International art shows provide a perspective on the art world that you get in no other place.
I recently had the chance to attend an international air fair. I’d never been to one before and frankly I didn’t know exactly what to expect. (read more)
If you’ve never been to an art fair it’s a distinctive experience. They’re held in places like convention centers or trade centers—they’re like boat shows for the culturati. This one was the biggest of them all and is called TEFEF: “The European Fine Art Fair.” It took up the entirety of the convention center in Maastricht in the Netherlands.
The crowd is international in every way. You’ll hear all sorts of languages as you walk around; the dealers and their representatives seem able to handle almost anything in that regard. As Sarah Thornton showed in her wonderful 2008 book Seven Days in the Art World, the art market is, in all senses of the word, globalized. At TEFAF, you’re surrounded by works of art ranging from ancient Grecian urns that John Keats would have been enthused about to mixed-media paintings made last year. It’s a bit like a museum but with one big difference: here everything is for sale.
Granted, the prices are high, sometimes dizzyingly so. I’ve never seen anything for sale with a price of 4 million euros. (That was for a Renoir.) But remember when it comes to prices—we’re not dealing with things here that are mass produced. If you want a Renoir of a little girl in an orange sweater, well, they’re not making any more of them. And one can tell what’s trendy—the newer pieces by famous contemporary artists are often fetching more than the ancients. I saw 2000-year-old Greek sculptures and painted vases in the neighborhood of 12,000 to 15,000 euros. Tells you what the investors are going for, at least.
One thing you notice quickly is that while you’ve heard of many of these artists, you haven’t seen these pictures. These aren’t the famous pieces hanging in museums; these are pieces that in many cases have spent decades—even centuries—in private collections. But the upside of that is that you’ll see works you’ve never seen, and it will give you a fresh perspective on some of your favorite artists. If paintings and sculptures aren’t your bag, there were also antiques, furniture, jewelry, and rare books and manuscripts.
If you’re going to be in New York later this year there’s going to be what are called “satellite fairs” of the TEFAF there, too. One in May will focus on Modern and contemporary art while one in November will involve art from antiquity to 1920. Both will be at the historic Park Avenue Armory, and I would encourage you not to miss the chance to go. It will be an art world experience like nothing else.