Tefaf Maastricht, one of Europe's biggest art fairs and the pre-eminent event for Old Masters and antiques, has been forced to "postpone" its March 2022 edition as the Omicron variant of Covid-19 spreads across the world.
The European Fine Art Foundation (Tefaf), which owns and runs the fair, made the decision in a board meeting this afternoon and will announce a new date in the coming weeks.
Tefaf's chairman, Hidde van Seggelen, tells The Art Newspaper that "it was a difficult decision to make, but due to travel restrictions and various limitations across Europe due to Covid-19, the whole board felt it was too limiting to be able to hold the event." The new date for 2022 is undecided but will be "outside the [winter] danger zone months of Covid", van Seggelen says.
In a statement, he adds that the decision was "guided by three key concerns: first is the unpredictable nature of Covid-19; second, the significant financial risk to both Tefaf and our exhibitors should the fair be cancelled in the lead up to March; and third is, as always, the health and safety of the Tefaf community, our exhibitors, visitors, sponsors and partners".
In an email sent to exhibitors on 4 December setting out various scenarios and reiterating Tefaf's cancellation policy, van Seggelen said around 270 exhibitors had confirmed participation in the March event.
The email stated that if exhibitors decided to pull out of the event by 10 December, they would have to pay €7,500. If they decided to pull out after 10 December, they would have to pay full general costs and stand rental to Tefaf. The email continued that if the fair was not cancelled by today, 15 December, but was forced to cancel at a later date due to stricter regulations: "Tefaf does not guarantee a refund. Depending on our P&L we will see if and what we can refund."
That statement went down like a lead balloon with many galleries, as they stood to lose anything from €40,000 to €80,000-plus in stand rental costs.
Exhibitors are now left in a difficult and uncertain position, as Tefaf's latest announcement on 15 December states that the March event is "postponed" to an as-yet-undecided date—not cancelled.
That wording is important. It means that dealers will firstly not be refunded the €13,500 "participation fee" already paid, which is needed for the foundation to cover “expenses [including salaries and marketing costs] and other contractual obligations," according to the email.
And secondly, as the word "postpone" not "cancel" was used, it means that exhibitors may still be liable for any forthcoming stand rental fees as, the 4 December email states: "Should the Dutch Government force us to cancel at a later date, after Wednesday 15th December 2021, it is important to be aware that this will have financial implications for all participants."
The situation has provoked anger among certain exhibitors and some, particularly a group of French dealers, reacted angrily. Yesterday, Le Journal des Arts reported that at least 30 exhibitors had withdrawn by 10 December as a result of the email's demands. They have therefore paid €7,500 and have also lost their spot at the fair—to regain their position, they will have to reapply to the event and will not be guaranteed the same stand position.
The French trade association, the CPGA (the Comité Professionnel des Galeries d’Art), said one dealer had called it "scandalous" and told Le Journal: “It’s pure and simple swindling."
Others think the €7,500/€13,500 payment requested is reasonable. Bob Albricht of Kunstgalerij Albricht, in Amsterdam, tells The Art Newspaper: "This has always been in the contract and I think it's only fair—a lot of dealers have made a lot of money through exhibiting at Tefaf over the years and €7,500 [or €13,500] is not much to pay to keep the foundation going."
Van Seggelen says: "We are a non-profit foundation, we cannot underwrite the fair—we have a team of 18 staff and so far have had to cancel or postpone five fairs [in Maastricht and New York] due to the pandemic, so we need to have the funds to continue."
Asked if Tefaf has event cancellation insurance, van Seggelen says: "You cannot actually buy insurance to protect against the pandemic now."
Tefaf Maastricht last ran in March 2020 when it was forced to close four days early when an exhibitor tested positive for Covid-19. Shortly afterwards, most of the world went into lockdown. This year, the fair was postponed from March to May and then to September before being cancelled altogether.
On 16 September, Tefaf Maastricht clarified that it has revised its refund policy so that no exhibitor will have to pay more than €7,500 (not €13,500) in the event the 2022 fair is cancelled. "As Tefaf Maastricht 2022 has been postponed to a later date, but a date has not yet been confirmed, exhibitors stand to lose no more than €7,500," a Tefaf spokesperson says. "There will be no further costs to exhibitors at this stage. Should we announce a new date, the €7,500 will carry over for participating exhibitors. Should the Dutch authorities take decisions that mean Tefaf Maastricht cannot take place in 2022 at all, we do not anticipate that exhibitors will be liable for any more fees i.e. stand rental fee. We have little reason to believe a new fair will not take place and terms will be confirmed in the lead up to the fair."