Perusing the tens of thousands of works in the some 275 booths at The European Fine Art Fair, it’s easy to experience TEFAF as a set of digits: the number of private jets landing at the Maastricht airport in central Holland, the staggering volume of tulips that adorn the fair halls, the scope of the foot traffic, the price tags commanded by the objects on offer — not to mention the designer ensembles that convert the convention centre aisles into a veritable catwalk.
The festivities are also working under the rubric of the latest findings of the fair organiser's annual financial report, the figures of which are referenced as the defining measure of the art market. Certainly both dealers and collectors had reason for celebration as global art earnings were estimated at €51 billion in 2014, the highest level ever recorded and an increase over the previous year by seven per cent.
Of course, one also inevitably stumbles across fascinating curiousities with unique stories to tell, some of which are part of emerging market trends. Here are 10 such discoveries that particularly captivated us:
1. Polychrome prominence
While wandering around TEFAF 2015, Eike Schmidt, curator of decorative arts and sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, noticed a ‘very considerable’ number of Baroque Spanish polychrome wood sculptures of saints. ‘This is clearly a trend,’ he says. At German-based Senger Bamberg Kunsthandel, which specialises in 16th-century Northern European timber objects, a gallery staffer, who has shown at TEFAF for 24 years, was inclined to agree. ‘There are much more wooden things on the market,’ he says, citing a favourite work: an almost-life-sized, detailed sculpture of St. Oswald, the seventh century king of Northumbria. The price tag? €240,000. ‘It’s a museum piece, and it’s very rare,’ he says. ‘I never, in all these years, came across a sculpture of that king.’
Half a dozen booths away, Coll & Cortés not only displays stunning polychrome sculptures, but the intense lighting appropriately suggests a church chapel.
Virgin with child, Salzburg, circa 1420/30. Hard wood, fully carved, with traces of the original polychrome. Courtesy Senger Bamberg Kunsthandel.
2. Mountains out of monkeys
Asked how rare it is to display three Chinese models of magic mountains from the Kangxi period (1662-1722) simultaneously, Floris van der Ven, of Vanderven Oriental Art in the Netherlands, pauses. ‘In my 25-year career, I think I have seen about 10,’ he says. ‘To have three here is very rare.’ Asked about a monkey in the largest of the three models, the managing director’s wife, Nynke van der Ven-van Wijngaarden, recounts the legend of the monkey king, which scales the immortals’ mountain paradise and steals the peach of immortality from the queen mother of the West. His motives aren’t as pure as Prometheus; he has, selfishly, eternal life in mind. ‘It’s such a potent reference for a Chinese person,’ says Van der Ven-van Wijngaarden.
Unfortunately, the representative primate in question appears to be missing a hand, let alone the Holy Grail of immortality. ‘Maybe he’s sitting on the peach,’ she offers. ‘He’s sitting on something.’ Perhaps it’s the crossroad of art sales distribution, dominated by the American (39 per cent), British (22 per cent), and Chinese (22 per cent) markets.
3. Skirting religious controversy
Dutch painter Kees van Dongen’s made his best work during his Fauve period, according to James Roundell, of Dickinson. ‘After that he became a bit of a society artist, but between 1905 and 1910 he was really on the cutting edge of modern French painting,’ says the dealer. The artist’s 1908 painting Laila greets visitors as they pass the booth; the green-skinned figure set in a deep-blue night scene is ambiguous. ‘The dancer may be Algerian,’ says Roundell. Like Picasso, the artist dressed his models in costume. In Laila’s case, he also undressed her; a red headband peeks out from beneath a gray-brown cloth, which is wrapped burka-like across her head. It only covers the left half of her body, though, and her left breast and more are exposed.
‘We’re not reading a huge amount into it,’ Roundell says of the title, which he admits could refer to the Arabic. Asked about the controversy that can surround Islamic themes, Roundell says, ‘If you look around the fair, you can expect to see a lot of naked forms. That is how artists choose to represent the context.’ Pressed on the Islamic vocabulary, he adds, ‘This is very much the sort of scene that you’d expect van Dongen to paint. So it’s entirely in the mainstream of his work.’
