Visiting TEFAF

 The Financial Times published an interesting article on what it is like at the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF), from private viewing to the wait staff to lectures, buying and selling, being seen, and oh yes, the art.

The Financial Times reports
The private view on the first day of the European Fine Art Fair at Maastrict (Tefaf) is the morning of the plutocrats. For two hours, dealers are allowed to invite their 10 best clients to have a look around in the company of people like themselves. If you’ve never been to Tefaf, and if you don’t know your plutocrats, they are hard to distinguish one from another, but they are all smart and, if they aren’t bald, they have impeccable hair.

Waiters buzz through the aisles bearing plates of crustless sandwiches, truffle or lobster soup, and champagne circulates fast — I saw a porter wheel in 200 bottles of Bollinger. Four young suited men sat on stools at one of the seafood bars ordering oysters. A curly-headed man told the others that he had just bought an expensive bed for his wife. “I live like I sleep,” he boasted. In front of them, there was another kind of bed, one of ice and oysters, and they monopolised one of the shuckers. “Let’s have another dozen. Two.”

Play is a cultural phenomenon, the historian John Huizinga wrote in his book Homo Ludens. “We play and know that we play, so we must be more than merely rational beings, for play is ir­rational.” Useful words if you’re going to Tefaf because rational it is not. At the entrance — and there are almost 300 stands — you’re confronted by a 30ft shower of white and green made up of hundreds of small bouquets of roses and lily of the valley, each one inserted into a test-tube-shaped vase hanging from the ceiling on a near-invisible thread. This shower of flowers in the main hall is amazing — only if you think how long it would take someone to water all those thousands of test tubes, it looks like an agonising headache made visible.

That’s the way with art and a fair; there’s what attracts you, there’s what repels you, and this may be the same thing. But if an art fair can’t help you decide what you like and what you hate, maybe nothing ever will.

Buying, selling, looking, being seen, drinking, impressing — they’re all aspects of Huizinga’s idea of play at this art fair, and it all takes place at a windowless exhibition hall called the MECC. English is the language of art dealing, but the voices of the majority of visitors to Tefaf I heard were German, French, Dutch and Italian. There were almost no Asian visitors: the organisers have tried to court Chinese buyers, not so successfully.

Which makes you wonder: does the play factor at the fair make Maastrict less accessible to anyone who isn’t familiar with the business of seeing and being seen? Then again if you are a newcomer to Tefaf, you can find aspects of the fair strange: why does a painting that isn’t for sale — a Rembrandt not much larger than a postage stamp — draw the largest concentration of people? Many works of art on display were more interesting than this tiny picture. I asked a gallery owner in the contemporary art section: he said it was reflection of how Tefaf is changing — a decade ago, there were surprises among the Old Masters, now there are few.

Seeing is one thing, the hunt is another. In the afternoon, when the VIPs were allowed in (it’s that sort of fair), I picked up a floor plan belonging to someone else by mistake: stands had been circled, a number of objects targeted — a bijou necklace, a cabinet, a chair. The stand of Röbbig, the Munich gallery which specialises in everything and anything that is ornate, expensive and golden, was double-circled.

Each year, Tefaf’s organisers select a theme. This year’s is works on paper. So I chose to concentrate on drawings and illuminated manuscripts. Dr Jörn Günther is a renowned rare book dealer based in Switzerland and in his display cases were prayer books, breviaries and books of hours. He was telling me he began dealing when he was in his teens by selling to his father, but we were interrupted by David Trobisch, a professor of theology who has taught at Yale and Heidelberg, and who is now in charge of the Green family’s collection of biblical texts. Next year he will be in charge of the Green-funded Museum of the Bible in Washington DC.

There is no shortage of interesting people to meet if you’re unafraid to introduce yourself. You can learn a lot at Tefaf, too. Stephen Ongpin runs a drawings gallery in London, and he said one difference between what sells and what’s on sale elsewhere is the proximity you have with drawings. Dealers of paintings can come across as if they are trying to ambush your ignorance; they want to impress you with how much they do. With drawings, it is different; there’s less show.

No work of art at this year’s Tefaf better encapsulates its ethos than a statue of Diana by the late 18th- and early 19th-century sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon at Daniel Katz Gallery’s stand. That statue will be the first object many visitors see when they enter the hall.

It’s nothing if not assertive: Diana stands naked, an arrow in one hand, her bow in the other, and she looks straight ahead as waiting for her quarry to reveal itself. Myths about Diana are about the dangers of seeing, being seen and being caught out: the hunter Actaeon saw Diana bathing and as a result he was transformed by the goddess into a deer and eaten alive by his own dogs.

On my way out, as I crossed the Maas river, I heard the roar of private jets taking off, carrying the plutocrats away. I found a place called Sjike, pronounced “Chic”. Soon, the place was filled up with fair people. “Bouegondisch” was how one couple described themselves — Burgundian.

That’s the term people in the south of Holland, who work to live, use to distinguish themselves from people in the north, who live to work. At Tefaf, living and working overlap, just as seeing and being seen do, and while the goddess Diana is patron saint to no one, the interaction between dealers and buyers often appears to be about hunter and quarry.
Source: The Financial Times 

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