It’s not often someone tricks Willem van Dedem in such a refined a manner. For that reason, he hasn’t forgotten an encounter in the Dutch city of Maastricht a few years ago: He was told the Sheikh of Qatar had just arrived and wanted to visit the town’s internationally renowned art fair. Immediately.
“I greeted the guest with extreme politeness, then told him: ‘We are extremely sorry, but you cannot visit the art fair, because today is reserved exclusively for the press,’ ” Mr. van Dedem recalled.
“Ha!” countered Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa, Mr. van Dedem said. “As luck will have it, I’m from the press.” Then he pulled out an identity card. “I’m now the owner of Al Jazeera.” And he was in.
Mr. van Dedem ran his fingers through his white hair and smiled delicately. Much remained unsaid in this moment of reminiscence, but the message was clear: It may very well be that the worldwide trade in art and antiques has annual sales of €47 billion, but The European Fine Art Fair, known by its acronym TEFAF, is “his” art fair.
A Dutchman, Mr. van Dedem learned his charming, throaty German when he was an entrepreneur importing German coal from the gritty Ruhr Valley region.
Today his focus is on the art market and his own collection of 60 works. Discretion is his second nature, which is helpful to him as president of TEFAF’s board of trustees. The position isn’t for a narrowly focused art dealer but rather a collector familiar with the art market who can also smooth relationships among dealers in a quiet, diplomatic fashion.
Video: TEFAF Maastricht 2015.
Much money is at stake. In times of low returns and interest rates, art, antiques and precious items are in demand as assets more than ever.
As a collector who started out 40 years ago with a painting worth 3,000 gulden (which in today’s buying power would correspond to about €4,000, or $4,256), Mr. van Dedem can only shake his head in amazement: About €40 million for colored doodles by the American painter Cy Twombly? Mr. van Dedem, 85, can’t understand that.
“Prices on the market for contemporary art are utterly crazy. People don’t need to understand anything about art; you simply tell them what they should buy. They are speculators,” he said.
Demand is red-hot for the works of some living artists. In the last eight years, the prices for works by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Gerhard Richter have increased in some cases by 500 percent. TEFAF is famous for old masters and classic modernism. Prices have also risen sharply for photography and Asian items. More difficult to sell are ancient objects from excavations, which often turn out to be forgeries or smugglers’ wares.
Privileged customers will complain it’s hard to get there, few taxis exist and the nearby airport lacks enough slots for private planes.
Whoever is interested in art as an investment has a problem these days. The blue-chip equivalents of contemporary art have become unaffordable. Collectors have to look at what else is on the market. That’s where TEFAF comes in.
The top echelon of the art trade is gathering in this university city in the Netherlands at the “queen of all art fairs,” as the New York Times puts it. As every year, privileged customers will complain it’s hard to get there, few taxis exist, the nearby airport lacks enough slots for private planes and hotels and restaurants are hopelessly booked in advance.
And then their enthusiasm will revive as they speak of the “potential addictiveness” of Maastricht. All TEFAF dealers master the art of illusion and, in a bare-bones exhibition hall, stage a visual feast embedded with thousands of freshly-cropped tulips.
Among them are not only old masters or classic modernism, but also objects from cabinets of curiosities, Asian exemplars, furniture, jewelry and photographs. This year, curators from international museums are particularly avid about a “Madonna and Child With Goldfinch” from the workshop of Sandro Botticelli; a breviary of Albrecht Dürer; and an almost 4,000-year-old painted wooden panel from the sarcophagus of Hathorhotep, the wife of an ancient Egyptian ruler.
The day of preview is a must for the 9,000 invited guests. With a glass of champagne in one hand and a foie-gras wrap in the other, visitors can relax and enjoy this Matisse or that nautilus goblet. But some discontented individuals always complain that last year there were unquestionably more oysters available.
What is on display at the art fair is subject to strict screening. When addressing this issue, Mr. von Dedem rose up even more erectly in his armchair. “A commission with 175 experts — museum officials, art historians and restorers — examines every stand. We are very proud to scrutinize everything that is exhibited here.”
No forgeries, erroneous attributions or frivolous descriptions. Anything that doesn’t measure up is deposited in a “chamber of horrors” and is later picked up with disdainful fingertips and returned to the discomfited dealer. This procedure, so feared by dealers, is designed to create trust so art-fair visitors and customers know what is being offered at TEFAF is worth its price.
Indeed, the event is not a happy hunting ground for bargain seekers. Fees for space — €60,000 on the average — are lower than at such events as Art Basel or an art fair in Paris whose renown was recently tarnished because it had opened itself to such luxury-goods companies as Louis Vuitton. That drove away dealers and customers in equal measure.
Critics complain the event has little to offer in terms of contemporary art and argue that London's Frieze Art Fair acts more adroitly.
More and more people are coming to TEFAF each year: experts, collectors, art consultants. Last year the figure was 74,000.
“A limit has been reached,” said Mr. von Dedem, who is clearly disinclined to any sort of mass production. What is crucial is “the appropriate audience.”
Visitors should not only look but also buy. The entrance fee of €55 was supposed to discourage idle strollers. It didn’t work. Last year, the crowd pressed its way through the corridors (called boulevards) as if there were something to be had for free, “like Harrods during a holiday sale.”
Security officers, responsible for goods worth a total of about €4 billion, have sweaty brows. Mishaps are kept quiet, even the disappearance of a necklace from the showroom of Graff Diamonds.
Mr. van Dedem is familiar with criticisms directed at TEFAF. Critics complain the event has little to offer in terms of contemporary art and argue that London’s Frieze Art Fair acts more adroitly by complementing current artworks with a selection of old masters.
The American art market may have recovered, but now conspicuously absent are the Russians whose propensity to purchase could scarcely be reined in for a time. For years Mr. van Dedem has tried to get the Chinese interested — sometimes more, sometimes less successfully. Occasionally talk surfaced about a TEFAF-related event in Hong Kong. But it would compete with that city’s Art Basel. Would Shanghai make more sense? Mr. van Dedem has reservations about all this.
What is and remains important to the president, however, is the differentiation from other art-fair associations. “TEFAF is a foundation,” he said. “We have no owners. The assets are administered by the board of trustees. All surpluses are invested in the art fair.”
When asked how one becomes a successful art collector, Mr. van Dedem replied: “That takes years, decades. You give up two works of quality and instead purchase a better picture — and then you already have your foot in the door.”
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org