The name of the picturesque ancient city Maastricht, in the south of Holland, might not ring a bell in American ears, but in Europe it’s definitely well known as the place where the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992, giving birth to the European Union. Another reason to be aware of this city is TEFAF, the celebrated annual international art fair, often referred to as the ‘Tiffany’ of all art fairs. That’s where curators and discriminating collectors from around the world go in search of rare examples of Greek and Roman art, Old Master drawings and paintings, and fabulous pieces of furniture, tapestries, and porcelain that once upon a time decorated the stately homes of European nobility.
There are many dealers who are eager to shell out $100,00 for a booth at the Maastricht art fair, but the vetting committee is so rigorous, and the competition is so fierce that only the absolute best are invited to participate. Dealers are expected to show not only their finest wares, but specifically artworks that are new to the market, thus creating an especially high level of expectation among collectors.
Though I’ve been to a number of international fairs, I was still taken aback by the intensity of my first visit to the Maastricht fair. Usually, based on the quality of the art on display, it’s easy for me to decide which booths are worth visiting and which I can skip. But here, I realized very soon that if I skipped something, it would be at my own peril. My first inclination was to ignore dealers showing decorative art and to concentrate on Old Master works, but the exquisite displays of museum quality glass and silver, ceramics and jewelry were so appealing that after stopping at one of the booths, I realized that I had to find time to see it all. Just take a look at some of the images from today’s Art Talk on the KCRW website, and you will see what I mean.
At the very entrance to the fair, prominently displayed, was a landscape by Van Gogh painted in the last year of his life with an asking price of 25 million Euros, and in the same booth, tucked away around a corner, a small, delicious drawing by Picasso for only three quarters of a million dollars. This year none of the dealers offered a painting by Rembrandt, but in his absence, a small painting by Frans Hals – another celebrated 17th century Dutch painter – generated a lot of interest. This image of St. Mark had been obscured by heavy layers of over-painting, and only when it was recently cleaned did the original image reappear, revealing dynamic brushstrokes and well preserved colors. This painting had particular interest for me because the Getty Museum has another example from this series of portraits of the four saints. In the 18th century, all four portraits belonged to Catherine the Great, but since then they’ve been dispersed, and two of them (St. Matthew and St. Luke) are now in a museum collection in Russia; another one was bought a decade ago by the Getty. It would be a pity if the Getty missed the chance to acquire this portrait of St. Mark, reuniting it with the portrait of St. John already in the museum collection.
Among the surprising discoveries was the small Portrait of a Bearded Man by the German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder, which turned out to be the very one that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is quietly selling to raise funds for future acquisitions. I thought it was quite a lovely work of art, but it’s up to the museum curators to decide what to keep and what to sell, so it will be interesting to see what ends up in its place.
Leaving Maastricht, I was fantasizing about inviting all of you to join me there next year – so we can all get high on seeing, touching, and inhaling the amazing variety of art on display there. Meanwhile, if you want to hear more stories and get high on art here in LA, you can join my next Fine Art of Art Collecting class beginning Saturday, April 4.
Banner image is a composite of three Frans Hals oils on canvas: (L) St. John, 27 9/16" x 21 5/8", J. Paul Getty Museum; (C) St. Luke , 27 5/8" x 20 1/2", Museum of Western and Oriental Art, Odessa, Ukraine; (R) St. Matthew, 27 5/8" x 21 5/8", Museum of Western and Oriental Art, Odessa, Ukraine