European Fine Art Fair sales defying recession

Visitors of all ages at the European Fine Art Fair. Picture: Loraine Bodewes/Complimentary
Visitors of all ages at the European Fine Art Fair. Picture: Loraine Bodewes/Complimentary
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A COOL 14m euros for a portrait by Velázquez, $2.5m for a Damien Hirst … Europe may be in the throes of economic meltdown, but at the European Fine Art Fair it’s a case of recession, what recession?

Last week, unseasonal snowstorms brought travel chaos to the Low Countries. But on Thursday in Maastricht, the concern was a more specific one: would private jets be able to land at the little local airport? Or would the weather prevent top art collectors reaching the world’s biggest and most important art fair?

For 26 years, this little town in the Netherlands has played host to the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF). In recent weeks, Maastricht’s grey, featureless Exhibition and Congress Centre has been transformed into a suitable treasure house for paintings, sculpture and antiques, with the aid of an acreage of deep-pile carpet and more than 100,000 fresh flowers.

Everyone in the art world watches TEFAF, which has become a kind of barometer for the fortunes of the market. In 2009, as the recession hit home, the international art market lost one third of its value. Now, it is back at pre-2009 levels, and the mood in the hall is cautiously optimistic. With the last carpet vacuumed, the last flower arrangement positioned and the last squad of elegant waiting staff briefed and supplied with canapes, it’s time to open the doors.

London-based art dealer Lowell Libson is looking over his stand somewhat proudly. His cache of treasures includes two important Constables, a beautiful watercolour by William Blake and six sketches by Turner. “The fair is always visited by people who have the ability to buy things regardless of the economic climate,” he says. “It’s a matter of turning up with marvellous things and casting them on the waters in an intelligent, well-considered way. The rest is in the lap of the gods.”

A frisson of nerves is understandable. John Leighton, director general of the National Galleries of Scotland and a regular visitor to the fair, says TEFAF is crucial to the survival of some galleries. “In one sense, it has become the equivalent for the art market of what Christmas is to the retail trade, you’ve got to succeed in these few days, that will make a gallery’s year – or not.”

Much hangs on Private View Day, when the fair is the exclusive preserve of invited guests (on subsequent days there is a E55 entry fee). The majority are High Net Worth Individuals, defined as people with liquid assets in excess of one million dollars. There are more of these than you might think: a steady stream of BMWs on the Autobahn, and private jets from United States, Russia, China, the Middle-East. By the end of the day, the fair has hosted more than 9,000 people.

“The right people tend to come through the doors, it just depends whether they’re looking in our direction or not,” says Patrick Bourne of London-based dealership The Fine Art Society, nervously. “This is a tense time. What happens in the next few days will tell us something about the strength of the market.” Taking pride of place on his stand next to a Whistler etching is The Chalk Cutting, a daring, semi-abstract Spanish landscape by Glasgow Boy Arthur Melville, with an asking price of £80,000.

A group is already gathered around another of his exhibits, one of the few video works in the fair, Transforming Vanitas Painting by contemporary artists Rob and Nick Carter. What looks like an oil painting is actually a CGI film that takes Dead Frog with Flies by Dutch Old Master Ambrosius Bosschaert and animates it, charting the creature’s death and distintegration over three hours. “Yeuuchh, revolting,” mutters a woman in a cream trouser suit, recoiling as the maggots emerge. Nick Carter says one of the aims is to engage viewers to look for a bit longer than they would at a painting, for which the average attention paid is apparently six seconds.

It would take more than 48 hours – without breaks – to give six seconds of attention to every work of art in TEFAF. In fact, it’s easy to feel dazzled by the splendour and scale of it all. But among the ubiquitous Dutch flower paintings and Venetian landscapes of the Paintings section, there are both gems and surprises: a lovely Canaletto, a charming Goya of children looking for birds’ nests, a luminescent Dutch still life by Claesz-Heda, a vivid Study of a Shipwrecked Man by Gericault, more etchings by Rembrandt than you can shake a stick at, and ubiquitous Picassos.

And if you want a break from looking at art, you can always watch the audience: sartorially dressed men in dark suits with a silk handkerchiefs in their breast pockets; gamine woman who have chosen style over comfort and walk TEFAF’s miles of corridor in high heels without flinching; the effusiveness of dealers (“So wonderful to see you – we have a Corot in the back especially for you!”).

