The European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht is a paradox. Normally restrained and quiet, it can also seem like a stampede.
This year, it's been a bit of both. Collectors stormed in during the first three days - admission is €55 (Dh288) - yet most of the 260 dealers showing some €1billion worth of art were quiet about announcing sales. Some attributed the dealers' reserve to the typical discretion of the Old Master market. Some cited buyers' concerns about instability caused by conflict in the Middle East and North Africa and the disasters in Japan.
Still, 72,000 visitors are expected before the fair closes on March 28, and art has been selling. On the fair's first night, March 17, the Belgian dealer Axel Vervoordt sold an elegant gold-vermilion tapestry constructed of pieces of bottle caps by the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui. It was a work that you couldn't miss, since Vervoordt installed it to flow over the entrance to his stand. The price, he said, was "around" €560,000.
At Landau Fine Art Inc of Montreal, a long-time exhibitor at Maastricht, a 1945 sculpture of a figure in unpainted wood by Joan Miro, Oiseau Lunaire, sold for €3.5m.
At Royal-Athena Galleries, the American antiquities dealer Jerome Eisenberg said business was good. Clients were buying Greek and Etruscan vases from the collection of Patricia Kluge (widow of the movie mogul John Kluge), he noted. "Right now a lot more interest is in the investment benefit because of the phenomenal prices in the auctions last year," he said. He said that new clients included a museum of ancient art in Mougins, France, and a private collector in an undisclosed Gulf state who bought €2.8m worth of vases in January. Interest was also high in Egyptian objects, said Eisenberg, pointing to a relief of Arsinoe II from the Ptolemaic period that he sold the first night of the fair for €52,600.
At a €33m asking price, Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo (1658) by Rembrandt van Rijn was leading the pack. It was brought to the fair by the New York dealer Otto Naumann and shown behind leather ropes, where visitors gathered to be photographed with the €33m man.
Explaining the price, Naumann noted that the Las Vegas gambling mogul Steve Wynn paid €23.8m for the picture in 2009. Wynn sold it to Naumann for a profit. Naumann's price reflects his goal of making 10 per cent on the work, which he says may be too ambitious an objective.
General optimism about the art market was the tone of a report presented in Maastricht by the economist Clare McAndrew of the Dublin consulting firm, Arts Economics.
McAndrew's report, The Global Art Market in 2010, Crisis and Recovery, charted the revival from the dark days of 2008 and early 2009. Growth in Chinese art and antiques buying had outpaced that of the United Kingdom and now accounted for 23 per cent of global activity, up nine times over the last six years, McAndrew noted in her report. The US leads the world market with a share of 34 per cent.
The report also specifically cited growth in collecting in the UAE and Russia, both of which increased their art buying from abroad by 150 per cent in 2009.
At a presentation of her report, McAndrew noted that a new 19 per cent tax on art in the Netherlands could slow market growth in Europe. Naumann made the point bluntly: "I wouldn't sell this Rembrandt to a Dutchman for €33m, even if he agreed to pay the additional 19 per cent, because I don't want the Dutch government to make more than I do on the painting. That's not fair."
A Russian collector was said to have purchased the tapestry by El Anatsui, whose works are among the most sought-after on the contemporary market today.
One of the fair's surprises that seemed destined for a Russian collection was at the booth of Richard Feigen, Inc of New York. It was The Retreat of Napoleon's Army from Russia in 1812, by the French painter Ary Scheffer (1795-1858). The scale was grand, but the subject was grim. The scene of soldiers huddled in a mass on the snow under a dark sky depicted Napoleon with his head bowed in defeat and troops wrapped in brownish rags.
The sombre painting had been exhibited twice, first in 1826 at a show in Paris organised to support the cause of Greek independence, and in 1832 at an exhibition to raise funds for Parisian victims of cholera. It came to light again only in 1986, when a private collector in Paris found it while cleaning out his basement on the Ile St Louis. Feigen said that there had been interest from museums at a price in the low six figures.
Another dealer targeting the shifting buying groups is Michael Goedhuis of London, who was offering Chinese contemporary painting and historical objects at the fair. In his booth near one of the event's cafés, Goedhuis was selling two orange-gold panels with black calligraphic patterns by Wei Ligang. The paintings, by an artist who has been called the Chinese Brice Marden, were €120,000 for the pair.
Lining the back wall of his stand, under the huge radiant painting Midnight Sun by Liu Kuo-sung (€350,000), were 18th-century temple vases, each priced at €25,000.
"Chinese art that's authentic is going to be the most expensive art in the world - it almost is," Goedhuis said, noting a recent sale in England where an 18th-century Chinese vase brought €48.6m at auction. As more Chinese become art buyers, he said, upward pressure on prices will intensify. The good news, Goedhuis said, is that Chinese collectors are spending more than ever; the bad news, the dealer added, is that they prefer to buy at auction.
Pressure on museums to fund new acquisitions brought them to the fair - not just to buy, but to sell.
Almost as prominent as Otto Naumann's Rembrandt was Woman Picking Flowers (1874), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Set in a field with a blue sky over the horizon was the figure of Camille Monet, the first wife of Renoir's Impressionist peer Claude Monet. The painting was priced at €10.5m at the booth of Simon Dickinson Fine Art of London. It was being sold for the Clark Institute, a museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts, which has more than 30 Renoirs that were collected by Sterling Clark, whose family made its fortune producing sewing machines.
As television cameras swarmed around the French outdoor scene, dealers predicted that the sewing machines and the art collectors of the next decade would come from China.