Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 13, 2009

The Commerce of Art — and Maastricht’s European Fine Art Fair

Art for sale

“Consumers and patrons stand as the artist’s silent partners. We support creators with our money, our time, our emotions, and our ap­probation. We discover subtle nuances in their work that the artists had not noticed or consciously intended. Inspired consumption is a creative act that further enriches the viewer and the work itself. Art works pro­voke us to reexamine or reaffirm what we think and feel, and con­sumer and patron demands for artworks finance the market.”

In Praise of Commercial Culture, by Tyler Cowen; Harvard University Press, 2000

In a chapter of his book titled “The Arts in a Market Economy,” Tyler Cowan describes art markets as consisting of three principal groups: artists, consumers, and “middlemen, or distribu­tors.” In his view artists are in the business of achieving “self-fulfillment, fame, and riches” and that the complex motivations behind their artistic creations include”love of the beautiful, love of money, love of fame, personal arrogance, and inner com­pulsions.”

Strong words; controversial stuff.

He also theorizes that supply, “whether the product be beauty soap, bread, or Beethoven” is the essential catalyst that brings distributors, producers, and consumers together, to a meeting of minds as it were. Cowan goes on to say that this artistic mix of market forces is what “fuels the creative drive and disseminates its results. Neither producers nor consumers of art can flourish without the other side of the market. No distributor can profit without attracting both artists and consumers.” The most interesting point that he makes, in my view, is that creators “respond to both internal and external forces,” their drive to create, their quite normal needs for money and “fame” (Cowan’s description) and the practicalities of acquiring the tools of their trade.

At first glance, this seems to fly in the face of the maxim of “art for art’s sake,” perhaps even denigrating the importance of our cultural industries.

However, a recent visit to the wonderful medieval city of Maastricht in The Netherlands and that city’s European Fine Arts Fair (the largest in the world), gave me a broader perspective (in an historical and global economic frame of reference) of the nature of the world’s international art market. This is a market in which between 2002 and 2006 the value of sales in the world art market increased by 95 per cent; an annual total of 43.3 billion euros in 2006.

The “kid in the candy store” effect

During a special media “walkabout” at The European Fine Arts Fair (hereafter to be known as TEFAF for convenience sake), I had what almost felt like an out of body experience. I have been fortunate to visit some of the world’s great art treasures, especially the countless visual arts institutions that we write about so frequently and which, it goes without saying, are principal attractions and often the core sites within in many travel destinations; resulting in very substantial tourism revenues. But as I “wandered lonely as a cloud” throughout the TEFAF exhibition hall, my brain (especially the affective and arts-oriented right hemisphere) was experiencing an endorphin-like high. I have never been surrounded by so much art, nor in such close proximity, nor exposed to such a wide variety of name-your-price treasures.

And yet, everything I saw, from Andy Warhols to ancient Chinese porcelain, to Old Masters, had a price. Everything was for sale. But there were no stickers on the works; one either consulted quietly with the dealer or glanced discreetly and in a very composed manner at a catalogue.

This was not a “Step right up. Have a look at this. Now wouldn’t you just love to have this hanging in your château, your corporate head office, your private Shangri-la; far from the probing eyes of the hoi polloi?” … kind of marketplace. It was all very discreet.

Given what I have seen in third-world countries, I am somewhat ashamed to admit this; but I felt like one of the least well-heeled people in the place. And with the possible exception of the staff and serving people and my fellow journalists on this media jaunt, I may well have been. As I would discover, the global art market has its own version of the theory of relativity.

The cultural industries

As we are wont to say at Travelosophy, travel is the most experiential form of learning. The same principle could also be applied to art. If I look at the travel habits of my own Canadian compatriots, I discover a recent statistic that says that 43.4 per cent of adult Canadians visited an historical site, museum or art gallery while on an out-of-town, overnight trip of one or more nights. In fact, these were the most popular activities. And visiting art galleries themselves made up 14.5 per cent of that figure. Furthermore, of the travellers who visited historical sites, museums and galleries, 29.2 per cent of them said that this activity was the main reason for taking at least one trip.

Now if we number crunch and factor in the global travel market and even nit pick as to what is an “arts” institution and what is not — I will even go out on a limb and say that most of the venues that I explore in my travels have some artistic element to them or are in fact artworks in themselves — it’s quite easy to see why art is one of the major components of the cultural industries, why art is a global industry. By the way, as an example of the “artworks in themselves” statement, I have just made, visit Amsterdam’s exquisite De Nieuwe Kerk.

The passion for art

The passion for art is the essence of TEFAF (including the passion for collecting or just possessing art, whether for reasons of investment, status, or public edification — there are lots of buyers from major public institutions at TEFAF); and that is also why this art fair embodies the creative spirit and productivity of human civilization on so many levels and in so many ways. It also embodies the commercial aspects of art that many of us may underestimate, or maybe just don’t want to think about … art for art’s sake and all that.

A TEFAF backgrounder

In a nutshell, TEFAF is a 21st-century fair in a city that historically was one of the most important medieval fair town and marketplaces in Europe; a stopping place on a trade route through which arts and other goods flowed.

