Maastricht’s European Fine Art Fair

The Grand Canal, Venice, looking South-East from the Palazzo Michiel dalle Colonne to the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, by Bernardo Bellotto. Oil on canvas. (Courtesy Charles Beddington Limited)
The world’s most exclusive fair has widened its purview.

The European Fine Art Fair, called TEFAF, is held every March in Maastricht in the Netherlands. It’s the grande dame of art fairs: not the world’s oldest but in its 32nd year venerable enough, and certainly the best and most exclusive. It has a New York iteration now, and I’ve written about that, but it’s Baby TEFAF.

This week, I spent two days at the Maastricht mothership. With 275 of the best dealers, and with each object vetted for quality and authenticity, it was both a feast and one way to understand the overall condition of the art market.

Of course, the “art market” is not just one market but a thousand niche markets. The Old Master market is much different from other markets and is itself parsed microscopically by nationality, chronology, school, fame, supply, condition, and fads. I’ll use a slice of this market to answer the question, “Why go to Maastricht?”

The big reason is seeing things like Bernardo Bellotto’s View of the Grand Canal from 1739. Bellotto (1722–1780) was, with Canaletto, the premier Venice view painter, and this picture is among the zeniths of the genre. It’s gorgeous, with miniaturist dazzle and big scale. So, there’s the highest quality. It’s the freshest of meat, too. Purchased by an English Grand Tourist in 1760, it has stayed with the family since then. It’s entirely new to the market and, to cut the gem more finely, has never been exhibited and was unknown to scholars.

This happens, still. I once saw an unknown Winslow Homer watercolor whose owner kept it under his bed. His grandfather, who bought it from Homer in 1892, had kept it under his. So, there’s quality and freshness in the Bellotto. The dealer, Charles Beddington, cleaned off nearly 300 years of dirt, but the schmutz was one of the things keeping it in pristine condition.

Now, the markets for Bellotto and Canaletto are different, though they lived roughly the same time, did views, and were both Venetian. Canaletto is the more famous. Bellotto did Venice landscapes, but he also did city scenes of Dresden, Vienna, and other cities whose local grandees hired him. So, he does not have a concession on the high-end Venice niche. He wandered inland. That Bellotto was only 17 when he painted this might be a subtle factor in market price. To me, it shows a formidable prodigy at work. For others, he might be just a smart kid.

Bellotto’s light and palette are different. Canaletto at his market prime painted blue skies, sparkling water, and rainbow colors. Bellotto’s light is silvery. His palette is more subdued. Bellotto’s paintings are filled with geometric forms, hundreds of squares and rectangles, which makes them look modern and edgy to me but too much so for the collector looking for the embodiment of an Old Master genre in its perfect form. Looking forward, for some, is too disconcerting.

If it were by Canaletto, with the color and light key juiced a bit higher, it would go for $15 million. Beddington asks a fraction of that. He has a lovely Canaletto depicting Somerset House in London. Canaletto did English things, too, and the English scenes are less than the Venetian scenes. They’re offbeat Canaletto subjects. Yet the name “Canaletto” is a mighty one. This English scene costs £6 million, still more than the Bellotto.

Weiss Gallery offered an extraordinary Jacobean “costume piece,” or fancy dress portrait, that was in near-pristine condition, having descended from the subject’s family since it was painted in 1620. It shows the young Thomas Dallison with soft sfumato brushwork, sumptuous silk, a lace collar and cuff, kid gloves, and a blue ostrich feather hat. A silver-embroidered mantle and sash with little lace droplets were the height of fashion and taste. Dallison was clearly a rich and ambitious young man. He later took the king’s side in the Civil War and died in 1645 in the Battle of Naseby. Paul Van Somer, the Flemish emigre artist who painted the picture, is an enigmatic figure but certainly a fine talent. He presented Dallison with none of the stiffness of Elizabethan portraits, most of whose subjects have hard, porcelain-like faces.

Both this picture, priced at £250,000, and Porcini Gallery’s new-to-the-market painting of St. John the Baptist by Jusepe Ribera, at €900,000, show how distorted, no, distended and disgusting, the market for contemporary art has become. Agnew’s, always wonderful, had a sublime little painting of Jesus by Luis Morales, also fresh, at $500,000. He was a peer of El Greco, with a Christian vision powered by sadness and suffering rather than salvation and triumph. Lowell Libson and Jonny Yarker offered “Two Boys and a Bladder” by Joseph Wright of Derby from 1769, again unknown and hidden on the wall of an English country house for 250 years. It’s an early tribute to the Industrial Revolution, then new, so it’s suffused with youth, discovery, and mystery. Yarker is a young dealer and an art-history Ph.D., so his perspective is different. It was already sold when I got there so I couldn’t get the price.

These pictures have presence, heritage, vision, and freshness. When I see people paying $80 million for a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, a good but limited and immature artist, or $50 million for work by Jeff Koons, until recently the highest price ever paid at auction for a living artist, I despair of the future of high culture. The Van Somer and Bellotto and many other Old Masters I loved are silver to their dross.