Culture

A Concentration of the Rare, the Exquisite, the Gorgeous

Detail of Saint John the Evangelist (Master of the Osservanza Triptych)
A report from last week’s European Fine Art Fair in New York

The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) is arguably the best and certainly the swankiest annual art fair. Specializing in European and some Asian and American art and antiquities, it occurs each spring in Maastricht in the Netherlands. It now has a New York edition, which took place this year from October 28 to November 1, at the Park Avenue Armory. It’s elegant and high-powered. As a feast for an art-lover and people-watcher, it’s hard to match.

What makes TEFAF so important? Foremost is the art fair’s system of vetting dealers and objects for sale. Each item in each category of art — there are 15 — is vetted by experts for condition, authenticity, truth in labeling, provenance, and compliance with the law. If you want to be an art-fraud detective, start with their vetting standards. They cover almost every way to fiddle with a work of art.

TEFAF offers more than authenticity. Think museum quality. Think rarity. It privileges the exquisite. Nothing’s stale. The art comes from private hands, most unseen for centuries and fresh to the market. It’s not a playground for the rich, though the crowd positively oozed money. This is a fair where serious collectors and the best dealers buy and sell.

Self-portrait, Egon Schiele

(Courtesy of Galerie Sanct Lucas, Vienna)

In terms of a sheer masterpiece, nothing exceeded the first thing I saw, a self-portrait by Egon Schiele, offered by Galerie Sanct Lucas in Vienna. It’s everything you’d want in fin-de-siècle art and would be a treasure in any collection. Rumored to carry a price tag of $6.5 million, almost no museum could touch it. It’s a watercolor and so should live in a box most of the time, though I’d display it shrine-like in some darkened space. It’s that gorgeous. I learned on first seeing it that one’s jaw does indeed drop when one is amazed.

David Gilmour Blythe, January Bills (1859)

(Courtesy of Thomas Colville Fine Art)

The fair shows very little American art. The American Art Fair is two weeks later, and few international buyers collect American art. Still, one of the great connoisseurs and dealers, Thomas Colville, has a booth. He’s been in the business for years and is known for his knowledge, his stewardship of collectors over time, and the quality of the things he sells. As an American art scholar, I think one of the high points of the show was David Gilmour Blythe’s 1859 picture January Bills. He was the most pungent of America’s painters of everyday life, and this painting resonates especially today. It mocks James Barr, the Pittsburgh newspaper mogul who was part William Randolph Hearst, part Steve Bannon.

Pro-slavery and anti-immigrant, he loomed large on the political scene. Blythe was an abolitionist and took obvious joy in treating his powerhouse nemesis, with Barr’s signature tiny feet a nice grace note. Blythe is a difficult artist, cryptic, using a muted palette, with lots of dark corners. His work isn’t conventionally beautiful. He’s a satirist but uses a stiletto slipped between the ribs rather than a hatchet. He’s an acquired taste, which limits the market. Still, it’s in perfect condition, has a distinguished ownership and exhibition history, hasn’t been on the market since 1937, and is priced reasonably at $685,000. Like all of Colville’s things, it’s beautifully framed.

The fair tends to be an antidote to gigantism. Gigantism — the dominance of big, bright works of art that, well, dominate a space — is among high culture’s biggest ills. People with taste know that good things come in small packages.

English salt cellar (c. 1575)

(Courtesy of S. J. Shrubsole Corporation)

In this category, S. J. Shrubsole, the distinguished silver dealer, premiered an engraved, gilded, five-inch, ten-ounce English salt cellar from about 1575. Elegant English dining silver from this period is rare. Much of it was later melted, and there was never much to start. A host would seat his guests “above the salt” or “below the salt” based on their status. Dining silver was very much “the man of the house’s” silver, and this made salts important markers.

The market for old silver has declined dramatically. The collectors themselves are antique, and when they die, their silver will depress the market further. Ease of cleanup has replaced elegance in dining, so it’s heartening to see Shrubsole soldier on. They are another example of dealers who are also connoisseurs and scholars. They’ve seen and often sold most of the best pieces to come to market. They’ve helped build collections and know where the great stuff is tucked away.

Portrait, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida

(Courtesy of Jean-Luc Baroni Ltd.)

For eclecticism, quality, and surprise, Jean-Luc Baroni’s booth was a star. A complex Canaletto drawing, a rare Crucifixion by Boilly, a nice early Mondrian, and a sizzling Sorolla portrait made his space a mini-museum of masterpieces. The Sorolla, at $550,000, was a good deal for its flamboyance and wall power. They all have nothing to do with each other except quality.

Inferno, August Strindberg

(Courtesy of Åmells)

August Strindberg might be best known as an iconoclast playwright, but he was a world-class painter and neurotic, too. When I first saw Inferno, his 1903 painting at Amells’s booth, I blurted, “What the hell is this!” At that moment, he embodied a catalogue of disasters and hang-ups, inspiring a unique take on Dante, though Strindberg’s Inferno is white-hot and framed in luscious greens. It’s both a gorgeous painting and a window on a disturbed though visionary mind. I wonder what its market is. At $3.9 million, it’s expensive for a Swedish picture. Strindberg was a writer, so the painting is a bit of a one-off. It rides the taste for Strindberg as a writer rather than an artist, which affects its value. It’s still riveting and probably one of two things in the show that touched me the most.

Saint John the Evangelist, Master of the Osservanza Triptych

The other offers pathos of an entirely quieter class. Siena’s Master of the Osservanza Triptych is hardly a marquee name, but his tiny take on Saint John the Evangelist evokes less the import of the Crucifixion than its gravity and sadness. That one gesture, hiding his grieving face, says volumes and leaves the viewer’s imagination to work its magic. It was probably part of a multi-painting altarpiece and was unknown until now. It’s for sale with a companion painting of Jesus’s mother. Together, they’re gems, and priced at $1.2 million.

The prices of top antiquities have soared more than stock markets. Supply is understandably low since ancient cities rose and fell, often violently. Reducing it further is the 1970 UNESCO convention forbidding trade in illegally exported cultural artifacts. The simple fact is that ancient art goes with almost every decorative scheme, especially the clean lines and muted color in contemporary taste.

Life-size gold mask, Thrace (fourth century B.C.)

(Courtesy of Ariadne Galleries)

A great dealer such as Ariadne Galleries in New York and London navigates export issues and the bigger problem of fakes. Its life-size gold mask, dating to the fourth century b.c., is the pinnacle of the art of Thrace. There, warrior tribes lived in the mountains where today Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece meet. It’s a ceremonial object, probably worn by a local king to evoke both the human and the divine, the concealed and the transformed.

I imagined the somber ceremonies at which it featured eliding into a Dionysian débauche, a dream shattered by expletives and commotion at Rupert Wace’s booth. A small army of police there seized a handsome $1.2 million limestone relief sculpture from Persepolis, the Persian capital sacked by Alexander the Great in 330 b.c. I’d admired it, no bigger than a letter-size piece of paper, for its wall power. An assistant district attorney in Manhattan thinks it was stolen between 1930, when Iran prohibited exporting such relics, and the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Wace says it left Iran long before 1930, but scholars say it appears in situ in grainy photographs dating to 1933. The reputable dealer protested loudly and said that the relief is legally his to sell. It seems to me a misspent ruckus. What are the feds going to do with it? Send it back to the Revolutionary Guards so they can sell it?

The TEFAF fair begins a busy November season of other big fairs and major auctions, bookended by the mammoth Art Basel fair in Miami in December.

READ MORE:

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