BRUSSELS — In contrast to the VIP stampedes of top-tier art events, Brussels Antiques and Fine Arts fair, or BRAFA, has an unassuming charm; this year’s edition opened with a trickle on Wednesday, and it wasn’t until Thursday night that well-heeled hordes swarmed waiters for hors d’œuvres.
But the fair’s modesty is partly by design, as its underdog position allows it to include treasures across a wide range of categories: from gilt Louis XIV interiors to Julian Schnabel crockery tableaux, to Flemish School paintings and modern art, to jewelry, art deco and even autographs and cartoons.
This year, the BRAFA found itself — in both timing and geography — caught between the increasingly glitzy Biennale des Antiquaires and the all-dominating masterpiece rendez-vous TEFAF. But booths at Tour & Taxis, the Belgian capital’s rehabilitated former customs and mail-sorting hangars, are roughly half the price of those in Maastricht and a quarter of the cost at Paris’s Grand Palais.
The art prices follow suit. Frankfurt’s Galerie Jörg Schumacher had the fair’s big-ticket work in René Magritte’s diminutive oil-on-canvas “La Belle Lurette,” a Surrealist foggy landscape featuring a staring eyeball-chess piece, priced at €2.9 million ($3.86 million). According to the gallery, the piece, estimated to have been painted in 1965, was likely purchased directly from the Belgian artist by its first owner before going to Sotheby’s London in November 1970. It then went into the hands of the mysteriously named (or titled) “H.R. Chancellor,” and next was placed by a Brussels dealer in a Swiss private collection in 1978. But the painting was most recently offered by Michael Haas at last year’s Art Basel Basel Miami Beach. “We’re hoping it will stay in Belgium, where it once belonged,” said the gallery’s Tristan Markus Lorenz.
That particular Magritte appeared to just pip another, the 1928 painting “Le voyage des fleurs,” priced at €2,8 million with Paris dealer Pierre Mahaux. At Galerie Taménaga, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was center stage with the still life “Trois Citrons” (1915) — signed, not stamped, at €385,000 ($513,000) and emerging from a 30-year stay in a private Japanese collection.
But most of the early sales matched the human scale of the fair itself. Two of three François-Xavier Lalanne sheep quickly escaped from Knokke contemporary dealer Guy Pieters’s stand, at €120,000 ($160,000) each, along with a Pierre Alechinsky painting in a metal frame. Welcoming visitors with Jan Fabre’s golden laughing man, Pieters’s playful booth blended Belgian and international names, lining up a gothic bulldozer and tattooed pig skins by Wim Delvoye, Koen Vanmechelen’s crazy-eyed chickens, three Fabre brains and a glittering bulb dollar sign by Tim Noble and Sue Webster. Separate rooms were dedicated to sculptures and sketches by Christo and Bernar Venet.
At the other end of the exhibition space, Steinitz set up its habitual glittering gesamtkunstwerk of ornate Louis XIV to XVI furniture and Art Nouveau items and, as reported by Abigail Esman, sold two mahogany wall panels for €500,000 ($666,000).
Around the corner, the newly elected BRAFA director Harold t’Kint de Roodenbeke parted with the Rik Wouters watercolor “Nel en forêt” in the low six-figures, while the fine Salvador Dali ink-on-paper “Melancholie” (1941), dedicated and gifted to Lady Mountbatten in 1942, went to a fellow tradesman. The Brussels dealer also sold several works by James Ensor, the 1973 Paul Delvaux watercolor “Portrait with hands” — formerly in the collection of M. Verschelden, a friend and doctor of the artist in Furnes — and the graffiti-cursive oil-on-canvas “L’art m’ennuie” (“Art bores me”) by Ben-19076">Ben. “The clients are relaxed and open. They are looking for good pieces — and buying good pieces,” said the gallerist.
BRAFA punches its weight, and only 10 of its 128 dealers will also be at TEFAF in March. The imperative to save the very best pieces for Maastricht helps to keep the two fairs on separate levels. “That’s absolutely a reality, because the price point at which people are buying at TEFAF is higher,” said Boris Vervoordt, of Axel Vervoordt. “But that also makes it wonderfully attractive to visit a fair like the BRAFA. You can really buy a wonderful thing for €1000 here.”
“Who wants to be 15 days in Maastricht anyway?” quipped Phoenix Ancient Art’s Michael Hedquist, alluding to TEFAF’s reputation as a world-class fair held in a somewhat lesser-known city. At BRAFA, the Geneva and New York gallery showed an ancient Egyptian relief fragment and an Italiote suit of armor, drawing the most interest from private collectors, with a hint of museum peeking as well.
BRAFA also remained unafraid to take chances. London’s Finch & Co. brought a delightful set of curiosities, among them the entire skull of a large, adult male Hippopotamus Amphibius from the late 18th - early 19th century (priced at €22,000/$29,000) and, on the wall, a set of five Rowland Ward Scottish abnormal malformed red deer antlers (ca. 1897-1916, at €12,500/$16,500). The French Librairie Signatures offered photographs and hand-written documents by Schubert, Einstein and Freud.
At European silver specialist Bernard de Leye, a delicately ornate model ship rolled on a wave of jeweler’s silk — already a stunning sight, before you realized that its entire plinth was, in fact, a large music box. Made entirely in vermeil and silver — down to its fine-mesh sails — by French jeweler Pilloy, the three-mast battleship was a gift from the City of Paris to the Duchess of Berry in 1821, on the occasion of the birth of the Duke of Bordeaux, grandson of Charles X.