One of the stars of the show is a head and shoulders portrait by Velazquez which turned up out of the blue at a local auction house in England. It is on sale from New York art dealer Otto Naumann for a cool $14 million. Meanwhile, London dealer Johnny Van Haeften says the market for top quality Old Master pieces has been relatively unaffected by the recession. “With the potential of inflation coming back, people like to have something that’s tangible. Dutch Old Masters have held their value for 400 years, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t continue. The art market is driven by supply and demand, and Brueghel – however much you’d like him to, and however much he might increase in value – isn’t going to be painting any more.”

Art market economist Clare McAndrew, author of TEFAF’s Art Market Report 2013, says that the top end of the market is still flourishing, but that isn’t the whole picture. “There is an increased polarisation in the market. Dealers at the high value end are doing as well as they did in 2008, but smaller dealers are struggling, and a lot are going bankrupt.” Even TEFAF isn’t immune. The atmosphere is poignant at the stand of London dealers Agnews, one of the oldest art dealerships in the world, which has announced it will close at the end of April.

Meanwhile, the post-war and contemporary art sector, while the largest and fastest-growing segment of the market, is dominated by a very small number of artists. McAndrew says: “There is a superstar ethos – everybody is buying the same things. People aren’t buying the stars of the moment any more, they are looking for more of a historical footprint, artists like Warhol, Lichtenstein, Richter and Rothko. It’s getting harder and harder for new artists to gain entry to the market.”

In the Modern section of the fair, the blue-chip bestsellers are very much in evidence: a Warhol car crash here, a Richter abstract there. There seems to be something of a rage in messy abstracts by the likes of Nicolas de Stahl, Karel Appel, Georg Baselitz, the bigger the better. But a more careful search turns up more interesting things: portraits by Munch, rare works by Soutine and Schiele, Joseph Beuys objects, sculptures and sketches by Louise Bourgeois, a suite of photographs of animal skulls by Irving Penn, who began his career as a photographer for Vogue in the 1940s, a rather fine early Stephen Conroy. In photography, there is a wonderful 1860s album by Julia Margaret Cameron, and in the small design section, a Berlin gallery is offering a Charles Rennie Mackintosh chair from the Argyle Tea Rooms for E200,000.

New York gallery Sperone Westwater has the fair’s only Damien Hirst, a butterfly kaleidoscope painting on sale for $2.5 million. I expected to see more. “Not Old Master enough,” says the mistress of the stall. She pauses, before adding waspishly: “Yet.” In the glittering sprawl of the Antiques section – the largest and most varied section of the fair – one can buy a Grecian urn, a Fabergé box made for the Tsar of Russia, a 17th-century Delft vase, a suit of German Maximilian field armour or a pair of diamond earrings worn by Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent.

The day after the Private View, the buoyant mood continues. Lowell Libson reports “a good start” before hurrying off to deal with a visitor more important than a loitering journalist. Patrick Bourne says this has been his best start at the fair since the gallery’s debut six years ago, and has sold that five of the limited edition of 12 Rob & Nick Carter films in the first 24 hours.

Lichtenstein and Magritte, Dutch Old Masters and Chinese artefacts have all been snapped up, with Mauritshuis in the Hague and the Metropolitan Museum in New York among the museums buying. Meanwhile, among the buyers, people-spotters identified Kanye West, Princess Michael of Kent and Sheikh Al Thani from Qatar and his wife. Ronald Lauder, the son of Estée Lauder and one of the richest men in the world, has bought a Picasso.

In the cities and towns of Europe there may be a different picture, with smaller art dealerships struggling to break even, but here the good times are still rolling. Recession? What recession? It hasn’t got to Maastricht.

• The European Fine Art Fair continues at MECC Maastricht until 24 March

WITH Old Master paintings increasingly held in permanent museum collections, the supply is drying up, so the art market gets excited when a gem comes to light.

This was the case with The Meeting of Odysseus and Nausicaa, by 17th-century Dutch artist Jacob Jordaens, which hung in Prestonhall, Midlothian, for nearly 200 years till it came up for auction at Christie’s in December.

The painting was bought by London dealer Johnny Van Haeften, who took it to TEFAF with a price-tag of £4.2 million. It was sold on the opening day to a private collector.

Van Haeften said: “It was an unknown work. It was recognised as a Jordaens, but it was not in any of the literature and no-one had seen it until it came up for sale at Christie’s. It was filthy dirty, but it has cleaned magnificently.”

It is believed that the Jordaens painting was purchased by William Burn Callander, who lived at Prestonhall in the first half of the 19th century, and remained in place when the house was sold.