Ming porcelain enthusiasts hit Hong Kong for the very best, while fashionistas head for Paris to snatch up the latest couture. For Old Masters, specifically 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, close to 80,000 people pack this small town in southern Holland to attend a singularly distinctive art event. It's the European Fine Art Fair, known to the cognoscenti as TEFAF, the world's biggest and finest art fair.
For the run of the fair, Mar. 13-21, a total of 184 dealers representing 12 countries display their wares in a 27,000 square meter hall built specifically for this nine-day event. The car park is jammed, and so is the local airport. By the second day of the fair, so many private jets had arrived that they had to be rerouted to neighboring airfields.
"There's nothing else like it in the world in terms of quality, the level of connoisseurship and the passion of the collectors," said London dealer Johnny van Haeften, who is instrumental in organizing the fair. This year he's brought 94 paintings ranging from a $2.4 million, museum-quality David Teniers the Younger to a small 16th-century Flemish triptych of the Lamentation priced at $24,750.
Van Haeften is just one of close to four dozen dealers offering the latest luxury currency -- Old Masters. Still lifes with the requisite grapes, flower paintings with their ubiquitous tulips and full blown roses, portraits of severe Dutch elders, luminous landscapes and sometimes mystifying allegories.
All the textbook artists are here -- Ruysdael, Hobbema and more. At the same time, an overwhelming number of the names on hand -- Anthonie Palamedesz, Jan Abrahamsz Beerstraten, Marinus van Reymerswaele -- would defy the staunchest of art history majors.
But then this is Old Masters country. "There are more Old Master collectors in little Holland than in the entire U.S.," said New York dealer Otto Naumann, who sells to a high percentage of Europeans.
Assuredly, there's nothing like this in America, despite its vaunted economic boom. For one thing, with 41 dealers from the Netherlands, 36 from the UK and 26 from Germany, this fair is almost purely European. Only 14 American dealers swell the TEFAF roster, from first time participant Berry Hill Galleries to Naumann and French & Co.
In terms of the art available, there is no comparative event. In fact, the total value of the art on hand tallies up to a staggering $5 billion, said Robert C. Smit, director of Aon Artscope Nederland, which provides fine art insurance for a substantial number of the participants.
Dealers come for the prestige -- and in terms of cost TEFAF can't be beat. Booth rental is a mere $21,000 (for 600 square feet) compared to $45,000 to $60,000 for the Winter Antiques Show in New York or the Palm Beach and Beverly Hills fairs organized by David Lester.
Who comes to admire, covet and even purchase such high-priced wares? No other fair can match Maastricht in terms of attendance. This year, fair organizers predict 80,000 plus will attend. More than a thousand plus Americans hit this shopping mall of art. Meanwhile New York's tony Winter Antiques Show grabs in a paltry 25,000 while the Brian Haughton's International shows ring up between 14,000 and 20,000 in attendance.
Prowling the aisles are the rich and the famous, including Paris couturier Hubert de Givenchy (now a Christie's executive), Warnaco powerhouse Linda Wachner and New York designer Mica Ertegun. But more importantly, the top museum curators are here.
Boston Museum of Fine Arts European paintings curator George Shackelford said that he had spotted colleagues from the Louvre, the National Gallery in London and the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts within 20 minutes. "Maastricht is a must for museum curators to learn what is on the market," Shackelford noted, saying that last year he had picked up a painting or two. Other museum buyers at Maastricht in 1998 included the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Another reason curators flock to Maastricht is the fair's strict vetting procedures. The field of Old Masters has long been plagued by attributions that can politely be called "problematic." TEFAF checks authenticity via a committee of curators, conservators, academicians, dealers and other experts. This corps includes such authorities as Wadsworth Athenaeum director Peter C. Sutton and Fogg Museum curator Ian Gaskell.
Among the factors that can lead to rejection: too much restoration, inappropriate regilding or a dubious or disputed signature. This time around a total of 50 works were rejected and stripped off booth walls, reported Artemis dealer Sebastian Goetz. It is precisely these exacting standards that reassures TEFAF's high-powered clientele.
Among the top dealers at TEFAF is Otto Naumann, whose most recent claim to fame was the sale of a multimillion-dollar Rembrandt and a Rubens to Las Vegas hotel magnate Steve Wynn. Naumann's credentials include a Yale doctorate as well as stints as a professor at Yale and Boston University.
The paintings lining Naumann's booth hit all the requisite whistle stops for art connoisseurs. He's got a superlative Figures in an Elegant Interior by Eglon Hendrik van der Neer (1634-1703). An opulent Dutch interior rich with metaphor and with deftly rendered figures, this painting has a long exhibition history that begins a century ago and ends with a recent exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It's frequently cited in the literature. The price? For this museum-quality work, it's $1.9 million. The placid Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-1682) landscape right next to it, with a fisherman, a castle and a church, is the same price -- $1.9 million.
