Gray Zone

Maastricht, The Netherlands

Left: Judy Taubman with Sotheby’s Alfred Taubman. Right: Dealer Jack Kilgore. (All photos: Lindsay Pollock)

EACH GRAY MARCH, some 70,000 affluent, acquisitive souls converge on the quaint two-thousand-year-old Dutch city Maastricht. The draw is a twenty-three-year-old art and antiques pageant named TEFAF, which sounds like a medical condition but actually stands for The European Fine Art Fair. The most recent edition, which closed last Sunday, went on for eleven days. The event ended on a sour note, with a closing day jewel heist involving a sapphire ring and a diamond pendant worth $1.2 million from London jeweler Hancock. Still, that didn’t dampen the glitz factor. TEFAF is a big-budget affair: About 12,500 champagne flutes are doled out during the invite-only opening day and the local convention center is dolled up with nearly 75,000 roses and 49,000 tulips. Not that people are coming for the flowers.

For dealers, it’s a chance to brush up against the world’s wealthiest, and also to critique (but not too much) the money parade, a crush of stiletto-spiked and fur-swaddled babes and their big-wallet honeys. “Those are not real collectors,” a veteran dealer pal whispered to me a few hours into the fair’s opening. We were seated on a bench outside his stand, stocked with nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings. “Do you know how I can tell?” he asked. I glanced at the trio: two men and a woman. Nothing stood out. “They are carrying their catalogues,” he said, nodding at the five-pound books. “Real collectors pick up their catalogues on the way out.”

The fair is renowned for its museum-quality offerings and attracts a fleet of curators and trustees sleuthing out the rare and fantastic. The wares are presented in 263 stands, some costing hundreds of thousands of Euros to decorate, which are lined up in aisles named for the world’s great shopping thoroughfares––from Madison Avenue to New Bond Street. I tagged along for a while with Susan Talbott, director of Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, to get a glimpse of the museum’s selections, including a rare Delft platter and a swirling Baroque sculpture by Balthasar Griessmann. Washington’s National Gallery of Art picked up a 1611 winter landscape by Dutchman Adam van Breen. A private collector snagged Rubens’s fifteenth-century Head of a Bearded Man.

Left: Art Basel co-director Marc Spiegler. Right: Dealer Ben Janssens.

“It’s like the Met—with price tags,” said San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier, standing beside a 1989 Gerhard Richter he had hung front and center in his stand. The mottled, multihued Abstract Bild was tagged $12.5 million. Though works by Richter, Calder, Warhol, and Giacometti, along with other pricey trophies, graced the fair, the throngs of gray-haired visitors weren’t hunting for the latest Koons, let alone a Tino Sehgal. TEFAF’s reputation rests on the caliber of the older art. Among the fair’s exhibitors are vendors who specialize in arms and armor, antiquities, and illuminated manuscripts. Asian art dealer Ben Janssens displayed a trio of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Frisbee-shaped samurai hats in a niche, the simple clean forms reminiscent of modern sculpture. An 1805 French Empire bed, once owned by diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who conducted morning business meetings from between the sheets, was on offer from Pelham of Paris for a little over $500,000. A late-fifteenth-century Botticelli of a sweet-faced Madonna and Child, once owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr., was available at Dickinson for $15 million.

While contemporary art has expanded its presence at TEFAF, looking for it is still like searching for a needle in a haystack. Notable dealers including Gagosian, Richard Gray, and Acquavella have come and gone from the TEFAF roster. “It has huge potential and is something that will happen over time,” said Iwan Wirth, who brought works by Bruce Nauman and Eva Hesse, among others. “This is an old-fashioned fair. People come, and meet the experts, and expect expertise. They really want to talk to you. The price is the last thing.”

If TEFAF’s “contemporary” art is familiar, the crowd is not. Part of the fair’s exoticism is that the usual contemporary-art posse isn’t around. Some familiar faces did surface, however. Art Basel co-honcho Marc Spiegler made the rounds. Art adviser Thea Westreich breezed through on opening day, en route to Brussels and Paris. New York collector Adam Lindemann accompanied his wife, dealer Amalia Dayan, who was exhibiting with partner Daniella Luxembourg. Lindemann beamed. “You come here to break out of contemporary art fairs,” he said.

Left: Dealer Rory Blain at Haunch of Venison. Right: Collector Adam Lindemann.

This year, TEFAF featured forty-six exhibitors in the modern section, including newcomer L&M Arts, whose sprawling outpost took aesthetic direction from French designer Jean-Michel Frank, with warm wood paneling. Nearby, Haunch of Venison attracted gawkers to its white-walled stand, which was dominated by a 1996 Hirst hog in formaldehyde. Antwerp dealer Boris Vervoordt, clad in a slim gray suit, stood in his stand, a dimly lit, Zen-infused lair, picture-perfect and ready for an Architectural Digest close-up. A 1978 Warhol oxidation work surmounted one wall. A black 1959 Ad Reinhardt hung on another. Sleek minimalist Peruvian and Egyptian sculptures were artfully arranged on wooden bookcases. “We are not white-box people,” he said.

Toward the end of the fair’s opening day, I joined a group of international writers for dinner at Brasserie Flo. Nightlife in Maastricht is sleepy. (Think supper followed by an early bedtime.) I was famished after ten hours in the warm, windowless convention center, sustained by a glass of champagne. I was startled to discover the dinner entrée was veal cheek, which turned out to be flavorful and moist, appetizing as long as I didn’t dwell on exactly what I was eating.

Left: Art adviser Thea Westreich. Right: Dealer Boris Vervoordt.