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Can TEFAF New York Fall reinvigorate interest in older art?

24 October 2017

Last October’s inaugural TEFAF New York Fall was, according to its managing director Michael Plummer, ‘a real nail-biter’. It could also be described as a real game changer. ‘We knew that the build was going to be difficult because it was so ambitious and we did not have enough time, but we had no idea we would be cutting it so close,’ he admits. ‘We were shooing the cleaning crew out of the doors as the visitors were queuing to come in.’ What the team had also not anticipated was the phenomenal enthusiasm for the fair. ‘We had seasoned New York collectors coming back again and again, marvelling at the fair and really enjoying the space. We were not expecting that sense of magic.’

Designer Tom Postma transformed the Park Avenue Armory’s dingy entrance hall by lining its walls with white scrim, dramatically lighting its stately staircase and cascading flowers from the ceiling. It was the concentration of quality of the exhibits, however, that kept the collectors returning. TEFAF Maastricht’s 270 exhibitors had been edited down to just 94, and the smallness of the stands distilled the offering further.

Plummer is aware, however, that education and outreach is of key importance in attracting a younger audience. ‘Collector interest in old, historic art has waned in the last decade, and recent investments in art fairs have all focused on the 20th century,’ he says. ‘We felt a responsibility to try to reinvigorate interest in older art, and we used the launch of the fair to begin to forge relationships with local museums.’ TEFAF is working with the museum directors on its advisory board to establish a year-round programme of events that will engage with the public outside the fair. He sees that launching in 2018.

Mount Stetind in the Fog (1860s), Peder Balke. Daxer & Marschall

Mount Stetind in the Fog (1860s), Peder Balke. Daxer & Marschall

Most obviously new at this year’s event (28 October–1 November) is the opening of a restaurant, cafe, and champagne bar on the Armory’s balcony. ‘We saw that people came up here and liked the view over the fair,’ Plummer explains. ‘Collectors are used to making hit-and-run visits to the Armory. Last year they came and lingered, and this new space I think will be important in encouraging them to view this as a destination fair and to stay even longer.’ TEFAF is also introducing a museum exhibition, this year a show of the photographer Vera Lutter in association with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Lutter is artist in residence. ‘It makes the point that this is not just a New York fair, but an American fair,’ Plummer says: ‘It will also show a living artist using old techniques – Lutter works with camera obscura – and that the old and new cannot be separated.’

There is also an adjustment to the dealer roster, although just one additional gallery space has been introduced. Ten new exhibitors are joining this year, including dealers from Hong Kong, London, Madrid, Munich, New York, Paris, and Salzburg. Among them is the grand Parisian objet d’art dealership Galerie J. Kugel, which offers the likes of a Venetian rock-crystal casket of around 1600. Another is the London-based Mullany Haute Epoque Fine Art, whose racy early 17th-century Flemish tapestry from a set known as the Loves of Gombaut and Macée is bound to raise a few eyebrows. Depicting the ‘Ball Game’, you can get the gist of it without understanding the Latin tags as both image and word are loaded with sexual innuendo. Newcomer Daxer & Marschall presents Mount Stetind in the Fog, painted in the 1860s by the Norwegian artist Peder Balke, whose evocative and strangely modern work is closest in spirit to that of Caspar David Friedrich. Until earlier this year, the painting was on long-term loan to the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen.

Statuette of Osiris (c. 600 BC), Egyptian, Late Dynastic Period. Charles Ede

Statuette of Osiris (c. 600 BC), Egyptian, Late Dynastic Period. Charles Ede

Scale, as ever, bears no relation to quality – just as price is not always an indicator of quality. Charles Ede, for instance, offers a small Egyptian bronze statuette of Osiris of around 600 BC from the Late Dynastic Period. Although just 18.5cm high, the modelling on the face is exceptionally fine and has a portrait-like particularity, the features and brow outlined in copper, the whites of the eyes inlaid with silver, and the pupils in niello. The collar and beard are also nicely engraved, as is the inscription. Its price tag is £95,000. Of much the same size is the equally delectable Tang Dynasty model of a recumbent buffalo, glazed unusually in blue, showing at Littleton & Hennessy Asian Art ($485,000).

More spectacular, and with an illustrious name attached, is the alabaster vase with gilt-bronze mounts by the great Roman neoclassical goldsmith Luigi Maria Valadier (1726–85). What impresses here is not only the combination of marbles of various specimen, but also the quality and detail of the ornament – from the small gilt-bronze pearl and plaited trims at the base to the leaves, the writhing serpents and the pine cone at the tip. Valadier is documented as supplying four vases from the same model to the imperial palace of Pavlovsk just after 1782. It comes courtesy of Alessandra Di Castro.

Genio Rezzonico (1793–94), Antonio Canova. Carlo Orsie – Trinity Fine Art

Genio Rezzonico (1793–94), Antonio Canova. Carlo Orsie – Trinity Fine Art

A quite different alabaster piece, the 82cm-high Hercules and Hippolyta of around 1615–20, lays claim to being the largest and most impressive free-standing sculpture by the underappreciated Leonhard Kern (1588–1662). This captures the mighty struggle as Hercules wrests the protective belt from the Amazonian queen, and it pays more than a passing nod to Giambologna ($3.8m). It may have been commissioned after Kern’s return from Italy by Frederick V, Elector Palatine of the Rhine and King of Bohemia. It is on display at Blumka, one of a core of New York dealers represented. Carlo Orsi – Trinity Fine Art counters with a rare signed plaster cast by Antonio Canova, a 165cm-high head and torso taken from the figure of Genius on his monumental tomb of Pope Clement XIII (1783–92) in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome ($4m). No other cast is known.

What should go down well in New York is the meticulous Still Life with Lemons executed in the late 1640s by the widely travelled Giovanna Garzoni (1600–70). Often called the Chaste Giovanna due to her vow of chastity, she was one of the first women to practise the art of still-life painting. Not a great deal is known about her, save for the fact that her small-scale paintings of natura sospesa – nature suspended – were highly admired by her royal and aristocratic patrons, which included the Medici family. Tempera on vellum was her preferred medium, and fruits, flowers, birds, and insects her specialism. On display at Galerie Sanct Lucas, $950,000.

TEFAF New York Fall takes place at the Park Avenue Armory from 28 October–1 November.

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