Cultura Basel '03 fair report: Sheikh of Qatar on a shopping spree at a smaller, more focused fair

A successful vernissage shows quantity does not always trump quality


Cultura, the Swiss fair which sells predominantly antiquities, has had a topsy-turvy history. Created seven years ago by TEFAF in an attempt to repeat the successful formula that it perfected at Maastricht, and to target rich collectors from Switzerland and its borders, the fair never really took off. In 1998 TEFAF pulled out but, with the backing of three piqued dealers, Ben Janssens, Miklos von Bartha and Clemens van der Ven, the renamed Cultura Basel bravely kept going. A reputed £500,000 donation in 2002 by a local supporter secured its immediate future, although this year its date was shifted to mid November; its length shortened to a week; and its size trimmed slightly to 55 dealers.

At the vernissage on 13 November, there was an optimistic air. The temperature had been raised by an afternoon visit by the Sheikh of Qatar who hoovered up antiquities for the museum that he is creating in his Gulf state: Rupert Wace; Charles Ede and Royal-Athena Galleries were among the immediate beneficiaries.

The fair also looked effective, being tailored to match the puritan, no frills, Basel taste. The objects were allowed to speak for themselves; the stands were strictly minimalist. There is a long, serious, collecting tradition in Basel and its environs, and as Ben Janssens says,”You don’t need the crowds if you get the connoisseurs.” Along with 15 antiquities dealers there were also good shows of Asian art and illustrated manuscripts and rare books, plus a sprinkling of works of art and modern design. Dealers bring good stock to Cultura, because of the specialist knowledge of their likely customers.

Grace Wu Bruce, a first time exhibitor, got off to a flying start with three pieces of Chinese Ming furniture, one an important early table priced at more than £100,000 selling at the vernissage. She was at Cultura because she had curated the loan exhibition of Ming furniture from the Lu Ming Shi Collection, located temptingly alongside her stand. But a return visit next year depends on the fair changing its dates–it currently clashes with Asian Art in London. In 2004 the fair may well be held in October.

This would also suit Asian dealer Ben Janssens, who sold some modestly priced items on the opening night but who had received serious enquiries about a pair of pottery figures of women washing and a pair of bronze ritual wine vessels of the sixth century BC priced at around £200,000. As at most fairs, initial interest waits on second thoughts but there is money in Basel and an ingrained collecting tradition.

Heribert Tenschert of Antiquariat Bibermühle was prepared to wait to sell the most expensive object at the fair, a Biblia Latina, printed in Mainz in 1462 and illuminated throughout its 481 leaves by the Fust-Meister. It carries a €4 million price tag but this is the first time it has been on the market in 80 years and there is only one other comparable example of such fine illumination of an early printed book.

Also waiting on decisions– from American museums– were London dealers Rupert Wace and James Ede. Mr Wace is confident that he sold a rare Roman marble relief while Ede who said the opening was, “My best day ever in Basel”, was expecting confirmation from museum trustees to dispatch to the US of a Roman statue of a priest of Demeter, which had once belonged to Lord Elgin.

In antiquities, as in most of the sectors offered at Basel, there are few collectors at the top level, but they are very keen. According to Mr Ede, “There is one hot buyer of Egyptian goods at the moment who is forcing up the prices but no-one is interested in classical bronzes which are very cheap. So I am buying them.”

Governmental concerns over the illegal trafficking of both antiquities and Asian art have made dealers more cautious. Although Cultura Basel is rigorously vetted. London dealers avoided objects of Iraqi origin and there were strenuous efforts to provide details of provenance when known. Not that collectors seemed that interested–they know the problems of complete authentication in every instance.

And if business falls slack at Cultura Basel, dealers can always trade amongst themselves. Royal-Athena of New York quickly paid another exhibitor a six-figure euro sum for an Egyptian statue which it then boldly displayed at the front of its stand. Royal-Athena could afford to feel rich–a head of Hadrian, bought from a photograph just 10 days earlier, had been snapped from its stand on the day of arrival. Cultura may be small and rarefied but it seems to work.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Smaller, more focused and aimed at the connoisseur'