Maastricht Netherlands

The old-timers: Johnny Van Haeften, London

Veteran dealers reminisce about the past and weigh-in on why Tefaf Maastricht still matters

Van Haeften: “We played boules in the aisles”

Johnny Van Haeften, London It is impossible to imagine Tefaf Maastricht without a certain number of Dutch Old Master dealers, and the amiable Johnny Van Haeften is among its leading lights. In fact, his connection with the fair goes well back before its creation: he first exhibited at Pictura, its predecessor, in 1978. He is a founding member of Tefaf.

And yet at the beginning of his career he was employed in the stamp department at Christie’s, “because I couldn’t get into the picture department. It was good training,” he says, “because with stamps you have to observe them in great detail, and that has always stood me in good stead in my present field.” (He still collects stamps.)

He pays tribute to London’s museums as well as Christie’s for enabling him to learn about art. “In my lunch hour I would go to the National Gallery, the Wallace Collection, and look and look,” he says. “And at Christie’s, we new boys were tasked with taking paintings to the specialists, hearing what they had to say, and relaying it back to the owner. It was the best education possible, because you learned and actually handled the works.”

He opened his first gallery in 1977 with his wife and business partner Sarah, initially dealing in a broader range of paintings. But the lure of Dutch art proved strongest, and within a few years they had decided to focus solely on Dutch Old Masters.

“Before the MECC [Maastricht Exhibition & Conference Centre] was built, the fair was held in the Eurohal; when the rain drummed on the corrugated roof, you couldn’t hear yourself speak,” he says. “And if it snowed, then we didn’t get anyone: one year the exhibitors outnumbered the visitors, we played boules in the aisles.”

As a trustee and a member of the fair’s executive committee, Van Haeften is closely involved in the way the fair is run, and it is thanks to him that the vetters for the paintings section are not also exhibitors. “In some fields, the dealers are the main specialists, so you can’t avoid that, but for paintings we use museum curators, it avoids any conflict of interest,” he says.

Today he and the other organisers are concerned about the increase in administrative requirements as well as the 19% import tax the Dutch authorities impose on the fair. Would the fair ever relocate to Brussels? “None of us wants to,” he says. “But the Belgians are more realistic, and a move does remain an option.”

For more profiles of veteran dealers at Tefaf, see our supplement in the March print edition, or go to the special Maastricht section of our website and sign up for our newsletter.

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