Held in March, TEFAF takes place in the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre and is organized by the European Fine Art Foundation which is located in Helvoirt, Netherlands. At the time of my visit there were 227 leading art and antiques dealers from 15 countries around the world.

As the focal point for a visit to Maastricht, the fair is of course the main event, but there are many other attractions, musical performances, theatre, and local arts organizations that hold special events. Museum and art gallery patron groups can also create specialized tours through a number of companies that work with TEFAF. (See the TEFAF site for details.)

It all began in 1975 with what then was a bi-annual Pictura Fine Art Fair, followed not long after by the Antiqua fair and finally after a name change to Antique Maestricht it eventually became Antiquairs International & Pictura Fine Art Fair. In 1988 it evolved once again into The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) and relocated to Maastricht’s Exhibition and Congress Centre.

Over the years, architects and designers have made the TEFAF venue an artistic experience unto itself; and this is very much a part of the travel experience. As a marketing venue, it is state-of-the-art and a lesson for marketers worldwide as well as students of interior design or anyone interested in this complementary field.

Among a multitude of other treasures, during my visit to TEFAF, I was able to get up close and personal with such objets d’art as:

(a) a carved agate cockatoo with ruby eyes on a gilded silver swing with food and water bowls (made by Fabergé);

(b) a set of five Kakiemnon vases made by Meissen circa 1730;

(c) an ancestral figure from the 20th century made by the Soninke people of West Africa;

(d) a Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907) Sancais glazed horse;

(e) an exceptionally rare Japanese saddle with stirrups made of leather and red lacquer in the Portuguese style (Can you tell I’m an equestrian?);

(f) an Egyptian mummy’s mask dating from the Late Ptolemaic-Roman Period;

(g) Nicolas de Stael’s powerful painting Bouteilles rouges with equally powerful reds;

(h) the famous Melancholia I by Albrecht Dürer, dating from 1514;

(i) Vincent van Gogh sur son lit mort by Dr. Paul Ferdinand Gachet;

(j) L’enfant à l’orange (The Child with an orange), a bittersweet portrait done by Van Gogh in the last weeks of his life before he committed suicide — a last moment of joy. (The painting was for sale for 20 million euros.)

(k) a mahogany veneered chest of drawers made by Étienne Levasseur in 1784. The piece belonged to the daughters of Louis XV. (Antiques Roadshow eat your heart out.);

(l) a watch designed by Andy Warhol for the Swiss firm Movado. The watch had five faces enabling it to show the time in different zones around the world. (Asking price: 20,000 euros)

In addition, there were such stunning displays as Otto Jakob’s retrospective of his work from the past 20 years. (See below for more information on Otto.) I was pleased also to see a new initiative at TEFAF, the TEFAF Showcase, a program in which seven of the world’s younger dealers competed for a position at the fair. (The selection committee chose seven applicants from 80 applicants from 11 European countries, The United States, and Japan. Two new art disciplines were also added to the show; vintage photography and Japanese arms and armour. There was also a culinary program that included a “walking” lunch, high tea, and dinner during which patrons flocked to tables in the exhibit hall to sample what I can only refer to as world-class finger food. It was also very interesting to watch very “sophisticated” and stylishly dressed people jockey for position at the food tables. The wines, champagne of course, flowed freely. Nectar is essential to sustaining creative energy.

The final visitor number was 73,245, an increase of 3.32 per cent over the previous year; and there were more visitors from Russia and Brazil than ever before. In addition, TEFAF hosted the first organized groups from mainland China. And if you had gone to the Maastricht-Aachen airport, you might have seen the 225 private jets, including a privately registered Boeing 727, that brought wealthy buyers to the fair — but only if you had nothing better to do.

Of the major sales that “happened” at TEFAF, were the following:

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia by Jan Havicksz. (The asking price was eight million euros.)

Édouard Manet’s Bateau de pêche arrivant vente arrière went to a private European collector. (Asking price 1.3 million euros.)

Jackson Pollack’s rare oil on canvas The Magic Flame (circa 1946) was sold. (Asking price eight million US dollars.)

A 15th-century Chinese red lacquer box, believed to be the largest of its kind, was bought by an Asian collector for 1.4 million euros. And an American private buyer bought a wooden seated figure of Guanyin (made in China between the 11th and 13th centuries) whose asking price was 800,000 euros. Vanderven & Vanderven had a terrific opening day, selling 44 objects, amongst which was an unusually large lady from the Tang Dynasty. Twelve objects went to a single collector.

For a mere 100,000 euros, an American collector bought an extremely rare Roman coin (a bronze Sestertius minted in AD72 to celebrate victories in Judea; only three coins of this type are known to exist in the world) for about 100,000 euros.

Oh, and the Andy Warhol watch went for 20,000 euros.

I bought a very cool T-shirt with an image of beautiful Maastricht.

Let the dealers speak

Robert Landau of Landau Fine Arts, Montréal

headphonesymbol50To listen to our chat, click on this link.