Kees Van Dongen (1877–1968), Lailla, 1908. Oil on canvas. Courtesy Dickinson.
4. Growing interest in the earliest photographs
Not only does the New York-based Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Fine Photographs specialise in early photographs, but Valentina Branchini leads a visitor to one wall with two 1839 photogenic drawing leaf studies by William Henry Fox Talbot (right). ‘You can see how rich in colour they are and the range of colour much before colour photography,’ she says, as she lifts the ink-jet facsimiles to reveal the original works underneath, protected from the light.
There is, according to Branchini, growing interest among photographers, collectors, and amateurs in historical techniques that were used experimentally. She believes photography’s star is rising at TEFAF. ‘People are much more curious. They expect to see photographs.’ (Still, she notes the booth lands a coveted downstairs perch rather than the works-on-paper section above, because the gallery also deals in Old Masters.)
Around one of the booth's corners, photographs by French doctor Duchenne de Boulogne, who used a homemade device to electrically stimulate his patients’ facial features and photographed the expressions in the 1860s. ‘He believed that through the stimulation of distinct muscles he could replicate different passions and facial expressions,’ says Branchini. ‘He wanted to create a grammar of human passions and emotions from his medical perspective.’
Left: Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne & Adrien Tournachon (French, 1806-1875, 1825-1903), Rire faux (False laugh) from Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine. Albumen print, 1862, from a wet collodion negative, 1854-1856. Right: William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), Adiantum Capillus-Veneris (Maidenhair Fern), probably early 1839. Photogenic drawing negative. Both courtesy Hans P. Kraus Jr.
5. A bizarre fountain of youth
Eugène Louis Lami’s circa 1840-45 watercolour The Fountain of Youth, on view at Germany-based Nicolaas Teeuwisse, might as well be Water of Life meets public pool. Rather than depicting a religious scene with classical and orderly beauty, the French artist pokes fun at the very same quest for immortality that the monkey king also pursues.
‘A colourful group of very diverse individuals,’ as a label describes them, gather around a pool, set in a broader landscape. Some figures, in various stages of dress, take the plunge, while others mill about in formal attire. The label notes the work’s detail from the ‘spindly woman of withered beauty clad in nothing but her stockings and coyly concealing her nakedness’ to the ‘irresolute lady in a magnificent dress [who] shrinks from entering the chilly water.’
In the background, certain politicians can be made out, and in so doing, Lami evokes the political cartoons of fellow Frenchman Honoré Daumier.
6. No Breughel buyer’s remorse
How unusual is it to have two versions of the same painting on sale at the same art fair? Not unusual at all, says Daphne Dorel of France’s Galerie Florence de Voldère, which is offering Pieter Breughel the Younger’s The Wedding Dance (1624, left). Alice Frech, of De Jonckheere, which has the other version — the 1614 The Wedding Dance Outside (right) agrees that Breughel painted enough series of works that it’s not unusual for several to show up at TEFAF, and the quanity doesn’t foster buyer’s remorse. Last year another Breughel subject appeared in double, and galleries often must explain to nascent visitors they aren’t seeing the same work twice, Frech says.
Dorel says her employer’s version stands out for its bright colours, and despite the peasants depicted in the work, Breughel used expensive lapis lazuli for the blues. Frech cites the clean perspective and great condition of the work at her gallery. A wall text at Galerie Florence de Voldère credits the painting, and its blatant eroticism in particular, with leading the path away from the church’s moral clutches. It states, ‘By its profane aspect, this dance subject shows the revolution of ideas led by the progress of humanism.’
Left: Pieter Breughel the Younger (1564-1636), The Wedding Dance, 1624. Oil on panel. Courtesy Galerie Florence de Voldere. Right: Pieter Breughel the Younger (1564-1636), The wedding dance outside, 1614. Courtesy Galerie De Jonckheere.
