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by Brook S. Mason
The much gossiped-about face-off between art dealers and auction houses at this year’s European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, which opened with a glorious vernissage on Mar. 8, turned out to be a non-event. In fact, art dealers on hand paid scant heed to the presence of their archrivals. "Lots of people, lots of interest and lots of works reserved," said a beaming Konrad Bernheimer, TEFAF founding member and head of the London- and Munich-based Bernheimer-Colnaghi galleries. "Turnover is up from last year at this stage and it looks as if it is going to be a very good fair."

The fair boasts 219 exhibitors this year, including the stand-ins for the two auction houses, which were, as it happened, sequestered in what might be called art-fair Siberia, rather far from the show’s main drag. Christie’s is exhibiting under its new entity, which is dubbed King Street Fine Art Limited, while Sotheby’s is present via the recently acquired Noortman Master Paintings (the auctioneer paid a whoping $56.5 million for the Maastricht dealership and assumed $26 million in debt). Christie’s offerings, all of which were consigned, were rather pedestrian -- trifling 19th century pictures, a routine shelf piece by Donald Judd and a corpulent nude by Jenny Saville. The stand was relatively empty.

On the other hand, Noortman, though saddened by the untimely death of Robert Noortman in January, showcased quality pictures as usual. Now headed by Noortman’s son Will and longtime gallery manager Jeannette Gerritsma, the gallery was in full swing. By Friday morning, it had racked up eight sales, ranging from a skating scene with the ubiquitous windmill by Aert van der Neer (1603-1677) to a genre picture by Georg Hendrik Breitner (1857-1923). "Each was close to $2 million," says Gerritsma. A Gustave Caillebotte landscape went for $2.6 million. In addition, they sold another seven paintings at their gallery.

Stellar sales
Such sales success was found all across the fair floor. No wonder Bernheimer was pleased. By the time he had a second to talk to a reporter, he had racked up six sales, including a Jean-François de Troy (1679-1752) allegorical picture of Paris and Oenone, a pair of Rhenish landscapes by Robert Griffier (1688-1750), an equestrian portrait by Horace Vernet (1789-1863), a floral still-life by Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), a Frans Francken still-life (1581-1642) and a landscape by Joos de Momper (1564-1635) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625).

Jeremy Howard, Bernheimer’s director, claims de Troy’s mythological and slightly erotic pictures are undervalued, as traditional collectors like New Yorker Jayne Wrightsman have long preferred his genre scenes. Still, a pair of de Troys, among them his Venus and Adonis, are hardly marked low. They bear a hefty $1.9 price tag.

Sexy pictures seem to be in. Bernheimer also has a particularly lascivious Lucas Cranach the Elder. His Ill Matched Couple, painted on beech wood in the 1530s, portrays an especially repellent elder pawing a young girl who is dipping into his purse. The price is $2.6 million -- although the picture is unsigned. Cranach painted a number of versions on this theme, but this one is his most vigorously and sharply painted.

Few Americans
Spotted among the buyers were slews of European aristocrats, Paris fashion designer Givenchy and a smattering of Americans. A total of 60 NetJets touched down on Thursday, mostly from London and Paris -- yet only five flew out from New York for early-bird shopping. Stylish American decorators on the prowl included Tony Ingrao, Randy Kemper and Bruce Bierman. Then there was Detroit Institute of Arts curator Alan Darr, leading a group of collectors and hoping they would help to stock his museum’s 30,000-square-foot expansion, which is set to open next November.  

Still, despite their small numbers, Americans were buying. One plucked up London dealer Johnny van Haeften’s star picture, the exquisitely lit An Italianate Landscape with Travelers on a Path by the 17th-century Utrecht painter Jan Both (the artist no doubt influenced the now highly collected American 19th-century artists Moran and Durand.) It went for $5.4 million.

Why the penchant for Old Masters? "They’ve held their value for 350 years," says van Haeften, using an oft-repeated maxim, before beginning an interview in Russian (he’s fluent, and that’s bound to curry favor with that new crop of buyers). The Russians, though, were seen spending much time at the jewelers stands of Graff and Cartier.

Asian art in demand
The London dealer Ben Janssens, who is now TEFAF executive committee chairman, sold 25 works on the opening night, including an 11th-century B.C. Chinese bronze ceremonial wine vessel to a Swiss private collector for close to $330,000. Manhattan art advisor Thea Westreich took home a large Tang horse from Janssens. Vanderven & Vanderven Oriental Art of Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, sold 40 pieces, including a Han Dynasty large oil lamp to celebrate the afterlife. Dating from 206 BC to 220 AD, the treasure went to an American museum.

Ming furniture seems to be the new darling of the design savvy set. The Hong Kong dealer Grace Wu Bruce clinched a deal with a new, young German collector for a Huang huali wooden altar table. She finds that the Beijing National Museum is her biggest buyer. They are building a new gallery and have already snatched up 50 pieces of furniture from her.

Humongous prices
But overall, there’s a massive sea change on the floor. "Prices are up substantially, close to 50 percent higher than last year," says Thomas Wessel, AXA Fine Art’s primo art advisor, who expects that upwards of 2,000 of his firm’s top clients plan to take in TEFAF. AXA insures a tidy $15 billion in art.