A second, smaller music box within the ship itself could be triggered by winding the lone steel cannon among dozens of tiny silver ones. The piece had until recently remained in the family of the Duchess, which took it abroad in 1930. “Had it stayed in France, I would never have been able to get it out,” noted Bernard de Leye, hinting at UNESCO’s 1970 convention and the French state’s power to preempt a sale. He added that it could now find its way to a museum.
The vast crossover of genres at BRAFA can seem incongruous at first, but it’s finding more and more favor with a generation of collectors who mix and match. The trend was evident in several booths set up like collector's studies. At Axel Vervoordt, admirers crossed creaky vintage floorboards to admire Egyptian and Roman archeology in the nooks of a large French horseshoe-shaped library in walnut, the ensemble giving off a natural musk. In a separate room, a “Magnetic Wall” tableau by Greek sculptor Takis flanked a never-before-shown draped Roman Venus Genetrix figure in marble from the 1st – 2nd centuries A.D, and a trompe l’œil minimalist beam sculpture by Otto Boll — all in an echo of “the in-betweens” of the world today.
“We are the future antiquarians, just wait 15 or 20 years and see,” suggested Serge Maruani, of Knokke’s Maruani & Noirhomme, in its fifth year at BRAFA. “Today, there is no longer a separation of genres, it’s all a blend. You can easily imagine a Roman sculpture with a work by Gilbert & George. There are always recurrent themes, across the centuries.” His hanging of David LaChapelle’s provocative “The Rape of Africa” from 2009 — which closely replicates the setting of Botticelli’s 1484 “Venus and Mars” — underscored the point. The gallery also showed quietly racy photographs by Bettina Rheims and a nice crop of Man Ray’s conceptual sculptures, among them a complete version of his 1920 “Obstruction” mobile of 63 wooden hangers over a suitcase.
“Our collectors today are not oriented in one direction,” said Augusto Brun of Milan’s Il Quadrifoglio, which showed Chinese works and Chinese-inspired Italian sculptures, but led its booth with a €140,000 ($185,000), 18th century German sculpture of a female cymbal player with a young satyr, deaccessioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012.
“Tastes change, the client doesn’t change — but we see a new generation of clients,” added t’Kint de Roodenbeke. “Last year, I sold a small painting to a client. And I just now sold another piece to his son. With this variety, we see two or three generations coming together and learning from each other.”
For newcomer Hélène Bailly, being at the BRAFA was more widely strategic. “We just reopened our second space on the Quai Voltaire, in front of the Louvre,” said the young Parisian dealer, who set Jean-Pierre Formica’s white salt sculptures against works by Alexander Calder, James Ensor and Francis Picabia. “The new space will be about Old Masters, Modern and contemporary art — and we’ve been best known for contemporary, so this will be a chance to show people that we are open to all major arts.”
At Liège-based Le Couvent des Ursulines, the easygoing dealer duo was philosophically debating whether one could at once be merry and jolly. The gallery no longer has a storefront but remains open only on appointment, making art fairs an essential overture. “It’s getting better and better,” said owner Jean-François Taziaux, an 11-year veteran of BRAFA, adding that “fairs are great for meeting people, and both for buying and selling. When we did the Biennale des Antiquaires this year, it allowed me to acquire as well.”
Among his works were an imposing French Restoration gueridon with a past in the collection of famed dealer Roger Imbert and for €58,000 ($77,000), a rosewood Charles X-era billiards table by Charles Toulet, with a rare elephant motif on its inlay and a bed of schist stones.
BRAFA again showed real strength in African tribal art. French stalwart Alain de Monbrison returned after a hiatus with a Congolese Mangbetu slit drum with a curvy, minimalist line, priced at around €200,000 ($266,000). Didier Claes broke with his trend of monumental, single-work presentations (many will remember his show-stopping Nkonde nail fetish at BRAFA in 2011) to show smaller middle-African Lwalwa mask, used in hunting and fertility ceremonies, before becoming props for dancers journeying from town to town, performing for food and drink.
Adrian Schlag brought a nicely peculiar South African Lovale chair, shaped like a figure holding its sliced-in-half head, with a second, smaller head protruding — an apparent precursor to both Surrealism and the early films of David Lynch. But it was Serge Schoffel who stole the show with a wall of Bete spiritual warrior masks from the Ivory Coast, with heavy eyebrows and moustache-like appendages. The Brussels dealer had assembled the little known but forceful masks through auctions and private collections over the past eight years, and priced them between €15,000 ($20,000) and €150,000 ($200,000) apiece.
Ahead of TEFAF, Flemish School painting at BRAFA was predictably timid. Floris van Wanroij brought one of the better hangings with Adriaan van Overbeke and Willem Vandevelde the Younger. Paris dealer Florence de Voldère darkened her booth and lit each painting individually, reviving the colors of among others “Paysage d’hiver avec patineurs” (1616) by Jacques Fouquières, a contemporary of Poussin who was commissioned by Louis XVIII to paint city views for the Grandes Galeries of the Louvre, works that were largely lost in a fire at the Tuileries in 1871.
The fair continues until January 27, and despite Brussels being largely snowed in, organizers hope to beat last year’s tally of 46,000 visitors.