At TEFAF's Deluxe Vernissage, Oyster-Slurping Gentry Scoured Old Master and Modern Displays for Art Historical Pearls

Despite world-churning disasters and stock-market gyrations, the 24th edition of the European Fine Art Fair, aka TEFAF, opened to a deluxe crowd of VIP guests at noon today with confident expectations and evidence of multimillion-dollar transactions. Visitors sipped champagne and ate freshly shucked oysters dispensed by a well-orchestrated cadre of "oyster girls," clad in white leather vests and armed with sharp knives and steel mesh gloves. The fair, after all, is a marriage of blue chip and blue blood, catering to such nobs as Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the Qatari royal and onetime black sheep who was spotted poshly attired in a double-breasted pearl-colored suit by the stand of London's Littleton & Hennessy Asian Art Ltd.

TEFAF is a huge affair, with 260 exhibitors from 16 countries offering some 30,000 rigorously vetted artworks from throughout history, with nine specially focused sections ranging from antiquities to modern. This year's modern section, though boasting 46 galleries — the same number as last year — looked weaker due to blue-chip dropouts that included deluxe international gallery Hauser & Wirth, Daniella Luxembourg of London and New York, New York's L&M Arts, and Michael Werner Gallery of New York and Berlin. 

Unlike its vaunted Old Master painting division, it seems that TEFAF's most up-to-date section can't retain some of the bigger modern and contemporary art galleries that have tried out the fair and quit after one or two seasons. Past exhibitors who have not returned include  Acquavella Galleries, Gagosian, PaceWildenstein (now the Pace Gallery), and Richard Gray.

Part of that reason may be the length of the fair, which runs for ten days (all the way to the 27th), and the slower decision-making pace of mostly older European collectors who weren't trained by the lightning-fast market ballet of Art Basel or Frieze Art Fair during boom years. 



"Collectors come out here once a year, and keep their money under the bed," said Morgan Long, the director of art investments for the London based Fine Art Fund. "These are old-school buyers who know what they want and buy one thing, so it tends to be a more conservative breed of buyer that comes here."



The demographic in general trends "a bit older, and they go home and do their homework," added London and Hong Kong exhibitor Ben Brown, posing by Pablo Picasso's "Minotaure" oil-on-canvas from 1958, which is priced at his booth at $5 million. "It's not for the young hedge-fund types, because there are no sexy parties. These are people who will die with their pictures on the wall that they bought here."

Angela Westwater of New York's Sperone Westwater gallery agreed that "there's a very different sense of urgency here." Her booth was dominated by a beautiful Piero Manzoni painting, priced at €1.4 million ($2 million). "We started in 2003 and the first few years were slow," she said. "It takes time for the audience to get used to you, and it took us time to understand their level of connoisseurship."

Other galleries, clearly, were less interested in making such an acquaintance. "It's a shame L&M didn't come back this year," said New York exhibitor Christophe van de Weghe, stationed in front of a late Andy Warhol fright-wigged "Self-Portrait" from 1986, which carried a price tag of $5.2 million, and an early 1981 Jean-Michel Basquiat painting priced at $2.8 million and signed on the backside "Samo," the artist's street tag name, "They had a beautiful booth and we really miss them," van de Weghe continued. "This is a fair where you really have to work it with the Europeans, and everything is based on personal relationships. It's not just a handshake and then you start talking business. It's only after the third or fourth year that you start to understand the game here."

Even without some of the world's great heavyweight modern and contemporary galleries, there was plenty of top-tier work to contemplate, including Picasso's "Les Demeurs," a huge four-by-six-foot 1965 oil at Montreal's Landau Gallery for $25 million, and a stunning, rare, and unique 1945 sculpture of carved olive wood by Joan Miro, "Oiseau Lunaire," priced at $5 million and installed as a centerpiece to a room filled of choice Miro paintings and works on paper. "We just got it," said Robert Landau. "I bought it over the phone blind, and if I had seen it before I would have paid double."

First-time visitors to the fair were duly impressed, as evidenced by Chicago contemporary art megacollector Stefan Edlis's reaction. "It's one of those fairs you can't afford to pass by," he said. "We just arrived but I've already seen amazing things."

Some collectors who were buttonholed hadn't as yet formed opinions about what they had seen, though London's Lawrence Graff, a major modern and contemporary art collector who also has an important stand in the Antiques section, quipped that he had spotted "lots of Graff diamonds."

There is no such thing as sticker-shock at Maastricht, and even the $25 million Picasso was easily outgunned by a $47 million Rembrandt painting, "Portrait of a Man With Arms Akimbo" from 1658, that was offered at New York's Otto Naumann. It was bought at Christie's London in December 2009 for £20,201,250 ($32.8 million) against an £18-25 million presale estimate.

Maastricht is definitely the place to see works crop up from other global market venues. That was apparent at the booth of Amsterdam-based Noortman Master Paintings, a stand-alone subsidiary of Sotheby's. In the first few hours of the gala preview, principal William Noortman sold three major works, among them "Portrait de Dora Maar, Pensive," a stunning Picasso pencil-on-paper portrait of his then muse that was dated January 28, 1937, and which now went for something in the region of its $2.5 million asking price. Noortman bought it at Sotheby's London last June for £993,250 ($1.5 million) against a presale estimate of £350-450,000.

He also sold a sun-suffused cityscape, "View of Haarlem," an oil-on-panel from 1671 by Gerrit Berckheyde, for a sum near its €4.5 million asking price. Noortman bought it against stiff competition at Christie's London last December for £2.6 million (€3.1 million) against a presale estimate of £500-700,000. The dealer also sold another Old Master picture, William Claez Heda's signed and dated oil-on-panel "Still Life of a Silver Tazza and a Roemer" from 1631, for an amount in the neighborhood of its listed €3 million price.

All three works sold to American collectors, said the dealer — a seemingly remarkable feat given the reputation of the fair as one primarily catering to Beneluxe-country Europeans. "We've had a fantastic start, so I'm very optimistic," said Noortman. "People are more confident, and there's more quality and volume [of works] around."

That observation was evident at Munich's Daniel Blau, with a superb 1992 Lucian Freud portrait, "The Painter's Mother," priced at £2.8 million ($4.1 million). It is one of four works of the subject, according to Blau, who said this example is the first time it has been on offer. It comes directly from the German-born artist, who will have his first show in Germany at Blau's gallery in May, with approximately 20 etchings. Blau is also in the midst of opening a branch in London in Hoxton Square.

Other early sales included Tim Noble and Sue Webster's graphic 2009 sculpture "Phantasmagoria," in yellow silicone, rubber, steel, and wood, mounted on a plinth and comprised of a clump of modeled penises that, when illuminated, casts an Arcimboldo-esque shadow of identical male heads on the wall. The piece sold at London's Blain Southern for £165,000 ($270,000), acquired by an unidentified museum. "It's a great fair," enthused partner Graham Southern, whose stand is situated in a prime spot, formerly flagged by Hauser & Wirth.



A brand new and richly impastoed figurative 2011 oil painting by recent London resident Adrian Ghenie, "Doctor Josef 2" sold for €45,000 ($66,000) at London and New York's Haunch of Venison, a standalone subsidiary of Christie's. "It's a replica of a Francis Bacon painting, because Bacon placed a weird emphasis on flesh in the same spirit as mine," explained Ghenie, who watched the European art world go by from a seat in the booth.

The action continues tomorrow as the fair officially opens.