7. Pistols of white gold
With rare and exotic goods flowing into Holland from Africa’s West Coast courtesy of the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, ivory was available to Maastricht craftsmen, who created beautiful guns, among other objects. Two circa 1675, fully-functioning, ivory-stocked Maastricht pistols, signed by the Dutch dealer L Van Mersen, are for sale at London-based Peter Finer. ‘There was a large trade in weapons and arms in Maastricht in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age. These are admired not just because they’re from Maastricht, but because they’re considered the finest things to come out of the Maastricht school of arms,’ says Roland Finer.
About 100 such pistols, whose entire stock is cared from a single piece of ivory, are known to exist. ‘Most of them were given as courtly gifts by monarchs to other monarchs or to military generals,’ he says. ‘Within this field of arms and armour within the field of guns, ivory-stock pistols are considered one of the finest things you can own. Any good international collection of arms and armour will want to have or will have a pair of ivory-stocked Maastricht pistols.’ Be that as it may, dealers will need to mind their country’s ivory policies before flying home.
A pair of horseman’s flintlock holster pistols with ivory stocks and warriors’ head pommels carved in high relief, in the exotic fashion unique to the gunmakers of Maastricht in the provice of Overmass, the locks signed L. van Mersen A Maestrich, circa 1675. Courtesy of Peter Finer.
8. A very strange provenance
Some objects are so spectacular they can appeal to collectors who don’t otherwise express interest in a particular genre. The late 2nd century-Roman bust of a young man currently on view at Tomasso Brothers Fine Art, based in Leeds and London, is one such object. ‘This particular bust is so exceptional that it would appeal to somebody who has never bought an antiquity before,’ says Dino Tomasso. ‘That’s the reason it’s on our stand. That’s the reason that we purchased it in the first place.’
Tomasso has seen a resurgence in the classical sculpture market in the past decade. ‘It is the ultimate in great taste,’ he says, noting the market for Roman marble sculptures is presently ‘very much in vogue.’ At TEFAF, antiquities dealers tend to bring more Roman marbles than they did previously, he says. Perhaps most interesting about the bust is its story. The Art Institute of Chicago presented it as a gift to its curator of Oriental art in the middle of the 20th century. Tomasso was asked, does that happen often? ‘No.’ Ever? ‘It is not something that I’ve come across before, let’s say.’
Late 2nd Century Roman Bust. Courtesy Tomasso Brothers Fine Art.
9. A golden mini-parachute
As staff at the London-based Adrian Sassoon explain that artist Giovanni Corvaja’s colleagues called him ‘the young genius’ when he was the youngest student at London’s Royal College of Art in the early 1990s, the artist enters to booth to check on his Handkerchief, a gold object on offer for about €200,000.
Corvaja allows a reporter to touch the work, which feels both soft and cold. The artist created the tools he needed to weave the golden threads — each 1/50 the width of a human hair, which looks like a ‘scratch in the air’ to the naked eye — to achieve a sort of alchemist’s dream. Any sort of transformation has a bit of magic, he says. ‘This is the first time real cloth made out of metal has ever existed.’ So what made the artist decide to trailblaze? His wife was pregnant at the time with their child, and Corvaja wanted to spend a lot of time at home, so poring over nearly microscopic golden threads was a perfect fit.
10. A crowded regatta
From across the room at Milan-based Galleria Carlo Orsi, Michele Marieschi’s A Regatta on the Grand Canal appears to be a Canaletto. In fact, the work is atypical for the 18th century Italian painter who typically depicted landscapes largely devoid of human figures, explains Ferdinando Corberi. In this depiction of a crowded, bright, and colorful boat race, figures — some of them in correct proportion — pack the foreground, and others appear in the middle ground or in building windows in the distance. Marieschi would have contracted the figure painting out to others with more skill depicting the human form, Corberi explains. Of particular interest in the painting is the artist’s handling of an oar dipped in the water in the bottom right corner. The most delicate strokes depicting water displaced by the oar breathe surprising life and movement into the scene. If Marieschi swings with statistics, he will likely do well with the work: dealers sales accounted for 52 percent of the overall market in 2014, a 5 percent increase over the previous year, resulting in €26.4 billion in sales revenue.
Michele Marieschi (1710–1744), A Regatta on the Grand Canal. Oil on canvas. Courtesy Galleria Carlo Orsi.
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