Subscribe to our RSS feed:

RSS Feed Button

by Brook S. Mason
MAASTRICHT -- It was every dealer's nightmare. Just two hours into the vernissage of the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) last Thursday, Mar. 11, 2010, the electricity went out for close to ten minutes. When darkness descends at art-laden events, the time is ripe for light-fingered thieves. Last year, during the 22nd version of this fair, robbers lifted period diamonds off the stand of London dealer S.J. Phillips Ltd. This time, choice objets d'art, substantial antiques and Old Master paintings remained in place.

"A systemic failure" is how a TEFAF press spokesperson explained the disconcerting beginning to the fair, which runs through Mar. 21 in the cavernous the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre, best known as the MECC.

The 263-dealer event was soon again bathed in light and in full swing. Just when traditional fairs are suffering, like the Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Show, which folded immediately after its 75th edition was staged in London last June, TEFAF is positively blooming. The show's encyclopedic range is legendary and has won even the admiration of key contemporary art specialists. Iwan Wirth, who heads up the dynamic Hauser & Wirth gallery, with spaces in Zurich, London and now New York, says of TEFAF, "It's like entering a bubble -- the Tate Modern, the British Museum and the V&A all rolled into one."

What keeps this fair thriving are two factors. One is innovation on the part of the organizers. Take "TEFAF on Paper," a totally new section devoted to photography, books, manuscripts, Japanese prints, and works on paper. It is packed with 19 dealers, and all but one are first-time fair participants. They include Ursus Books, Hamiltons Gallery of London and Wienerroither & Kohlbacker. On view at Hamiltons is a cache of Irving Penn gelatin silver and platinum prints from the 1960s. They're superlative and composed with Penn's unerring eye.

And the fair’s second boon is the "wow" factor of the art and antiques on view. Show-stopping is the only adjectival word to describe some of the choice offerings related to 20th-century art and design. Especially iconic is Paul Gauguin's 1902 oil Deux Femmes, priced at €18 million at Dickinson.

Also noteworthy is a Le Corbusier oil Menace from 1938 at the booth of Landau Fine Art from Montreal. "This is his version of Picasso's Guernica," says Robert Landau. Further confirmation of its stature: the legendary Swiss dealer Ernst Beyeler, who passed away last month, once owned the picture. The price is $4.5 million.

Another multi-city gallery, Haunch of Venison, is touting the ultimate contemporary trophy: Damien Hirst's 1996 This Little Piggy Went to Market, with the eponymous carcass preserved in a tank of formaldehyde, priced at $12 million.

Austerity is hardly prevailing in these luxurious aisles. Konrad Bernheimer, who heads up Bernheimer-Colnaghi of London and Munich, clinched a number of deals for Old Masters. In all, he raked in a stunning €7,140,000 during the first four days of the show.

Plucked up by a European private collector was David and Bathsheba by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), with an asking price of €5.3 million. Bernheimer’s other sales tell of a rush for period painting unlike anything we have witnessed in New York. Sold within the first hour of the vernissage was Bacchus and Venus by Franz Christoph Janneck (1703-1761). His Austrian Rococo rendition of those two mythic figures was tagged at €395,000.  

Other pictures finding buyers include an 18th-century Marguerite Gérard genre scene entitled Le Petit Messager for €700,000, and a recent discovery, The Toilet of Venus by Nicolas Colombel (1644-1717), considered a leading Poussinist, for €550,000. Colnaghi’s Katrin Bellinger found a buyer for a signed and dated quick watercolor and gouache Study of a Knight and Suit of Armor by Adolf von Menzel (1815-1905) at €85,000.

The Milan dealers Altomani & Sons also scored significant sales. That Italian firm had snapped up an undiscovered Gian Lorenzo Bernini terracotta at a Sotheby’s Florence sale in October 2009 for a mere €20,000. "The terracotta of Christ Risen was never cast into bronze, as Bernini realized its weight would have sent it tumbling down the baldacchino in St. Peters," says Andrea Altomani.

The 1620 terracotta now bears a €2 million price tag and has already been reserved by a museum. Also sold on his stand are two gold-ground Renaissance paintings and two Renaissance majolica ceramic vessels at €45,000 each. In addition, he has sold perhaps the only known  portrait of Carlo Ginori, painted in 1760, who led the historic Italian ceramics firm, for €1 million. Today, practically every major museum with any ceramics has at least one example by Ginori.

Elsewhere on the fair floor Munich dealer Georg Laue has staged a breathtaking exhibition of the real rarities of Renaissance and Baroque cutlery. Especially appealing is a diminutive fork and knife set, their handles done in coral twigs sourced off Venice in 1600. The knife blade bears roundels of gilt designs. Even their steep price of €78,000 didn’t put off the American museum that snapped them up. Other cutlery examples have handles of ivory, carnelian and precious Murano glass specked with copper. "Renaissance princes would have had these in their own kunstkammers," says Laue.

At the same time, design sales were booming, a marked contrast to the quiet state of the specialty in the States, where even the auctions have been lackluster. This year, TEFAF has snared nine outstanding design dealers, really the world's best. They include L'Ärc en Seine, Eric Philippe and Galerie Downtown, all of Paris; Bel Etage of Vienna; Philippe Denys and Yves Macaux, both of Brussels; Rita Fancsaly of Milan; Galerie Ulrich Fiedler of Berlin and Sebastian +  Barquet of New York.

