Dispatches/The real TEFAF
Luckily for readers of Dispatches I could not attend TEFAF Maastricht this year so they will be spared my inadequate report on the world’s greatest art and antiques fair (running now through March 19) and get instead something much funnier and more informative.
Midway through the first day at TEFAF I am invariably overwhelmed by the 270 exhibitors, the seven centuries of art history on display, the plentiful oysters and champagne. I usually take refuge in the booth of Cohen & Cohen where Michael and Ewa Cohen and their genius in residence, Will Motley, are kind enough to send me off to study treasures they have noticed and I have not. It’s a curated experience punctuated by enough laughs to see me through two more days of beauty.
I have persuaded Michael Cohen to employ his substantial wit to account for the strange and wonderful experience of TEFAF in the essay below and to point out some of its treasures. I count his essay as one of them.
A Letter from the goldfish bowl
By Michael Cohen
Imagine that, after a serious night of drinking, a group of influential American and European art dealers decided that the ideal location for a major international art fair was a small town in Kansas. The rationale being that space is cheap and it is equidistant from major cities and equally easy (or difficult) to reach from each. Sufficient numbers sign up to the idea and the Smallville International Fine Art Fair (SIFAF) is instigated.
Over the years SIFAF grows in size and stature until it is celebrated as the world’s premier art and antiques show. For ten days a year the hotels have elevated SIFAF tariffs, the restaurants all run as special SIFAF menus and the taxi drivers adjust their meters from peak time to extortionate. The local airport can’t cope with the number of private jets SIFAF attracts.
SIFAF is now the biggest thing in town and Smallville becomes synonymous with its fair. Its previous claims to fame (world’s largest sandwich, raccoon nominated for mayor and comes in second) are forgotten. Mention Smallville in polite society and everybody knows you are referencing the fair.
Set this in Europe and you have the story of TEFAF Maastricht.
Exhibiting at TEFAF is, I imagine, similar to being incarcerated in a low security correction facility. You work all day with the inmates, you take breakfast lunch and dinner with the inmates (no restaurant within a five mile radius is free of exhibitors) and then you return to the cell-block (as with restaurants all local hotels are full of dealers) to sleep with the inmates. It is the most immersive experience available to an art dealer. I arrive in Maastricht as a functioning human being and leave as a drooling automaton.
So why do we do it?
Firstly the objects: somebody once said (it may have been me, I certainly repeat it enough) that coming to TEFAF is like visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art but everything is for sale. In the world of art and antiques it is the greatest show on earth and no amount of hype prepares the first time visitor for the size and scope of the show.
Second comes the vetting: a total vetting committee of more than 250 with access to more technology for authentication than most museums. No fair is better vetted and none allows a longer period for those vetting to do their work. For a technophile the fair gives me my only opportunity to play with a spectrum analyzer.
Third is display: the advantage of being in the middle of nowhere is that space is cheap compared to other major fairs. Most top dealers understand the importance of imaginative display and sensitive lighting and TEFAF provides a wonderful and substantial blank canvas to work with. Many dealers have an instantly recognizable style; we have two main competitors at TEFAF and I’m confident sure that, were all three of us provided the same inventory to display within the same space, any TEFAF regular could easily identify whose stand was whose.
Lastly comes the possibility to improvise. This year, having already planned our stand and sent the inventory, we received a telephone call offering us an important collection of large vases. On the first setting up day we abandoned our manager, Will, to work alone while we travelled for several hours to see the collection. This is classic antique dealer behavior: leaving an important task to purchase something we don’t need with money we don’t have. As we left Ewa, my wife and business partner, said “You promise you won’t try to put these on the stand if we buy them”. I replied that I would never have considered the possibility, while crossing my fingers and warning Will to find space.
We bought the vases. They are wonderful and the stand was completely reorganized in order to accommodate them. Nobody would have known they were not in the original plan.
One of the great advantages of being on a vetting committee is the necessity of visiting every stand at the show. Although I am vetting only Chinese art my favorite items at the show select themselves and what follows is my top ten short list. I’m not selecting from the fine art and sculpture sections, as those will be extensively covered by most other reviewers.
I make no apologies for my first choice coming from our stand; the pair of Pronk sconces is rare, important and beautiful.
My second choice is an exquisite eighteenth century carved ivory figure of Frederik V of Denmark and Norway offered by Blumka and Böler. Sadly this treasure cannot be taken to the U.S. due to the irrational notion that it will encourage the poaching of elephants.
My third and fourth choices are both exceptional timepieces: a gilt automaton clock in the form of the Chariot of Bacchus seen on the stand of Kugel of Paris; and from Somlo Antiques of London a wonderful pocket watch from the workshop of James Cox.
My standout pieces of furniture are a Marcel Breuer “Long Chair” offered by H. Blairman & Sons and a metamorphic table attributed to Jean-Michel Frank on the stand of Carlton Hobbs. Both pieces date from the 1930s.
From the fair’s large offering of European porcelains a charming and eccentric set of Chantilly porcelain knife handles in the form of Chinese figuresstands out at the booth of Michele Beiny. For those who prefer earthenware, Aronson is showing an exceptional set of six Delft polychrome plates depicting figures and animals.
Arms and armour specialist Peter Finer has a pair of Spanish Bronze cannon which must rank among the finest and best provenanced to be offered in recent years. And Wartski, who, every year, make the choice of a single favorite almost impossible, has several exceptional pieces of Art Nouveau jewellery. My personal favorite is the Lalique scarab beetle necklace.
Having limited myself to ten items, none of which would be fine art, I now have to confess that the item I am considering buying if we have a good show is an Old Master painting.
It is a commonly held misconception that the old masters at TEFAF are beyond the means of all but the wealthiest, but long time exhibitor Lawrence Steigrad Fine Art has always shown high quality paintings by less well-known masters at prices that are affordable by those with only a single home to their name.
With luck the bird painting by Trajan Hughes will be finding its way to our home.
To those that told me they have crossed TEFAF Maastricht off their bucket list because they have visited TEFAF New York: This is like thinking that because you have looked at an atlas you have seen the world.
Michael Cohen of Cohen & Cohen, specialists in Chinese export porcelain, is chairman of the British Antiques Dealers’ Association.