Maastricht Netherlands

Anger over tax rise but Maastricht fair still makes major sales

VAT increase on imports didn’t dent attendance at The European Fine Art Fair

MAASTRICHT. As the 270 dealers opened their booths to VIPs at the 23rd edition of the European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf) Maastricht (18-27 March), the talking point was not the 7,000 years of artistic history and antiques filling the MECC convention centre, but tax. This January, the Dutch government introduced amendments to VAT that included a rise from 6% to 19% on the import value of art brought into the Netherlands from outside the EU. While the Tefaf organisers were quick to point out that this related to “a very small percentage of sales at the fair”, others were very critical.

“It’s a crazy tax,” said New York dealer Richard Feigen at the fair, and his Dutch counterparts agreed. Fair president Willem Baron van Dedem said: “The taxes are punishing, we will fight them,” and Amsterdam dealer William Noortman agreed: “It puts local collectors at a big disadvantage.” Nevertheless, his sales were certainly not overtly damaged: by the end of the opening day he had sold four works for a total of €12m, including Gerrit Berckheyde’s View of Haarlem, 1671 (priced at €4.5m), mostly to US collectors.

As ever, the fair presented an extraordinary range of objects for sale—from a 7th-century BC Corinthian hoplite helmet at Cahn International (with shinpad, Sfr260,000; $288,400; unsold as we went to press) to a new Vik Muniz c-print, Ambiente Spaziale con Tagli, after Fontana, 2011, at Ben Brown (sold to a London collector for $35,000)—and has cemented its position as a destination art event.

The volume of visitors allayed some of the early nerves. The VIP event was packed, with a constant stream of committed, mature and moneyed European collectors, together with curators and trustees from US museums, including Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Qatar’s Sheikh Saud al Thani was spotted examining the hoplite helmet and other visitors cruising the wide Tefaf aisles included Paris designer François-Joseph Graf (who works with private equity supremo Henry Kravis) and top-tier art advisors Olivier Varenne (who works for Australian collector David Walsh) and New York’s Kim Heirston. A reported 60 private jets landed at Maastricht Aachen airport on the opening day.

For dealers in most sections of the fair the challenge was to bring works that were fresh to the market—on which much of Tefaf’s strong reputation rests—as supply dwindles and auction houses present an increasing threat (see p67). “The relationship with auction houses is fraught,” said Alexander Corcoran, chairman of impressionist and modern dealer Lefevre Fine Art, adding: “They’re concentrating hard on private sales, an area they’ve traditionally avoided.” The mammoth sales at Sotheby’s-owned Noortman made the auction-house threat most visible, while Christie’s-owned Haunch of Venison also had sales, including Adrian Ghenie’s oil Doctor Josef 2, 2011 (€45,000). Where rarer works were available, they were snapped up: an exceptional Lucas Cranach the Elder oil, The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John, about 1540, was sold by Senger Bamberg to a private European collector for €3.5m and Joan Miró’s unique Oiseau Lunaire, 1945, which had been off-market for almost 40 years, sold for €5m, also to a private collector (from Landau Fine Art).

Popular porcelain

For the antiques dealers—who, with the old master galleries, form the bulk of the fair—sales in general reflected the wider market trends: period furniture was the tougher sell, while Chinese ceramics went fast. “Compared with prices for old master paintings, porcelain prices are low,” said Ewa Cohen of London’s Cohen & Cohen, who had brought two enormous Kangxi porcelain leopards, about 1720, that were being sold by Texas property investor James Sowell priced at $3.8m.

Dutch oriental art specialists Vanderven & Vanderven, which brought two enormous blue and white Pronk-designed cisterns (about 1740, €220,000 each), were busy and the gallery made 22 sales by 5pm on the opening day. These included a pair of Kangxi (1654-1722) porcelain dogs sold for around €40,000 to European buyers. Dealers awaited those from further afield. “We hear collectors from Beijing, Shanghai and other parts of China are coming to the fair,” said Ruben Lien of London and New York Asian art dealer Littleton and Hennessy.

The 45 dealers in the modern section (which includes contemporary art), said they were benefiting from the so-called “cross-over” effect: when buyers of older works find something contemporary around the corner from their usual dealer. “We had no new clients at Art Basel, but every year we meet new people here,” said Hugh Gibson of Thomas Gibson. Early sales were made in this section too, ranging in value from Rachel Kneebone’s contemporary porcelain Grief Study II, 2010 (at Daniel Blau), which went for around £30,000 to a European collector, to the €5m Miró. Despite this, the contemporary section lacked the punch of the dedicated high-end fairs.

The smaller sections at the fair—design, jewellery, classical antiquities, works on paper and the Showcase section for six younger galleries—all benefited. Design dealer Yves Macaux quickly clinched a €1.1m deal for a 1903 Josef Hoffmann lime-oaked table.

By the end of the first day, the only spectre looming was the dreaded tax situation, whose effect on the fair had yet to be fully assimilated but was certainly bearing the brunt of the blame for some. “I’ve made no sales because they’ve put a new tax on. Maybe they should move the fair to Brussels,” said Richard Feigen.

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