British show organizers Brian and Anna Haughton's International Fine Art Fair has long drawn clutches of high-powered Old Masters collectors. And the vernissage for the 11th version, May 7-12, 2004, attracted the socially glittering such as Audrey Gruss and the maligned and problematic like Alfred Taubman, former chairman of Sotheby's. Even television diva Oprah cruised through on a shopping spree, snapping up an Impressionist painting this time. Mixed in were a bevy of curators. More than 80 curators had showed up by the weekend, which attests to the lofty quality of the art on view.
So, yes, some artistic high points from centuries past still shine on this fair floor. For starters, no one should miss London dealer Richard Green's stand. This dealer, who had been cast in the shadows with his sale of paintings to the infamous Dennis Kozlowski and skipped showing in New York for two seasons, is back in full force.
Green's stand alone is spectacular, with its double-sized booth spanning two aisles. Inside is a splendid Turner seascape, Sheerness as Seen from Nore. Some works here are recent auction coups, like the Winter Skating Scene, ca. 1610, by Henrik van Avercamp, which Green snared for a pricey $8.6 million at Sotheby's this past January. But who cares? Scarcity of great paintings is the name of the game in these times.
French & Co. is another must stop. On view is a sweeping 1875 landscape by Gustave Dor that rivals Albert Bierstadt for its breathtaking panorama, with sunlight streaming through the clouds. And the price is surprisingly cheaper -- only $450,000 for the enormous painting, which measures six-foot-plus across, versus a record $7,176,000 that a Bierstadt pulled in at Sotheby's during its American painting sale on Dec. 3, 2003. Apparently, Dor went off to Scotland to fish but was so smitten by the landscape that he tackled the majestic views in paint.
Another not-to-miss picture is Pandemonium by the British Romantic painter John Martin, who renders fiery lava fields of hell with Satan's palace of gold ablaze. The frame alone is a decorative art fan's dazzling dream, done up in super gilt with swirls of snakes and griffins at each corner. The price? $6 million.
Agnew's of Old Bond Street also boasts an enticing painting -- Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Letter, ca. 1530, by the Bergamese artist Bernardino Licinio. It's a sensitive portrait with a sublime landscape in the corner. Interestingly, this picture pulled in a mere 480 guineas when it was sold at Christie's nine decades ago.
Those who missed the world's preeminent Old Masters show, the European Fine Art Fair held in the small Dutch border town of Maastrict last March, can make catch up (to an extent) with a visit to Bob Haboldt's booth here. On display is Rembrandt's tiny charcoal drawing of a man -- a total summation of a figure in the briefest of lines. Done in ca. 1640, the work can be had for $475,000.
Works by Degas are, as usual, strewn all over the fair, from Galerie Tamenaga (Paris), W.M. Brady & Co. (New York) and Neffe-Degandt Ltd (London) to Galerie Bers and Eric Coatalem (both of Paris). Early on, Tamenaga wrote up a bill of sale for a Degas charcoal of dancers, proving the continuing drawing power of the French artist.
In fact, 19th century examples predominate. "Now, it's more about 19th century paintings for the simple reason," says James Mitchell of the London-based John Mitchell & Son. "There are far fewer collectors of Old Masters." Even so, he is showing an amusing rendition of a choral scene by Melchior d'Hondecoeter. Called The Feathered Choir, ca. 1680, the charming scene shows more than a dozen birds gathered around some sheet music, which also bears the artist's signature. The price for such aviary harmony: $950,000.
Lowell Libson also has some gems, ranging from Turner sky study to a Constable oil sketch of clouds. Especially radiant is William Turner of Oxford's An April Shower, ca. 1842. This watercolor, resplendent with a rainbow, is the height of illustrative artistry. There's a foxhunt in the distance, reflections of tiny figures and perfectly portrayed fashions all bathed in light.
In fitting with his specialty, London dealer Peter Nahum is touting Pre-Raphaelite pictures. Among the precise Burne-Jones pictures and Augustus John drawings is a Veronica Mayo 1923 gilded woodcarving, Conquest of Air, which has to be the quintessential homage to Egyptomania. Its iconography relates to the opening of King Tut's tumb by Howard Carter in 1923, and also to advances in aviation from the Wright Brothers early flight to the introduction of parachutes. The $48,000 carving is an absolute quirky hoot.
Twentieth-century picture sales include Dubuffet's Inspecteurs Sinoque ed Dingue of 1967 at Galerie Cazeau-Beraudiere. This vinyl-on-canvas painting sports the artist's signature late style of a highly graphic design in white, black, blue and red. It's directly opposite the fair entrance and perfectly paired with a Dubuffet sculpture.
While 10 of the IFAF dealers have not returned this season, six are new and are doing their best to match the cachet of those that departed. Dealers at traditional fairs move on, which is normal.
More decorative pictures are on view, like 19th-century botanicals, architecture and fashion studies, as well as intimate oils. Among the dealers in this increasingly popular area are Crispian Riley-Smith (London), Talabardon & Gautier (Paris) and Neil A. Fiertag (Paris).
Riley-Smith summed up the collecting appetite. "The mood is better," he says. He racked up more than ten sales, including a work by Pier Francesco di Jacopo Foschi. The chalk and ink drawing of a mural project depicts the Crucifixion and, more importantly, it went to the Morgan Library.
Yet, while the crowds strolling the aisles may look a touch sparse, Manhattan dealer Jill Newhouse accurately observes that "this fair is not about traffic." It's about seeing artistic quality in a somewhat stately setting.
BROOK S. MASON writes on the fine and decorative arts.