While ordinary folk would flinch at such prices, dealers say these price tags are reasonable in today's art world. "A $30 million price is common for an Impressionist," said Naumann. For that, you can have an entire Old Masters collection that is truly first rate.
But price tags aside, what's the attraction of these 300-year-old paintings? "Old masters are simply more cerebral, more challenging mentally" notes Johnny van Haeften, who has a slew of clients who once filled their walls with Impressionists and contemporary paintings and now have branched out, or back, into history.
Like most dealers here, van Haeften spends all year crisscrossing Europe to assemble pictures for this fair. This time, he simply closed his Duke Street Gallery in London, posted a note on the door saying, "Gone to Maastricht," and brought his entire staff here.
But the payoff can be equally weighty. Last year, van Haeften said the bills of sale he wrote up at Maastricht equaled 75 percent of his annual receipts. Center stage in his booth is the Teniers the Younger (1610-1690), The Potter's Fair at Ghent, a bustling market scene filled with figures in period dress against a landscape and sky of breathtaking light. The dazzling picture seems well worth its $2.4 million price. Someone agreed -- by the end of the first weekend, van Haeften had sold the Teniers for its asking price.
Another show stopper is over at the booth of London dealer Richard Green. Flowers in a Glass Vase, a painting of roses, ranunculus and tulips by Abraham Mignon (1640-1679) costs $3.5 million and may be the show's most expensive oil. Also at Green is a demure and understated still life of pewter dishes of oysters, a silver salt shaker and a delicate glass carafe by Willen Claesz Heda (1596-1680) for $1.9 million. Both works are textbook examples of the brilliance of Old Masters.
Paris-based dealer Bob Haboldt has a marine painting that is exceptionally large (177 x 289 cm) and exceptionally desirable. It's A View of the Haringvliet: the Yacht of the VOC Kamer Rotterdam approching two East Indiamen in the Straits of Goerce at Hellevoetsluis by Jacob van Strij (1756-1815). The harbor, full of ships under full sail, is set against a powerful and dramatic sky. "If a museum buys it, and I think one will," said Haboldt, "this will be a postcard." Catty-corner to the seascape is a Tieplo oil sketch, Time Discovering Truth, of monumental importance for $850,000.
One important attraction to such steeply priced works is that unlike Impressionists and contemporary paintings, which endured a roller coaster market in the '80s, Old Masters have never been buffeted by the winds of economic change. "It's a steady market, one that has never plummeted," adds Haboldt.
And that safe and secure aspect in these occasionally fiscally troubled times is attracting a growing number of collectors under 40. "Traditionally, the client base was people in their 50 and 60s," notes Haboldt. Now out of every ten clients he sees, two are under 40 and they crave Old Masters with the kind of quality this dealer delivers.
Over at Artemis from New York, Sebastian Goetz has a refined Jan van Goyen (1596-1656) of a river landscape in a restrained palette of grays and taupes. Such serenity in a canvas costs $700,000.
Maastricht dealer Robert Noortman is touting a chaste Emanuel de Witte (1617-1692), Interior of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam with Town Folk gathered for a Sermon. The finely detailed architectural space is filled with vignettes that captivate the most jaded art observer's attention. The price: $1.2 million for one of the greats.
Collectors are drawn to Noortman's offerings because of his unerring sense of connoisseurship. To his credit, last year he sold Dutch and Flemish masters to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Rijksmuseum and the Antwerp Museum, to name but the most prominent.
Yet it's the sales volume of these dealers that defies the imagination. Last year alone, Noortman said, he sold a total of 300 paintings, priced from $5,000 to $9.5 million, from his 17th-century gallery in Maastricht. (He also sells Impressionists and moderns.) On the fair's opening night, he wrote up a diminutive still life with sea shells by Adriaen Coorte (1683-1707) as well as two other paintings.
For an allegorical painting, Jack Kilgore displays Callisto and Jupiter by Nicholas Berchem (1620-1683). Painted in elegant blues, dove gray and a sumptuous yellow, this painting is sublime. The Calvinist Dutch were inclined to render chaste versions of Greek myths as moral lessons. Here, the unlucky nymph Callisto is shown in perfect repose with her animals as her seducer Jupiter looks on. The picture is to be included in the exhibition "Classicism in Dutch 17th-Century Painting" at the Boijmans Van Beunengen Museum in Rotterdam this fall.
From the evidence, fairs like TEFAF Maastricht have become increasingly central to the global Old Masters market. With such a concentration of spectacular paintings, how could it be otherwise? And as dealer Mireille Mosler, director of Jack Kilgore & Co. in New York, points out, an added plus is the concentrated time-span of the fair. "Clients know we're packing up and flying across the ocean for just over a single week," she explains. "And that creates pressure to purchase now."
BROOK S. MASON writes on Old Masters and the decorative arts.