Fly to Maastricht to Visit Rembrandt, New Michelangelo

For some years now, the European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF), a confederation of European art dealers’ associations, has organized a mammoth annual art fair in the ancient Dutch city of Maastricht. It’s billed as nothing less than “the world’s leading art and antiques fair,” and after a visit to this year’s fair, I can certainly attest to its staggering size and its amazing quality. Despite the pall that has been cast on international air travel and shipping since the events of Sept. 11, over 200 dealers in art and antiques from 13 countries in Europe and North America participated, and during the fair’s 10-day run (from March 8 to 17), some 80,000 visitors were expected to attend. They all seemed to be there at the same time on the two days I spent at the fair. No one in his right mind could ever wish such an event to be larger or more crowded. It made your run-of-the-mill museum blockbuster exhibition seem positively pastoral by comparison.

Still, the aesthetic rewards have been bountiful for visitors with the requisite patience and stamina, and it must also be observed that the general level of courtesy–not only among the dealers and the visitors, but even extending to the well-trained security and support staff–was exemplary. Clearly, there was a very determined effort to make this year’s fair a pleasurable as well as a profitable experience, and while the final sales figures were not yet available at this writing, the anecdotal evidence suggests that it was a resounding commercial success. Within a few days of the fair’s opening, for example, one of its greatest rarities–a recently discovered drawing, Mourning Woman by Michelangelo (circa 1500)–was acquired from Jean-Luc Baroni Ltd., a London dealer, by an unidentified American collector. The asking price was 13 million euros, or $11.47 million.

Another of the fair’s star attractions–Rembrandt’s Minerva in Her Study (1635)–commanded a steady queue of collectors, critics, museum curators, scholars and the merely curious, not to mention an extra security presence. It was being offered for sale by a New York dealer, Otto Naumann Ltd., which recently acquired it from an unidentified Japanese company. The asking price was $40 million, and at this writing there had been no news of a sale. There were, however, rumors of a number of American museums desperately trying to raise money for its purchase, and it would certainly be a prize acquisition.

Not surprisingly, Dutch paintings from virtually every period, from the 17th century to 20th-century Dutch modernism, were shown in abundance at the Maastricht fair. Of particular interest to me was a small, very fine Portrait of a Man Wearing a Beret (circa 1918) by Theo van Doesburg, who is better known to us as an ally and rival of Piet Mondrian in the De Stijl movement, which was rigorous in enforcing an aesthetic of geometrical abstraction. This Portrait , if it is correctly dated, suggests that van Doesburg wasn’t quite as doctrinaire in his espousal of pure abstraction as he was thought to be. It might easily be mistaken for an early Van Gogh.

Two other artists associated with the De Stijl group–the Dutch painter Bart van der Leck and the Belgian sculptor Georges Vantongerloo–were also well represented: van der Leck by three large gouache studies on paper, and Vantongerloo by 10 gouache studies dating from 1938 that remind us that he was a determined Minimalist long before the term even existed.

Among the many modernist works in the Maastricht fair, the greatest in my view was a late masterpiece by Max Beckmann– Perseus’ (Hercules’) Last Duty (1950), which was painted in New York in the last year of the artist’s life. This grim mythological composition bears many resemblances to Beckmann’s great allegorical triptychs and is fully their equal in pictorial achievement. It was exhibited in Maastricht by the New York firm of French & Company, and will be included in the Beckmann retrospective scheduled to open at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in September.

Much of the Maastricht fair is devoted not to paintings of any period, but to antique furniture and other decorative arts as well as to jewelry, diamonds and sundry other luxury items. There was even a stall devoted to rare wines and a vast quantity of art books, some of great rarity and many of a sort that are readily available elsewhere. As I have neither the interest nor the competence to deal with the decorative arts that loom so large at Maastricht, readers with a special interest in this material may wish to consult the fair’s capacious catalog, which runs to 450 illustrated pages, or its Web site, at http://www.tefaf.com.

For an American visitor to the Maastricht fair, one remarkable and striking fact about this mammoth survey of the visual arts is the essentially marginal role that is assigned to American art. There are, to be sure, some American paintings to be seen, but even the many American dealers represented at Maastricht tend to concentrate on European artists. And they are probably wise to do so, for the Maastricht fair is very much an intra-European event. It consists, for the most part, of mostly European dealers exhibiting mostly European art and antiques to mostly European collectors. It is my impression anyway that the American presence at Maastricht is mainly limited to the large sums of money that American collectors and institutions devote to their Maastricht acquisitions.

It would be interesting to know, however, exactly how some of these financial transactions are negotiated, if only because TEFAF has itself used the occasion of this year’s Maastricht fair to issue a report on the declining fortunes of the European art market in comparison with the American one. The report attributes much of this decline to European Union regulations. These are the key findings of the TEFAF report:

“From 1998 to 2001, the average price of a work of fine art sold at auction in the EU declined 39% to $7,662. The average price of a painting sold in the United Kingdom advanced 54% to $24,968; in the United States, the average price advanced 75% to $79,003.”

“The EU as a whole has lost 7.2% global share of market since 1998. The Continental EU has lost 9%. The US, the principal competitor of the EU, increased its market share by 7%.”

A more detailed summary of the TEFAF report, which is titled The European Art Market in 2002 , is available on the TEFAF Web site.

As a concluding observation on the Maastricht 2002 fair from an American perspective, it pains me to report that one of the few American works in this mammoth exhibition that Europeans are likely to remember is an Andy Warhol, Brillo Box .