By Porter Anderson
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MAASTRICHT, Netherlands (CNN) -- At the European Fine Art Fair this week, most of the Lucite cases hold great bunches of pale pink tulips. The art is uncaged.
Continuing through Sunday, this gigantic sprawl of art for sale, from ancient to contemporary work, celebrates two decades of annual shows with a distinctive character. (See an interactive gallery of images from this year's fair)
If you caught the Armory Show on Pier 94 in New York last month, for example, you paid $20 admission and found yourself in a teeming maze of clinically white walls between each art dealer's space. The emphasis there is on contemporary art.
By contrast, TEFAF, as the show's name in Maastricht is abbreviated, has hiked its admission fee to €55, or some $72, expressly to keep the crowds down.
The fair saw 84,000 people come through the door last year, and its officials are blunt about its new ticket price: TEFAF's president, Willem Baron van Dedem, says it's "to ensure the continuing comfort of our visitors."
So far, it's working: The fair reports a nine-percent reduction in traffic, right on target for the art-viewing ease of the buyers.
One look at them, and you understand why safeguarding their "comfort" is important.
Many ticket buyers at TEFAF are in suits, jackets and ties. The parking lot, manned with gracious, beaming attendants, fills up right at 11 a.m. daily with automotive art by Daimler. For the most part, this show is about up-market "content," and the clientele matches. It's a class act at which no one is sorry to find a champagne and oyster bar tucked away among the Old Masters paintings, near the Salander-O'Reilly Galleries stall.
The Maastricht fair is seen as the most prestigious for older work, and some of those well-turned-out folks strolling the thickly carpeted "streets" of the show are more than private collectors.
TEFAF reports, for example, that the Louvre has just bought Gotlieb Schiek's "Head of a Young Boy," a piece dated around 1880, from the Arnoldi-Livie stand at the fair.
Johnny van Haeften, the London-based dealer in Dutch and Flemish Old Masters, reports selling 17th-century artist Jan Both's "An Italianate Landscape" with travelers on a path to a private American collector on TEFAF's first night, March 8, for $5.4 million.
In contemporary work, London's Mayor Gallery logged sales of two works by Claes Oldenburg, the 1961 "Liver Sausage and Slices" and the 1967 "Green Ladies' Shoes," the latter bringing in some $1.3 million.
Asian work is widening its presence annually at TEFAF, a trend not hurt by a Swiss buyer's purchase from London's Ben Janssens Oriental Art of 25 pieces that include an ancient Chinese bronze ceremonial wine vessel: $330,000.
Rise of the art fairs
Maybe not with the best timing, Dubai threw its first such outing last week -- the Gulf Art Fair -- precisely on the first weekend of Maastricht's confab, March 8 through 10. TEFAF counted 8,500 guests at its show's preview alone.
Cultural collisions around these huge shows are commonplace, of course.
The Armory Show in New York this year had 149 galleries presenting work. The show was ringed by six other New York outings in February, including Scope at Damrosch Park, Pulse on Lexington Avenue, and DiVA, a digital and video art fair at Battery Park.
Switzerland's Art Basel, with some 300 dealers in comparison to 219 at Maastricht, is to open its 38th edition in June near the time of the opening of the Venice Biennale.
And December's annual Art Basel Miami, a relative newcomer to the field, is helping define a yearly arc to a market white-hot with new interest in art.
As prices for major works skyrocket these days at the great auction houses, Christie's and Sotheby's, veteran collectors prowl these shows with very serious intent: They're checking out what work may be within reach for dealers with whom they don't normally work. (Read more about the high-flying art market)
For beginning collectors, those attuned to artnet.com's Price Database, a fair offers a particular advantage: So much work in so many eras, genres and media is brought into one place. No longer is it necessary to be able to say, "I know what I like." If you don't know, go to one of these major fairs and see what strikes you.
Maastricht right now is showing everything from Renoir to Medieval metalwork, from Warhol to illuminated manuscripts. The juxtapositions are both jarring and refreshing. Those pink tulips keep pulling it all gently together.
For the first year in its history, TEFAF has allowed Sotheby's and Christie's to have stands at the show. This has been resisted by dealers for years because the great houses function as massive competition and, in a market such as today's, can quickly inflate prices in adrenalin-fueled auctions.
As if for "the continuing comfort" of the show's prized dealers, you don't see either the Christie's or Sotheby's name over a stand.
Sotheby's is represented by the Noortman Old Masters position at the fair. Its status as a gallery, not an auction showroom, allows it to set prices with collectors who would rather not bid in open auction. Similarly, Christie's presence is vested in King Street Fine Art Limited, which operates on the same principle.
TEFAF is set in a large industrial park at the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Center. As if to welcome homesick buyers, the show names its aisles for streets of many dreams. There's a Via Veneto, a Champs-Élysées, a Madison Avenue and a New Bond Street.
Clearly, the fair's dealers think the show is doing something right at 20: The Daily Telegraph in London reports a price tag of some $9.6 million for a Holbein portrait of Thomas Wyatt the Younger, a painting with a once-troubled provenance.
And the latest word from Maastricht is that Littleton & Hennessy Asian Art Ltd. of London and New York has sold the Chinese bronze tapir from the Warring States era (around the fourth century B.C.), to a private Chinese collector. The dealer has declined to name the price paid, but going in the ask was $12.6 million.
Maybe it's no wonder one of the most pervasive outfits at the fair -- and its chief corporate sponsor -- is AXA Art, the art-insurance specialists.
They've arrived equipped not only with an exhibition about conservation of modern-era plastic artwork but also with art-protection kits for buyers.
Beds of tulips break up traffic patterns at the sprawling 219-dealer European Fine Art Fair, or TEFAF, in Maastricht, Netherlands. The fair runs through Sunday.
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