're pressed for time and cannot afford to prowl the entire 27,000-square-meter fair -- it's more than nine times the size of the Park Avenue armory in New York, which makes it the world's largest art fair -- then consider hitting these high points in the decorative arts.
First off, London's Pelham Galleries Ltd. has a splendid and highly significant bed attributed to Thomas Hope. "It's the best bed in English furniture history," says Alan Rubin, who heads up the Mayfair gallery. Dating from 1805 and marked by bronze mounts and enormous ebonized paw feet, this Regency bed features a pair of life-size ebonized grey hounds lying atop the foot and head bed rails, which are done in mahogany veneer. It is fine in capital letters. Even the bed hangings are historically accurate. Rubin had the upholstery trimmed with swags with gold cord copied from Rudolf Ackerman's 1809 Repository of the Arts. A recent discovery, the bed was just sold to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for a relative bargain price: $300,000. No other piece of furniture with a similar level of quality was spotted at the fair, a fact that underlines the dwindling supply of historically important examples this year.
Nearby at the Galerie Neuse from Bremen is a ceramic creature of unparalleled rarity: a Meissen white vulture with massive talons. Made for Augustus the Strong, this bird's brutalist appearance seems perfect for these warring times. "It's the only one ever made," notes Neuse director Volker Wurster. The price is just shy of $1.3 million.
What's most coveted during these troubled times? "Authentic, authentic, authentic," Wurster says. A proven provenance, preferably from an imperial house, are the requisites he hears again and again from collectors.
Yes, the glories of Georgian silver shine forth at Koopman Rare Art from London and S.J. Shrubsole from New York, but what's even more outstanding is the plethora of 16th-century German gilt silver. F. Payer Kunsthandel from Zurich is featuring a Turbo snail shell mounted in gleaming gilt silver. Created by Wolfgang I, Jun, the shell is topped by Venus and supported by both dolphins and putti. With fine proportions and in perfect condition, this example is bound to be prized. Several silver gilt wares on this stand had already been sold at the end of the first day of the fair.
Delft and Chinese porcelain are the mainstays of this fair, just as they were back in the beginning of the 17th century, when the Dutch hotly collected them. Vanderven & Vanderven Oriental Art from Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, has an incredible set of three palace vases, each towering over three feet high. They're well documented as Sir Richard Gough (1662-1722) purchased them in 1692 and they remained in his family right up to this past year. From the Kangxi period, they fit on giltwood stands and are topped by unglazed Fu dogs. The price is $594,000.
The smalls of the moment? Last year, it was momento mori figures, clutches of skeletons and skulls, too. This year, a more lively note is struck. Munich dealer Georg Laue, who brought the kleine tod (little deaths) in 2002 and sold out close to two dozen, is now showing coral trees.
If you're keen, snap up one or all of the 11 trees, and know that you are in good company. Similar examples can be found in Florence's Palazzo Pitti and Rome's Palazzo Doria Pamhilj as well as at the Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck. These delicate items are the must-have accessory for any kunstkammer. Highly symbolic on a number of levels, the branches of coral denote the blood of Christ, and may well be marked as well with the deaths of divers who sought them in the 17th century. Back then, coral was believed to be a potent ward against the devil. Today, it's simply the fashion craze of the moment in New York.
All of the coral trees at Kunstkammer George Laue are from southern Italy and cost from $9,000-$20,000. By day one of the fair, several had sold and even an American took one home. The example illustrated here is South German in origin and $22,680.
Considering the current stringencies on global travel, home entertaining is at the forefront. At A. Aardewerk Antiquair from The Hague is the ultimate dinner service: a set of 12 Chinese export famille rose dinner plates set with fabulous 18th-century Dutch silver. Tureens, sauceboats, sugar casters, trays, salts, wine coasters and candlesticks with fiddle shell and thread cutlery along with pistol-handled knives set the table. It's the height of elegance. The baskets are $86,400 a piece. Elaborately pierced, they are lighter in composition than Georgian or German examples, speaking of the chaste influence of the Protestant Enlightment on taste. This entire dinner service costs just over $220,000, and considering that such Dutch silver has never once gone down in price, it seems a secure investment.
Among the treasures offered by the Munich dealer Julius Böhler and the New York dealer Blumka Gallery is a bronze aquamanile in an exceedingly rare form: a crowned lion. From lower Saxony, the figure dates from the early 13th century and costs just over $700,000. By opening day, this pair of galleries had sold several religious ivories, perhaps indicating a preference today for more reflective, more spiritual art.
Benchmarks of 20th-century design are keenly sought these days and Brussels dealer Philippe Denys has got the leading 20th-century example on the floor: a set of 10 leather chairs with sinuous backs on pivoting stainless steel bases by the Danish designer Arne Jacobson "Usually, you'll fine one or two such chairs and both badly scratched," says Denys. These iconic 1962 examples sold opening night at a price over $50,000. Also briskly written up were an Aalto lounge chair as well as Royal Copenhagen pottery and Tapio Wirkala dishes. Martha Stewart, the beleaguered entrepreneur of domesticity, was spotted at this stand as well as at jewelers Cartier International and Graff.
Stewart did not pick up Cartier's ultimate timepiece, an Art Deco clock from 1925 for just over $205,000. In coral and onyx with a mother of pearl face, aflutter with 474 rose-cut diamonds for Roman numerals, the clock is definitely museum worthy.
Yet there are examples of whimsy and frivolity. Take Paris dealer Bernard Baruch Steinitz and the artful late-18th-century room he has put on view. It's a cabinet de treillage with Ionic columns also fashioned of lattice. Call it the garden room. There's also a pair of Chinese export ducks and the only other pair is in a Portugal museum. Judy Taubman, wife of the imprisoned former Sotheby's chairman, has a similar pair, if that's any inducement.
Shopping for the appropriate garment? London arms and armor dealer Peter Finer has the apt military garb. It's a 1490 German chain mail shirt with circlets of iron finished off with gilt rivets edging the bottom. It's priced at $48,000 and the height of chic. Plus, it's rare. Finer says only two such examples have passed through the auction houses in the past five years. The surge of visitors packing his stand speaks of a fierce interest in war-related matters.
PS If you're scouring the floor for the best buy in paintings, head to Bernheimer-Colnaghi from Munich and London, respectively. They've got a dazzling Joos van Cleve Madonna of the Cherries. The Antwerp artist painted this rendition in 1530 and the landscape is incredibly detailed, the composition from a lost Leonardo with a twisting infant complete with a beatific Madonna cloaked in an apricot and teal cape. The work proves van Cleve to have been both a brilliant colorist and superb landscape painter. Yes, he made a number of versions but that doesn't diminish the masterpiece quality of this painting. The price: a modest $525,000.
The beleaguered London dealer Richard Green, caught up in a sales-tax scandal in New York, has packed his stand at Maastricth with many a great painting dating from the 17th century right up to the 19th. There's a brilliant 1610 work by Joos de Momper the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder titled A Summer Landscape with Harvesters, which had been hidden away in a Spanish aristocratic collection until last year. This monumental landscape is filled with radiant light and activity. It costs just over $4 million.
With this year's vernissage boasting 7,177 visitors, down only six percent from last time around, and total attendance in the fair's firs four days only down by ten percent (to 25,000 people), fair-goers seem undaunted. A few galleries even reported impressive sales. London dealer Ben Janssens Oriental Art racked up 22 sales on the opening gala alone. Once again, despite the troubled times, Maastricht proves that fine art can still claim collectors' hearts and pocketbooks.