You could say that $10 million is the new $1 million. For a sign of just how steeply values have climbed, Wessel points to the formidable new highs for works by modern masters, like the 1932 Max Beckmann self-portrait at Marlborough, priced at $39 million. Yes, the Beckman is a masterful study in devastation and depression, but still.

A 1915 Modigliani oil is priced at $15 million at Robert Landau. A Mannerist marble of Pan costs $1 million at Pelham Galleries, and it’s not even an antiquity but dated 1540. An archaic Chinese tapir, its body inlaid with turquoise and gold, costs $12 million at Littleton & Hennessy.

Antiquities on a high
The number of gallerists begging to participate in TEFAF is reportedly in the hundreds. London antiquities dealer Rupert Wace waited ten years to join, and clearly waiting has its benefits. Wace wrote up 12 sales in two days alone, including a life-sized Roman bronze arm (very Bill Blass in style) dating from about the 2nd century AD, which went to a European collector for $92,500. Also sold was a pair of 1st century BC Etruscan-Roman bronze helmets, which seem a particularly poignant commentary on the devastating effects of war in general. One helmet was crumpled and bore sword marks while the other was totally flattened. Together, they sold for $23,500.

Also in the antiquities area is London dealer Charles Ede, who sold a 4th century BC Greek marble stele for $236,000 and a decorated Greek lidded mug from 350-340 BC for $108,000 (watch out Starbucks). "It has been absolutely our best TEFAF ever," says Ede.

Very little edgy art
While Modern and contemporary art is more prevalent at TEFAF this year, few of the works on hand are what you might call provocative or edgy. Installation art is not showcased at all. Even Sperone Westwater confines its offerings to more modern examples -- that Chelsea gallery is touting five Lucio Fontanas. Clearly, such specialist dealers believe the hip, contemporary crowd spent up a storm at the Armory fair and will forgo TEFAF.

At TEFAF, John Chamberlain seems to be the new Warhol, at least in terms of multiple sculptures made on the floor. His sculptures made of smashed and painted car parts can be seen at Waddington, Barbara Mathes, Anthony Meyer, PaceWildenstein and Galerie Karsten Greve. The Greve one, though, tops the cake. It’s the artist’s 1982 Dead Eye Dick, and at over ten feet high, the largest work of his on the market. Price is $890,000. AXA’s Wessel thinks Chamberlain is spot-on in terms of picturing American crass consumerism and vulgarity.

What’s selling is the iconic. For example, Hauser & Wirth secured a hold on Louise Bourgeois’ 1999 cast of her Spider for $4 million.

The Galerie Cazeau-Béraudière from Paris had a field day of instantaneous sales, including three Kees van Dongens, one Amedeo Modigliani, a 1950 Mark Rothko and one Max Ernst. Make that in excess of $15 million in sales within 24 hours.

Spectacular and newish antiques
Even the antiques outclass most such offerings at American shows. An 1850 guèridon by the Russian architect Alexander Loganovski is on view with the London dealer Antoine Chenevière. Its base is a snarling dragon in bronze with its body shot through with an arrow. But the top is Labradorite, a Canadian stone with a shimmering iridescence. The price of $183,400 seems reasonable for such an eye-catcher.

"With the Russians buying more and more, less and less is on the market," says Cheneviere. His comment could also apply to the scarcity of the latest classics: silicon chairs by Israel-born but London-based designer Ron Arad, on view with the Amsterdam firm Leidelmeijer & Mourmans.

Arad is fine-tuning the new Israeli Design Museum south of Tel Aviv. "The problem with Arad furniture is the production; it’s so labor-intensive the output is limited in number,’ says Ernest Mourmans. A single Arad chair is $458,500. Mourmans is also showcasing a Dutch Arts-and-Crafts dining room suite that looks ahead of its time in terms of its cartoon-like form. Its throne-like chairs are by Michel de Klerk whose oeuvre was cut short by his early death.

Of note, Poul Kjaerholm, the Danish designer whose furniture was long considered standard fare for smaller auction houses like Tepper, is now white hot. Brussels dealer Philippe Denys sold six pieces by Kjaerholm in a nanosecond. Also quickly sold was a pair of Andrea Branzi 1991 book cases entitled Amnesia. In a silver-like metal, the rectangular book cases were each centered with a tree limb that looked as if it were sprouting from their base, and the shelves only went halfway across. The price was $91,700. That’s a new benchmark for 16-year-old furniture by an Italian architect whose work is barely known in the States.

Denys also sold Franco di Boni ceramic vessels to two European museums, indicating how contemporary ceramics are exceedingly sought after in curatorial circles.

Lastly, the range of art on view here is dazzling, literally, as with the Renaissance gold-ground paintings at the booth of Florence dealer Fabrizio Moretti. He is featuring a Lorenzo Monaco portrait of St. Anthony with his body edged in gold.

Interestingly, the young Moretti, who recently opened a London outpost on New Bond Street, is also taking on Manhattan. In June, he debuts a new space on East 80th Street off Madison Avenue, partnering with Old Masters dealer Adam Williams and Ian Irving, who will serve up lavish European works of art and furniture. "The time is ripe," says Moretti.

One thing is certain: That trio will deliver a new model for showcasing art and antiques like no one else. This new gallery could well prove to be a mini TEFAF in splendor, or the shot of style that New York desperately needs. Shopping at TEFAF shouldn't be simply a once-a-year habit.

BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times, the New York Sun and other publications.