L'Arc en Seine sold the most expensive design example at TEFAF ever: a Diego Giacometti 1972 floor lamp in plaster, which went for a staggering €500,000. What makes for its rarity -- besides its attenuated tree trunk design, embellished with an owl perched on one of its branches -- is that it was never cast into bronze.

Christian Boutonnet, who heads up L'Arc en Seine, which also has an Upper East Side outpost, would only say that "the buyer is a European." Clearly, the deep-pocketed Lily Safra, who snatched up Alberto Giacometti’s L'Homme Qui Marche at Sotheby's London for a record-breaking $104.3 million only weeks ago, is known to favor the sculptor's brother's furniture for her London home. She sells as well as buys, vending vast amounts of her 18th- and 19th-century antiques and delicate Venetian glassware at Sotheby’s New York back in November 2005 for a spellbinding $49 million, a total that far surpassed its $37 million estimate. 

Boutonnet also quickly sold a monumental Max Ingrand desk in travertine with a cast iron base from 1960 for €220,000. It's so heavy it takes five people the carry the top alone. Though little known in the States, Ingrand was hugely influential. He served as director of the Italian glass design firm Fontana d'Arte and with more of his designs now surfacing, his work is bound to ratchet up in price.

Nearby, Yves Macaux is showcasing yet more museum-quality examples of modern design. Certain to be prized is a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe pre-1933 Barcelona chair with its original cushions. The chair itself had belonged to MoMA curator James Soby Johnson. Only four are known from that period and one of them was claimed and cherished by architect Philip Johnson for his Glass House in Darien, Conn. The price of this chair at TEFAF is €280,000, telling of its major league position in design history.

Driving up interest in modern design are the increasing number of design museums opening globally, including Ron Arad’s edgy Holon Design Museum, which just opened in Israel weeks ago. Also fuelling interest are the design fairs popping up all over the world. Tony Joyce, who heads up HSBC Private Bank global marketing and was instrumental in the firm’s sponsorship of Design Miami and its Basel version, estimates that we now have well over 70 design biennales and fairs. From Stockholm and London to New York, design is becoming a huge cultural movement with a populist base, while 18th-century French and English furniture is perceived by the general public as lingering in the shadows.

Consequently, with more institutions and collectors clamoring for key design furnishings, prices are reaching feverish heights. For example, a Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956) hanging lantern with faceted glass pendants from 1903 -- one of only two known -- bears a €650,000 price tag at Macaux. "We have close to 100 active clients now," says Macaux. A number of them are making annual purchases of design objects valued at €250,000 or more each year, he reports.

Philippe Denys is showing two Poul Henningsen 1952 Spiral lamps. Of white painted metal, the hanging lamps are highly graphic with their continuous swirl of metal. One sold within minutes of the opening. Henningsen is really the 20th century's design master when it comes to lighting, which explains the price of €90,000 each for those lamps.

Also on the Denys stand is Henningsen's dramatic piano, with its top and music stand in panes of transparent celluloid edged in steel in black painted wood. Made in 1931, it is considered the first "modern" piano. The Danish designer even made one for himself, on which he played jazz compositions. By Monday, Denys had sold everything in his booth save for six items, proving how the design market is now roaring.

Sebastian + Barquet gallery from Chelsea in New York boasts a George Nakashima 1989 sideboard. Its front cased in linen with vertical ribs of walnut, the sideboard is topped by a slab of English walnut, the kind of burl wood used for the dashboards of Jaguar cars dating from the ‘60s. The Nakishima’s ragged, unplaned edge is emblematic of the best work of the late Japanese-American designer. Tagged at $150,000, the sideboard is aptly complemented by a Paul Evans sculpture of cast iron, gilded metal and brass, an exceptional, crisp curvilinear form from 1970.

Purchased within minutes of the opening was a Paavo Tynel (1830-1973) copper and brass "Snowflake" chandelier at Galerie Eric Philippe, who is known on both sides of the pond for Scandinavian design. With upwards of 60 snowflake shapes suspended from thin wires, the lighting fixture demands a large room.

In the five-star antiques category, Pelham of Paris is touting a French Empire bed that had belonged to the influential diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838). His extraordinary sense of finesse enabled him to last through the entire regime’s of Louis XVI, Napoleon I, Louis XVIII, Charles X and Louis-Philippe. The bed is from his Loire Valley chateau and still bears its original gilding. Alan Rubin, who heads up Pelham, had the silk draping dripping with fringe recreated. The price is €380,000.

Not everything on view is costly. In the "TEFAF Showcase" section reserved for younger dealers, Pierre Marie Giraud from Brussels, a new participant, is sporting contemporary ceramics and glass. The Venice-based Japanese artist Ritsue Mishima has created a visually riveting vessel, really a continuous blown swirl of glass. It's more hefty than delicate and would sit perfectly on a Paul Dupré-Lafon console, or one by Jean Michel Frank, for that matter. At €12,000, the Ritsue is a relative bargain. So too is a Tony Marsh vase composed of a cluster of glazed stoneware pierced balls for the same price.

Surprisingly, Giraud hasn't witnessed the slightest dip in sales during any moment in the Great Recession. Rather, he says he’s seeing an uptick. He believes many collectors suddenly took notice of the huge risk involved in acquiring contemporary art. "Massive works have seemed out of place since the fall of Lehman Brothers," Giraud notes. "My collectors have been looking for something more intimate." His offerings fit that bill.

And with such a wide price range at TEFAF and so many really important examples on the floor, the fair attracts upwards of 60,000 visitors, while its luxurious goods make so many other shows pale in comparison. But it does make you think: TEFAF confirms the need for a really great design fair in New York.

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