Tefaf Maastricht comes under fire as Covid-19 cases surge among the fair's attendees

Infected participants criticise fair’s decision to open in March as virus was spreading

The Maastricht fair, which shut four days early due to a coronavirus outbreak, had stationed hand sanitiser dispensers throughout the venue © Oliver Berg/dpa/Alamy Live News

The Maastricht fair, which shut four days early due to a coronavirus outbreak, had stationed hand sanitiser dispensers throughout the venue © Oliver Berg/dpa/Alamy Live News

At least 25 positive cases of coronavirus (Covid-19) have emerged among exhibitors and visitors to this month’s Tefaf Maastricht fair in the Netherlands, The Art Newspaper can report. The organisers of the fair, which attracted 28,500 visitors, are now facing sharp criticism for allowing a major international event of nearly 300 exhibitors to go ahead as the virus spread across Europe. The fair was shut four days early on 11 March after one exhibitor, an Italian Modern art dealer, tested positive for the virus on return to his home country. According to Tefaf participants who have spoken to The Art Newspaper, between 23 and 35 exhibitors and visitors may have contracted the virus at the event; some have since been hospitalised, a number in intensive care. But the number of those affected is likely to be much higher.

“It was irresponsible of Tefaf to open the fair,” says Boedy Lilian of the Amsterdam and Geneva-based Old Master gallery Salomon Lilian. Lilian says his "whole gallery got the coronavirus" and one of his staff is “very badly” ill. Lilian says: “Many exhibitors are very sick. I always thought that Tefaf was there for the dealers—apparently, it’s all about money.”

A mistake is a mistake, but this one could have been deadly

Ambrose Naumann, a New York-based art dealer, tested positive for coronavirus after visiting the fair during the opening days. He has since been in isolation and says he “knows of 20 people who tested positive after being at Tefaf and heard of around 15 more cases.”

The pandemic has escalated fast since the decision to go ahead with the fair was made in early March, and Naumann concedes it is easy to point fingers in hindsight: “One can only speculate what drove them to continue with business as usual, and none of those reasons looks good for Tefaf. If someone doesn’t speak up, who will? A mistake is a mistake, but this one could have been deadly. And, frankly, it still could be.” He is also critical of the extra precautions (such as giving exhibitors hand sanitiser) and cleaning measures that were taken: “You can’t vacuum a virus.”

The Old Master paintings dealer Bob Haboldt, now self-isolated in Switzerland, says: “I believe that approximately 23-25 cases have been positively identified so far [having been diagnosed on return from the fair].” But he adds that flu “should not be confused with coronavirus at the fair”. Many people returned from Tefaf with symptoms that were flu-like, including Haboldt and an employee, who have not been tested. The lack of testing in many countries means “we will never get a precise reading about the cases inside [Tefaf’s venue] the MECC, the long incubation period and the discreet nature of our clients will prohibit that,” Haboldt says.

A Tefaf spokeswoman says: “This [number of cases] unfortunately might be true, yet as at this point Tefaf cannot monitor numbers reliably, nor can we confirm when and where [people] have been in touch with coronavirus.” She says Tefaf is still hearing “about confirmed cases, people with symptoms, people who are recovering well and unfortunately also cases who have been or are in intensive care.”

Naumann says: “A lot of people don’t want to talk about it—there is a stigma to it that was likened by my doctor to the Aids crisis.” Another Tefaf gallery employee who tested positive for the virus says: “I don’t care if people know I have it, I have been open about it. But I don’t want my employment to be compromised because I was part of an underground information source.”

The Tefaf spokeswoman says that the decision to go ahead with the fair was not “influenced by financial considerations”, adding that it was made “in collaboration with the local and national authorities”. From 27 February, Tefaf management had daily meetings with Dutch national and regional health authorities and the mayor of Maastricht. However, some exhibitors question these parties’ possible vested interests in the fair taking place—Tefaf is hugely important for Maastricht’s economy, with local restaurants and hotels referring to it as “the golden fortnight”.

Tefaf’s chairman Nanne Dekking insists that “they made an unbiased decision”. He says: “To isolate coronavirus to only our fair, which happened right at a turning point when the virus quickly started to spread in The Netherlands and many other countries, such as the US, is unfair." Dekking adds there "were no cases in The Netherlands when we started the fair.” But, according to figures from the World Health Organization (WHO), there were 82 reported cases in the country when the first preview opened on 5 March.

Dekking adds that, at the start of the fair, the “vast majority” of exhibitors supported the decision to go ahead.