Tefaf Maastricht 2017: the art market is shifting, not shrinking

Stefano Pirovano

Our sentiment, three days after Tefaf preview took place in Maastricht, is confirming a significant data that Professor Rachel Pownall has given last Friday while presenting her first Tefaf Art Market report – which is still the less blurred picture of the global art market available. During 2016 private art sales raised to 62,5% over the entire market, that is to say 26.1 over 41.2 billion; 20% more than 2015. And that would be a good news for all those who are auction averse, even if it must be said that our sentiment has been largely influenced by a nice breakfast we had on Saturday with Maria Cortes, director of communications and institutional relations at Colnaghi. In that occasion she confided to Cfa that the outstanding Still life by Bartolomeo Cavarozzi was not the only piece of art making the giant fine art gallery happy these days: six, perhaps seven more pieces at their booth have found a collector during the preview, including an important rediscovered polychrome sculpture of Saint Francis of Assisi by Pedro De Mena that was sold to an important private European Foundation which has a substantial collection of paintings, sculpture, archaeology and… tribal art.

Later that same day, ‘there was a time when main dealers were able to sell 40 pieces per day’ said to Cfa an experienced private collector and dealer from Brussels that we met on our way back to Milan. ‘that time is over’. Unfortunately. But it is rather ironic that, like the European Foundation mentioned above, he is now buying tribal art too and he is not interested at all in those young artists popping up here and there also at the Tefaf this year. We spotted pieces by Francesco Arena (1978) and Giorgio Andreotta Calò (1979) at Sprovieri gallery – this latter has been included in the Italian pavilion at the upcoming Venice Biennale.

According to Prof. Powall the market is shifting, not shrinking, and the scary -40% drop in the auction sales volumes in the U.S. – which corresponds to a more optimistic -13% in the EU – is balanced by a significant growth in the private sales. That is consistent with the brain drain from the main auction houses occurred during the last two years. In this regard we would mention the case of Brett Gorvy, who after setting impressive sales at Christie’s – Picasso, Bacon, Modigliani – left the company to join Dominique Levi. But we partially disagree with those who think that this is due to increasing need of privacy. More likely sellers during 2016 were concerned about the weakness of the market and were reluctant to take the risks related to a public sale. The consequences for the owner when a piece fails to sell are disastrous, particularly if he is respectful with the work, or the artist, he is selling. In a scenery dominated by uncertainty private negotiations are always preferred.

And in fact, ‘I don’t want to give it away to the first coming’ replied Alexandra Henze Triebold when we asked her if the expensive Max Beckmann at her booth was still available. Roman Norbert Ketterer, her grandfather, purchased the painting in 1955 from the estate of Max Beckmann’s New York dealer, Curt Valentin, who had died an early death a year before. Mr Ketterer kept the painting private until he passed away, in 2002. The identity of “Naila”, Hildegard Melms, was still a secret until 1993, when the artist’s correspondence was published by Uwe M. Schneede. Documents revealed that between 1923 and 1924 Beckmann had a passionate though short-lived affair with this twenty-six years old university graduate, who held a doctorate in a discipline, political economy, that was in no way common for a woman at that time. Beckmann painted her portrait in 1934, that is to say 10 after this love affair, while he was married to his second wife, “Quappi”, with whom he spoke and wrote openly about Naila. Ms Henze calls it a ‘linchpin’ in the life drama of the painter. We would set a link with this piece, and the self portrait in the Michael Hilti collection (do you remember our interview?), that is a self portrait Backmann painted, using a similar palette, only two years later.

Among the many other impressive pieces of art presented this year in Maastricht we would mention the Histoire Ancienne jusqu’à César et Fait des Romains, an extraordinary manuscript on parchment with 78 miniatures by the Master of the Coronation of Charles VI. The two volumes are dated between 1370-80 and belonged to the Valois court. Les Enluminures, the gallery currently owing the piece, is asking 4.2 million euro – and you may also like to know that the gallery booth was full of Oriental people when we visited it. At Tomasso Brothers, this iconic Roman Emperor is celebrated by a portable wooden sculpture by Giambologna, which is the first known by the Florentine artist. The gallery is asking 1.3 million euro, that is to say 10 times more that the expressive Standing Deacon on offer at Sam Fogg. The work is by the workshop of Tilman Riemenschneider and is dated between 1505 and 1515.

If you are looking for something in the same area, you may like to know about the Griffin Protome on sale at Charles Ede. This hypnotic hollow cast head of a griffin is only 12.9 centimetres high, but has a granitic provenance and exhibitions’ track – the Fogg Art Museum, the City Art Museum of Saint Louis and the Los Angeles County Museum all exhibited it in 1968.

A final note. The news circulating these days in the backstage is that Fabrizio Moretti resigned from the board and probably will also leave the board of Frieze Masters – while at the moment he is keeping his position at the Biennale Internazionale di Antiquariato in Florence. According to Professor Pownall report, 49,5% of the art dealers are concerned about the costs associated with the exhibiting at art fairs. We would say that this is not the case. More likely Mr Moretti, who is still the youngest top fine art dealer on the scene, has something else in his mind, and soon we will know more about it. Cfa is grateful to Mr Moretti for his fundamental support and would like to wish him all the best for his future projects.

March 14, 2017