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TEFAF 2023: is the art world still about art? 

Every year, the most important collectors, the museums with the greatest purchasing power, the best art dealers as well as those with a lot of disposable income to Maastricht to look at and (dis)buy art at art fair TEFAF. The champagne flows, designer bags dangle from every shoulder, and while enjoying a cake imported from Paris, or an oyster, people decide whether a work of art is worth it or not. On Sunday 19 March, the 36th edition of TEFAF Maastricht concluded. This was the first edition since 2019 and last year's armed robbery, held in the usual way.

The art at the fair, consisting of paintings, ceramics, textiles, manuscripts, jewellery and antiques, among others, was traditionally screened beforehand by a permanent board of specialists. They looked critically at the authenticity (genuineness) of each artwork, as well as the originality of the concept.

This year many important museums walked away with new pieces, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which bought five works. Important Dutch museums such as the Rijksmuseum and Voorlinden also scored at TEFAF.

Regular visitors

I visited the fair and spoke to some insiders. Who I also spoke to is my uncle: art historian, writer and expert on Zero and ZERO art, Antoon Melissen. As the niece of someone so deeply rooted in the art world, I grew up talking about art, and the world around it. About TEFAF, a fair of which my uncle is a regular visitor because of his expertise, I wonder:
In a world of economic uncertainty, volatile trends and social media, what is the art world really like and to what extent is it still about art?

He explains that TEFAF has been an art fair for old and antique art for 36 years. 'The stereotypical image that old art is collected by older people used to be mostly true,' he says. 'Old art used to be unaffordable and attracted older people with bigger budgets mainly for that reason.' According to Artur Ramón, owner of the gallery Artur Ramón Art in Barcelona, the audience at the 'old masters' is often looking for specific collector's items, while the audience at modern art tends to be a bit younger and trendier.

At a stand with mainly Victorian art, the British owner tells us that he is now fed up with the old masters, and that, in his opinion, no one is waiting for "art by yet another son of Bruegel". Art, according to this Englishman, who wishes to remain anonymous, should really touch the viewer. He argues that most people have seen so much old art by now that the magic is lost.

Gravity to the Netherlands

At the moment, English parties selling old art or antiques are having a tough time anyway. Nobody exports to London anymore because now that the UK is no longer part of the European Union, the sales commission can be as high as almost 30 per cent. The cancellation of the summer edition of art fair Masterpiece and Olympia art and antiques fair in London shows that the centre of gravity in the field of antique art is increasingly shifting towards the Netherlands.

And what about modern art? In recent years, the number of contemporary art and design exhibitors at TEFAF has increased by a third. This is not without reason. It is no longer the old masters, but twentieth-century artists who fetch the most these days. For instance, a work by Magritte briefly sold for 33 million euro.

This year, TEFAF also had more space for 'new' galleries (between three and 10 years old). In this way, TEFAF hopes to rejuvenate the fair and create more opportunities for young galleries, who have worked hard in recent years during the pandemic to find artworks and grow their business.

L'art pour l'art

During the opening of TEFAF, it is often one big catwalk, with visitors showing off luxury and excess. Seeing and being seen is very important. So is it actually still about art in this art world, I ask my uncle. "Art is always about art," he explains. "You can invest or speculate with art, just like you do with oil or real estate, but in the end it is not about art but about money."

"And art and money; it's kind of a marriage between the two anyway. If you look at history, right back to the Renaissance, it was always the people with money who surrounded themselves with beautiful things and were patrons."

"There is a danger of being blinded by price tags as a visitor, but this often says very little. They are daily prices; for this reason, art is not always a very secure investment. But despite the whole circus around it, in my opinion, events like TEFAF are still about the art."

A solid model for gallerists

It sometimes seems that the 'new money' is changing tastes much faster and people are driving each other crazy via social media. So how can gallerists still build a solid model? According to Melissen, there have always been trends.

'Despite the fact that collectors' tastes can change, and that social media contributes to this, it is important to realise that as a gallery, you don't just show up at TEFAF. It is expensive to be there and there is a balloting committee. Most of the galleries you see are decades old.'

There is also a difference between galleries and the art trade, he says: "Most of the galleries at TEFAF are solid galleries, which build very long relationships with artists and like to do long-term collaborations." These galleries also have a loyal audience, so you often meet the same people at art fairs where there is a certain niche. They know where to go. So these are reputations that are built up over a very long time, which means the galleries that are at TEFAF are less sensitive to trends or a change in taste.

Visible art

Despite the necessary marriage between money and art, the art world has become somewhat more democratic. Think, for example, of people of younger generations, who invest in bitcoin, have had success in it, and want to do something with their money. "What strikes me is that they then often do things that are visible. That could be buying a nice car, but also art." Yet Melissen does not think the art world is ruled by fast money.

"They are, of course, two worlds that belong together. In that sense, art is elitist; it remains so and has always been so. You can make art more accessible to a larger audience, but you will never get a very large audience, it remains a niche."

Finally, my uncle dwells on the fact that people from all walks of life collect art, and usually build up their collections over a very long period of time. People interested in art also pass through all social economic strata. Of course, it is not the case that every visitor actually buys something. "If that were to happen, all the roofs of Maastricht would be invested with gold," he says. And, after a short pause: "Art and money go together, but the love of art is separate from money."

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