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The European Fine Art Fair Basel: International dealers, local audience

Asian art and antiquities are strongly represented

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Tefaf Basel bills itself as a major international fair, which it is in terms of the spread of exhibitors, but it draws in a very local audience. Sandwiched between the Swiss, German and French borders, its visitors come mainly from Switzerland and Germany followed by France and Italy. It has become extremely strong in antiquities and pre-Columbian and ethnographical works of art German and continental porcelain, Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and jewellery.

By contrast, the picture (both Old Master and classic modern) and furniture sections are middle-range in quality. There is not a single Old Master dealer from England or the US, none of the major international Modern art dealers or top French, American or English furniture dealers.

According to the fair’s chairman, Clemens Vanderven, “Basel is rapidly developing its identity, with its own following of dealers and collectors.” He would like to see the classic Modern section much stronger. This area combined with ethnographical art is very much a Swiss collecting taste as exemplified by the Beyeler Museum in Basel.

The opening evening attracted 12% more visitors than last year and had a lively glamorous feel to it. However, the fair appeared quiet on the first day. There were several sales in the Asian and antiquities sections, but other areas seemed to have done little business. According to several of the exhibitors the Swiss and German take a long time to make up their minds.

All last year’s exhibitors returned, to be joined by a new exhibitor Archea Ancient Art from Amsterdam. Even so there were surprisingly few really outstanding objects, but this may be due to the controversial nature of the antiquities market where the very best things tend to change hands out of the public eye.

Most dealers were showing a very broad range of stock alongside one or two major pieces. Jerry Eisenberg of Royal Athena Galleries in New York was extremely bullish about the antiquities market. “We have done more business in the last three weeks than in the whole of the rest of the year”, he commented. The economic climate has settled down and private collectors are no longer holding back. His stand had already sold an Egyptian faience amphora, one of only twelve of this size in existence, for $85,000 to a French collector and a superbly carved Roman torso of Aphrodite after a Hellenistic prototype to a Swiss collector. Mr Eisenberg had also been an active purchaser at the fair, acquiring a powerfully modelled first-century Roman torso of a discus thrower from Swiss dealers, Galerie Serodina Ascona, as well as a painted Egyptian limestone stele of about 670 BC, from London dealer Rupert Wace. Also sold on the opening night was Gallerie Günter Puhze’s beautifully modelled geometric bronze horse.

The Asian section was markedly weaker this year due to a mass defection by the British dealers (ten in all, including Johnny Eskenazi, Robert Hall, Oliver Hoare, Priestley & Ferraro and Maharukh Desai). They were putting their faith in London’s Asian art week which opened the week after Basel last month. However, this much smaller Asian section allowed the organisers to expand the ethnographic and pre-Columbian section from four to ten dealers. According to Emille Deletaille, from Brussels, “Almost all the leading pre-Columbian dealers in Europe were at the fair.”

Sales in this area did not appear brisk on the opening day, but all the dealers appeared to be very happy with the interest they had aroused. Mr Deletaille showed a gold pre-Columbian lime container, known as a Porporo, dating from 500-1,000 AD. In the form of a seated figure it was superbly modelled by the same maker as several pieces in Madrid’s Museo de América, price in excess of $2 million.

Steven Alpert from Dallas offered a ceremonial baby carrier from Borneo for £100,000. Galerie Alt-Amerika displayed a superb piece from Papua New Guinea. 146cm in height, the curving, elongated figure joined at the top to a bird in flight, originally a roof decoration, priced at £230,000. Pre-Columbian and ethnographic art is an area where research is still in its infancy and one needs enormous faith in one’s dealer to enter this field. In this respect Basel is a marvellous opportunity to learn about the subject and see the best on the market.

Tefaf Basel 1998 fact sheet

Dates 7-15 November

Number of exhibitors 111 from 14 countries

Cost of stand Under forty sq.m., SFr395 per sq. m.; over forty sq. m., SFr350 per sq. m.; plus SFr5,000 surcharge

Number of visitors 16,000

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