Tim Cornwell: Suits of armour, hand-coloured toucans and hours of pleasure from Maastricht
On the advice of a friend, I'm looking at a tomb guardian. It dates from the Chu kingdom, and is made of lacquered wood. It was placed in tombs to keep evil spirits away from souls on the way to paradise, and is doubled-headed - two grumpy faces surmounted by antlers. "They are real antlers, lacquered," says a helpful man on the Priestley & Ferraro stand, specialising in early Chinese art. "It's got a tribal shamanistic power, a sort of anti-demon."
Just how to describe the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in the Netherlands city of Maastricht? After two days walking this art mini-city in a sprawling convention centre, I'm struggling to define it. As the biggest art and antique fair in the world, it has more than 30,000 works on offer. That is just short of the 35,000 on display in the Louvre.
TEFAF is about contrasts. Though news stories focus on the big ticket items - like the Joan Mir olive wood sculpture that sold for $5 million (3.5m) this weekend - it's a vast, very pricey but enormously varied emporium. I have spent some of the best hours of my life there, sucking up fine art in all its forms.
Next door to the antlers is a Haarlem dealer selling 17th and 18th century Dutch silver, from drinking mugs to a windmill bell. A rare books stand across the way ranges from lithographs of toucans, hand-coloured by nonsense poet and artist Edward Lear, to first editions of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, like Thunderball or Dr No, selling for four-figure sums.
One stand further on is dealer Peter Finer, selling arms and armour. The pice de rsistance, a Stechzeug set of high German jousting armour, weighs in at 75lbs (35kg) and with contours that would make a Porsche proud. Like many pieces here, it will surely end up in a museum - claimed to be the only piece out of 28 of its kind in private hands, it is priced at E1.9m (1.65m).
Some 260 dealers converge on the place, to offer the cream of their wares. The museum-quality stuff on offer, it has to be said, makes many contemporary offerings at the likes of the Frieze Art Fair look like cheap junk. You could call Maastricht something like the V&A, with shopping. Shopping in a fairly rarified sense - for the rich, or super-rich, who can buy museum names.
Strolling on from the armour, on a nearby stand I run into An Unknown Baby, a regal infant with hefty cheeks and an authoritarian eye. It's Dutch, and from the 17th century and the baby has not been identified.
At the classical art dealer Charles Ede, who learned at the knee of his father, red dots are beginning to spread - he has sold 14 ancient objects priced from E5,000 to E250,000.
At the stand of the London antique dealer Mallett, you can pick up a hydrogen-powered cigarette lighter, circa 1820.One crowd-puller nearby is a massive tapestry spread over the entrance to the stand of Axel Vervoordt - said to set fashion tastes for Europe. It is made of bottlecaps and flattened screw caps from liquor bottles, with a message about recycling and, I think, alcohol abuse, titled Flag for a New World, by the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui. Sold, for E700,000. Across the way: a bronze bust of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, looking astonishingly characterful: his expression kind, and knowing, as if he would have looked straight through you.
A pause for coffee and cake brings a chance encounter with an American collector. Last year he bought a Fernand Leger here, but the place is far more lively this year, he says. "Last year it was dead on its arse."
At E50 euros entrance, TEFAF is an art education in itself. At a clock dealer, the highlight is a horseman clock from 1580 - which is about when clocks started ticking. (It only tells the hours. Pendulums, and with them minutes, didn't start swinging until 1656, apparently.).
I fell briefly in love with a skiing scene, a watercolour by Scotland's own Sir William Russell Flint (alongside a more typical watercolour of two voluptuous women, for once clothed) - The High Slopes, Flims, at the McConnal-Mason gallery, for 32,000.
Upstairs, in the separate works on paper section - which, frankly, would qualify as a museum of its own - dealer Lowell Libson is showing delicately-coloured scenes by George Romney and Thomas Gainsborough.
Facing him across the way is a lifesize nude by Helmut Newton, in a gallery show dedicated to his most thoroughly kinky works. It is called Big Nude No 1 and sells in the seven figures. "Something for everyone," said Libson, whimsically. It's become a bit of a running joke.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west