The Preview of TEFAF 2013 - Champs Elysées. Photo: Harry Heuts.


MAASTRICHT
- The crush at the opening seemed as vigorous as ever, though some said that there were fewer people, and if so, this is almost certainly due to Monday's blizzard that was still disrupting travel yesterday. The TEFAF opening is a theatrical spectacle in which everyone is both actor and audience. Haute couture mixes with fashion car crashes; both are often multi-generational. Food and drink appears at random intervals borne aloft by local boys and girls in waiters' uniforms, down alleyways labelled Champs Élysées and Madison Avenue, pursued by ravening hordes of ‘TEFAFistas.’ Meanwhile the serious collectors are ignoring all such distractions, and are hunting down the treasures on the stands, having reserved, red half-moon stickers placed on some of the best works, or even closing deals and having the object of their desire hidden in the back room.

My impression, in common with many I have spoken to, is that this is a strong fair, with a higher overall level of quality than in recent years, but with few utter knock-out works, at least among Old Masters. One standard that has risen, and not before time, is in the condition of paintings. I think this has to do with a marked increase in the standards of the cleaning and restoration of paintings over recent years. Compared with twenty or forty years ago, the raising of standards in picture conservation, both ethical and practical, has been transformational. I used to dread seeing pictures that we had sold recently appearing at art fairs scrubbed within an inch of their lives. I no longer do so, because there is no need. Solvent abuse remains a societal problem, but not an art market one.


Meeting of Masterpieces at TEFAF 2013. Johnny van Haeften and Jean-Luc Baroni viewing Odysseus and Nausicaa, painting and cartoon by Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678) brought together for the first time in centuries.


It is early days yet, but it seems that Old Masters are selling at TEFAF this year, but private buyers are cautious and selective. The best pictures however are selling, and for strong prices. One highly gratifying trend is that museums are once again active, and there have already been several strong sales to US and European museums. This is not as surprising as it seems. On the one hand, acquisition endowment funds, hit hard in the 2008 financial crisis, have been steadily improving, and the strong performance of stock markets in the last twelve months will have been a big help. On another, museums bring parties of supporters and acquisition committee members (when they exist) to TEFAF, so that the decision making process is not as sclerotic as it often otherwise seems. Finally, museum curators and directors increasingly see acquisitions as a key part of their raison d'être, so that the most sought after posts are not necessarily those in museums with great but ossifying holdings, but those that have both funds and ambitions to acquire. A virtuous circle.