Of the numerous dealers I had the opportunity to talk to at TEFAF, Robert especially articulated why TEFAF and the world of fine art dealers is such a unique business. In our chat, he made me aware of the happenstance nature of the industry, the market forces that influence the buying and selling of fine art, the intricacies of the industry, and the “little by little” connections and relationships that lead to an art dealer’s business becoming as highly successful as that of Landau Fine Arts. As you will hear, Robert also pays tribute to the very special talent of his wife Alice who has what is known as “a pure eye”; the perhaps innate or intuitive ability to recognize quality in art. What I had not expected to learn from Robert was the role that politics and inter-city rivalries can play in the art world; and thus the birth, if you will, of the art dealer who travels — a very special consumer in the travel and tourism industry. Robert also draws a clear distinction between those in the business of art who own their art and those who borrow it from others for deal-making purposes; an equally interesting insider look at the business. In terms of TEFAF, Robert has nothing but high praise, saying that “TEFAF is the best art and antique fair in the world,” and the one with the highest standards. David’s story about “The Clown Who Believed He Was President of the Republic” also has a certain contemporary irony to it as well.

Carolle Thibodeau Pomerantz, Paris and New York

headphonesymbol50To listen to our chat, click on this link.

The diversity of art forms that human civilization has produced is almost unlimited. One of the most intriguing, both from an economic and social history point of view, is what was erroneously called papiers peints (painted wall paper). As Carolle Thibodeau Pomerantz points out in our chat, only the Chinese actually created hand-painted wallpaper, whereas the French (the leaders in this art form) used the wood block printing process, often laborious and very time-consuming. But, as Carolle also tells us, antique wallpaper is one of the “great pages in the history of the decorative arts and of interior design.” Elaborate and highly sophisticated, not too mention very beautiful, this art form revolutionized the field of interior design.

Otto Jakob, London and Munich

headphonesymbol50To listen to our chat, click on this link.

Otto Jakob compares his relatively small business to “a studio of goldsmiths” who, when they enter his employ, must learn their art over again because, in part, the styles and methods in the contemporary market are so different from what they were in the past. He emphasizes style of course and what he calls “micro work,” and talks about the harmony of jewelry as art, as well as the necessary interactive harmony of the artists in his studio. Above all he stresses that one should only work on what one loves; and his story about his son (now studying Computer Science in the United States) and why he likes to work alone, is also rather revealing about this art form. Otto’s own delight as a boy in going rock hunting with his father (a mineralogist-artist in the making), also points to the transferrable and eclectic skills that such artists develop. But perhaps it is the longing to create that best describes why Otto is a jeweler-artist. As you will hear, he even finds a spiritual element in his work.

David Priestly of Priestly and Ferraro, London

headphonesymbol50To listen to our chat, click on this link.

To a European eye, the ceramic art treasures that arrived in Europe from China in previous centuries were of extraordinary beauty, and many examples of these treasures can be seen at TEFAF. These objects were also of course “exotic” treasures from a far off land that most people could only dream of. Today, as David Priestly points out, the Chinese themselves have begun to buy back their heritage, part of which are the art works that were exported to Europe. In terms of Chinese ceramics, David advises going “with your heart”; and he also gives another important tip to would-be buyers.

A virtual visit to TEFAF

What I found most appealing about a stroll through this immense art fair is that I could focus my viewing on only those pieces that really interested me … or caught my eye. This, however, was easier said than done because, unlike many art museums and galleries, the marketplace frame of reference and media environment of TEFAF has quite a different purpose. This is a fair, albeit without the usual carrousels, bawling hawkers, and assorted sideshows; and yet there is a very carefully planned flow in the exhibition hall that is interior design and visual media at its very best. And there are also corollary and very traveller-friendly events going on in Masstricht while the fair is in full flight. But for me, in addition to the cornucopia of art and the panache of this international art market, TEFAF was the ultimate in people-watching.

slideshowiconA TEFAF point of view and slideshow


The European Fine Arts Fair

Given the very significant “value-added” benefits of attending the fair, the 35 euro entrance fee is well worth it. And an additional 20 euros for the very beautiful catalogue (it may be the best souvenir you ever brought home), is also very “cost-effective.”

If you are in the “travel arts/arts travel” business, you may also be interested in the following documents/studies available by clicking here:

(a) The International Art Market, A Survey of Europe in a Global Context (b) The Art Fair as an Economic Force

(c) The Modern and Contemporary Art Market

(d) Art Market Matters

(e) VAT and the European Art Market

(f) The European Art Market in 2002

(g) The European Art Market in 2000

The Maastricht Tourist Office

The city of Maastricht, the oldest in the Netherlands, is a great destination in itself. Dating back to Roman times (you can still see Roman walls here and there throughout the city), it was originally a settlement near a spot on the river that could be easily traversed. The east and west banks were eventually connected with a bridge, which collapsed in the 13th century and subsequently replaced with the St. Servatius bridge. A strategic link on the trade route between what was then Germania and Gaul, Maastricht itself became an important trading centre as early as 1170, and eventually the seat of the bishopric. The layers of history in this city are also those of much of European history.

In Maastricht today the ancient and the contemporary are blended artfully and artistically.


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