Fairs Market Belgium

Brussels antiques fair embraces the kunstkammer aesthetic

But quantity does not always mean top quality, and contemporary works on offer can be middling

A nail fetish Nkissi statue by the Vili people, Democratic Republic of Congo

Entering the Brussels Antiques and Fine Art Fair (Brafa) is like stepping into a huge cabinet of curiosities. Tribal masks, Medieval wood-carvings, 18th-century Chinese porcelain, Murano glass and contemporary design are all on display at the Belgian fair, which opened on 22 January (until 2 February). Several galleries embraced the kunstkammer aesthetic including London’s Finch & Co, which is showing a late 19th-century Siamese piglet in a jar (€4,750) alongside the taxidermied head of a coursing lurcher, around 1860 (€3,300), and an early 20th-century Baule/Yaure mask from the Ivory Coast, once owned by the pioneering tribal art dealer Charles Ratton, priced at €125,000.

However, quantity does not always mean top quality and some of the works on offer—particularly at the contemporary end of the spectrum—are middling. A number of dealers remarked that they were keeping their best pieces for Tefaf Maastricht, which opens on 14 March (until 23 March)—less than six weeks after Brafa closes. Prices also reflect Brafa’s standing as a middleweight fair. Few works push €1m, with most prices hovering around the €50,000 to €100,000 mark. Exceptions include an exquisite 15th-century wooden bust by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, priced in excess of €1m at the Italian gallery Chiale Antiquariato.

Tribal art is one of Brafa’s strong points. Of the eight tribal art galleries exhibiting at the fair this year, only the Brussels-based dealer Didier Claes will also have a stand at Tefaf. As a result, the best is on show in Belgium, although prices remain comparatively low, even for masterpieces. The Parisian dealer Bernard Dulon is showing a nail fetish statue from the Vili people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, priced at €400,000, and a late 16th-century Beninese pewter jug formerly in the collection of the French dealer Louis Carré, priced at around €90,000.

The modest price points suit the local collectors—Belgians are known for being discerning and discreet. “It’s not a race at Brafa,” says Florence Berès of the Paris-based Berès Gallery. “Maastricht is much more tough.” While the collectors at Brafa are mainly from Belgium—the rest are French, German and Dutch, with a smattering from the UK—the exhibitors have become far more international in recent years. For 40 years, from the fair’s opening in 1955, only Belgian art dealers took part. Since 1995, dealers from across Europe and beyond have joined; this year 39% of the 131 dealers are Belgian.

As the fair has become more international, it has also extended its Modern and contemporary remit. Last year, 12% of dealers specialised in Modern and contemporary works, rising to 15% in 2014. But contemporary art is one of Brafa’s weak spots. Art Brussels, which opens in April, has this corner of the market well covered. Contemporary design, on the other hand, is strong at Brafa. The first-time exhibitors Carpenter’s Workshop, based in London and Paris, has a particularly eye-catching display including a bronze table by Ingrid Donat (edition of eight, priced between €40,000 and €60,000) and a carved wooden chair by Wendell Castle, available for between €60,000 and €200,000, depending on the size. The latter was snapped up on the second day of the fair.

Contemporary design is strong at Brafa: Wendell Castle's Fresh, 2013
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