At Tefaf 2018 oysters instead of tulips

Stefano Pirovano

Tefaf 2018. Maastricht is cleverly evolving. The fair becomes lighter, sexier and even more exclusive. But the key remains the same: absolute quality.

The edition 2018 of the Tefaf Maastricht is promisinig to exceed even the most optimistic exepectations. At least this is what gallerists are asserting; they have never been as positive as this year. Nobody wants to count their chickens before they hatch, it is indeed just the beginning of a fair which will last until March, 18th. Yet most of the exhibitors we talked to in the section dedicated to ancient paintings had already sold one work or more in the first few hours of the opening day – it is quite rare when dealing with old masters. Moreover, they sold to private collectors, as opposed to what was happening in the past years when the first acquisitions were generally prerogative of institutions. It may be that these latter ones will come into play only today, when the second act of the inauguration will take place. The first significant piece of news concerns the decision of the fair board to have a selected choice of visitors for the opening, hence less general public and more collectors, art advisors and specialists. And this was a very good move, even though those galleries located in the most peripheral areas of the exhibit space could have seemed at times far too quiet.

Less flowers, but oysters have come back. Tom Postma, who designed the fair, has finally decided to give up those big planters that have embellished the aisles in the past few years. The space feels airier, lighter, younger; there is only the eternal beauty of the artworks to look at, which contrary to the flowers don’t wither (this could actually be this edition’s underlying message). Instead of tulips oysters platters have reappeared at the MECC after few years of absence. These are details that matter when it comes to create optimism.

Also this year the 89 members of the vetting committee have done an exemplary job. The quality of the artworks on show at Tefaf 2018 proves to be extremely high in any section, from painting, to tribal art, works on paper, ivories, rare or ancient books, furniture pieces, jewels, musical instruments, pendulum clocks. At present, no other fair in the world can offer anything similar to Tefaf. And if it may happen that sometimes some objects fail the vetting, other times this process turns out to be an opportunity for the gallerists themselves. As in the case of the Vergin with child and saints by Liberale da Verona, exhibited at Altomani&Sons. The painting’s bibliography was significantly extended thanks to the vetting.

We talked about painting, that is a touchstone of the market (hard to imagine if it didn’t work here, it could elsewhere). The specialists surely haven’t missed the Mary Magdalene painted by Francesco Boneri called Cecco del Caravaggio on show at Carlo Orsi and Trinity Fine Arts, early sold to an American collector. The artwork was purchased in Italy by the gallerist without really knowing who the author was. Only later Orsi found out that the painting was included in the catalogue of the exhibition dedicated to Valentin de Boulogne at the The Met in New York last year. The exhibition curators knew about the work, but not where it was preserved. It has therefore been a double discovery, rightly prized by the market. Orsi was spot on, and the scientific community now knows where the painting is to be found.

Another fascinating discovery presented at Tefaf 2018 is the self portrait by Giorgione painted for fun by Antonio Canova. The work, still in its original frame, can be seen at Antonacci Lapiccirella (which also shows a beautiful painting by Cagnaccio di San Pietro previewed during the last edition of the Biennale di Antiquariato in Florence). As previously said, Canova painted it for fun, showing it to some notorious artists during a dinner party at his patron’s place, the prince Abbondio Rezzonico. To make it even more credible, Canova had bought a canvas from 1500s to use as the base (investigations have also revealed the underlying painting).

Equally extraordinary is the Medici and Westminster Pietro Dure Tabletop, on exhibition at Robilant + Voena. Designed by Giorgio Vasari and executed by Bernardino Porfirio da Leccio for Francesco I de’ Medici, the work has belonged to the House of the Medici and its heirs for almost three centuries, so until the first half of the XVIII centuries, when the Italian Government, which got hold of it during the Risorgimento, put it back on the market allowing Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, first Duke of Westminster, to acquire it.

However, if at the moment you don’t own those €10 milion required to take home this masterpiece of craftsmanship, don’t lose heart. At Tefaf it is possible to find the most outstanding quality also in pieces financially much less demanding. Like the beautiful terracotta bust on wooden base carved by Giovanni Marchiori, presented at Walter Padovani. Only specialists are probably familiar with this author, and certainly the work is not as ambitious as the one previously described. Yet, as a whole, this piece is extraordinarily elegant and well represents the refined taste of Padovani, one of the 16 galleries which are taking part for the first time at Tefaf this year (that’s how the fair is also updating itself). Similarly we could say of the small painting by John Constable on show at Richard Green (titled Flatford Lock); of the Giacomo Balla’s at Dickinson (Landscape + Flight of the Swallows, c. 1929); of the painting by Francesco Paolo Michetti at Giacometti Old Masters Paintings; up to the Jacob Grimmer’s at De Jockheere (The rest during the flight into Egypt, dated 1554).

We primarily talked about painting, but Tefaf 2018 is much more. It is everything that fits between the two charming collections of turned ivories on show at Kugel (one of Manfredo Settale, the other a German one) and the small male torso, also ivory, coming from Saint Lawrence Island, in the Bering sea, Alaska. The little object, dated 100-300 AD, is exhibited at Donald Ellis, a gallery specialised in art of North America which is at its second edition of Tefaf. The asking price is $275.000. Mr Ellis told us there are only few of this kind still in private hands. What is hence dividing this awfully expressive torso from Alaska from the acrobatic ivories of Kugel? It is that ample archipelago of opportunities that is opening up in front of the collectors as soon as they go beyond the threshold of false expectations and are put in condition to face the sea with a fair dose of optimism.

March 27, 2018