The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) held in Maastricht in March is the world’s greatest art and antiques fair. Run by dealers, known for its implacable vetting (a Van Gogh was mercilessly removed from one stand just before the opening) and awesome organisation, this year’s show was yet another feast of art. It is also a microcosm of the top end of the art market and this year’s fair revealed how differently various aspects of the trade in Europe have been affected by the economic downturn and events of 11 September. While Old Masters continued to attract big money, helped by the phenomenon of money looking for a home, the decorative arts were a more difficult sell this year.
The Dutch Old Master dealers such as Johnny van Haeften, Rafael Valls and Robert Noortman were seeing booming business, and one observer saw Mr van Haeften sell two paintings worth over £1 million in the space of ten minutes. On the other hand, Michael Franses, the world’s leading textile dealer was telling a London colleague he need not come out to Maastricht: “The fair is very quiet I can manage on my own”, he said. Mr Franses was showing a 16th-century Safavid Imperial hunting carpet, the best example of its type to come on the market since he last sold it in 1986. He also had the earliest known Caucasian rug, an Edirne Dragon carpet dating from the 15th/17th century, in three fragments. Not a man to mince his words, Mr Franses said, “I have brought two of the greatest textiles ever likely to come on the market; these are perfect for my German clients and I am deeply shocked there has not been more interest in them by now”.
Things were also quiet in the modern and contemporary section of the fair. Leslie Waddington confessed that, “Sales were going very slowly despite the superb quality of people who had been through. We have seen some of the world’s greatest collectors,” but they were not biting on his sensational 1941 Nicholson relief or Anthony Meier’s more obvious million dollar Richters.
Half way through the fair, English furniture dealers Malletts had yet to make a sale. English furniture has suffered from the lack of American visitors to Europe more than any other area: there are few European buyers in this field. With their profits down, Malletts have just announced they will open large premises in New York in addition to London next year. If the Americans will not travel, it makes sense to take the business there.
While certain sectors of the market, especially high value collectors’ items like textiles, Oriental art and antiquities are slow, revealing caution on the part of European collectors still too unsure to commit large sums of money, there is no shortage of buyers for Old Masters—and not only the Dutch dealers were doing a roaring trade. Jean-Luc Baroni announced that his Michelangelo drawing, “Study of a mourning woman”, for which he paid £5.8 million at Sotheby’s last July, had been sold to an American collector (it had been hoped the National Gallery of Scotland might raise the money to acquire it). Medieval painting and sculpture specialist, Richard Philp, had reserved half his stand by the third day. His rediscovered painting by Fra Bartolommeo of a young female saint caused a sensation. Painted under the influence of Leonardo, the beautifully modelled face of the young girl, the epitome of early Florentine Renaissance purity, was the bargain of the fair at £250,000. Mr Philp had bought the dirty, unattributed panel seven years ago, not realising he had a masterpiece until last year when it was finally cleaned by an expert restorer.
Many of those buying Old Masters were new clients to the fair, and some, according to Rachel Kaminsky of Bernheimer-Colnaghi and Johnny van Haeften, had never bought an Old Master before. One plausible explanation is that, with an unstable stock market, a fear that property prices have peaked and interest rates so low, there is no point in putting your money in the bank and people are looking for alternative investments.
Five years ago, a £1 million Old Master at Maastricht was a rarity. This year they were two a penny. Charles Roelofsz was showing a rediscovered early Van der Ast, possibly his guild masterpiece, in near perfect condition for $2.3 million. Jean-Luc Baroni’s ”The creation of music” by Lorenzo Lippi, an image of great sweetness and tenderness, could be had for £2 million; Bernheimer-Colnaghi’s long-legged Venus by Cranach was £3.8 million, and Simon Dickinson’s Moroni portrait of a posturing Spanish nobleman had a rather vague price tag of “a few million pounds”.
Five times more expensive per square inch than the much-publicised Rembrandt was John Mitchell’s exquisite Roelandt Savery flower painting of 1612, with a price tag of £2.4 million.