"Going Dutch: Buyers aplenty at the Maastricht art fair"
RECESSIONS affect art fairs in different ways. The most obvious is when buyers stay away, especially if a fair has fallen from fashion or if entry tickets are too expensive. Another is when dealers abandon ship, curtailing the fairs they attend to two a year, say, instead of three. Or they suddenly offer deep discounts to ensure a sale. Slashing prices is a sure sign of lack of confidence.
This year at the Maastricht fine art fair, Europe's premier decorative and fine art festival, there was a different problem: an abundance of ordinary offerings, not so much second-rate as indifferent. Dealers have clearly found it hard to source fresh, top-quality works during the recession. Much of the art was even quite stale: Antonio Guardi's beautiful 18th-century “View of the Villa Loredan at Paese”, presented by Simon Dickinson, a London dealer, was on its fourth Maastricht visit, after a winter with another dealer and no buyers in New York.
None of this was evident at first glance. The private view on the first day, March 12th, was anything but private. A record 10,500 people attended. Cashmere, fur, high heels and hairspray was the uniform of the day. Maastricht is a destination fair; people regard it as an outing. The number of personal jets that bore them there would have been higher had Munich airport not been closed by fog.
More than $3 billion worth of art work—covering every category and period, from ancient Egyptian statuary to post-Modern painting—was presented on 263 stands (24 more than last year). The exhibitors came from 17 countries; most were American, British or continental European, but some trekked from further afield, such as Uruguay and South Korea. A conservative estimate would put the fair's entire offering at over 25,000 pieces. Yet no more than a dozen were truly memorable.
Alan Rubin of Pelham Galleries, a British dealer based in Paris, is something of a maestro. His stand is always a theatrical show, and this year was no exception. The centrepiece was a magnificent canopied bed that once belonged to Talleyrand, the great 19th-century French diplomat. But the most intriguing item was an elaborate automaton clock that hadn't been seen in public for more than 100 years. Standing 130 centimetres high, it had feet shaped like dragons that spat out pearls at regular intervals.
Chinese specialists also like to put on a show. Ben Janssens, a London-based Dutchman and the chairman of the fair, had a small side room at his elegant stand displaying 20th-century Japanese bronzes. Beautiful late Japanese craftsmanship is beginning to gain ground among collectors, especially Westerners, who no longer want to compete with the Chinese in buying Chinese porcelain and metalware.
Lacquer, though, is still something in which Western collectors lead the way. Littleton and Hennesy, which has offices in London and New York, unveiled a spectacular lacquer piece at Maastricht: a 15th-century chest of drawers depicting a Taoist paradise. From the Manno collection in Japan, the chest was unusually large—more than 80 centimetres across and 64 centimetres high—and, despite its age, impressively well-preserved (lacquer is treated with special care in Japan). A Western collector bought it on the second day of the fair, happy to pay the full asking price of €3.1m ($4.2m).
Another eye-catching display was Bernard de Grunne's crowd of 27 Igbo monumental standing sculptures from Nigeria (above), many of them taller than their owners. Drawn in part from his father's collection and that of Jacques Kerchache, once a leading French dealer of tribal and contemporary art, this unusual show featured works that had not been seen in public for many years. Much sought after by French, Belgian and, increasingly, American buyers, these pieces are both fragile and rare, and they seldom travel. The demand for African art has grown over the past five years, and it is expected to expand yet further with the reopening of the Museum for African Art in Manhattan next year. Several buyers were keen on the most important statues—a male and a female carved by a sculptor known as the Awka Master—which ultimately went to a European collector for close to the asking price of €400,000.
Maastricht is the sort of fair where clever dealers bring their discoveries. Often these are works acquired at auction for a bargain price, owing to an original misidentification. John Mitchell Fine Paintings, a family dealership in London, arrived with a Dutch winter landscape it had found in a French provincial sale last summer. The picture came from a chateau in central France and was so dirty as to be almost unrecognisable. Auctioneers described it as Dutch school (circa 1620) and estimated its value at €20,000-30,000. Some cleaning and a good deal of research established it as a hitherto unknown work by Adam van Breen. Dated 1611, it is one of the earliest known paintings of its kind, and was snapped up at Maastricht by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, for €910,000.
An even more impressive surprise came from Mr Rubin, again of Pelham Galleries. He brought a large French champ de bataille painting, a huge formal garden landscape featuring a grand chateau. Mr Rubin had bought the picture at an auction house that was unfamiliar with this kind of work and gave it an estimate of €50,000-70,000. Given the painting’s odd perspective—at once topographical and a bird's eye view—Mr Rubin identified it as a lost work by Pierre-Denis Martin, who painted some of the most important topographical landscapes in the Trianon palace at Versailles. The picture depicts the visit of Louis XIV to the Chateau of Juvisy, and is still available, priced at €2m. Its value lies mainly in its discovery, the product of experience, a good eye and meticulous archival research. At its best, that is what Maastricht is known for.
Despite the paucity of works with the wow factor, dealers at Maastricht reported considerable buying interest. Mr Janssens sold 30 pieces on the opening day, and 20 more over the first weekend. James Ede, a London-based antiquities dealer, has called this fair his best fair ever. During the worst months of the recession, collectors refused to sell unless they had to, drying up both the supply of and the demand for top-quality works. Sourcing first-class art may still be difficult, but the experience of the Maastricht dealers over the past few days is that there is no shortage of money to spend. The worst of the recession appears to be over, for both dealers and buyers.
Source: The Economist