The Genteel
October 23, 2017
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TEFAF Maastricht 2012 - opening day. Photograph by Loraine Bodewes. Source: altertuemliches.at.

The first thing I noticed was the opulence. The glittering darkness of Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre's entrance hall lured visitors into a world of luxury, like a black hole attracting matter to its core. Everything around me spoke of richness and enveloped my senses. My eyes sparkled in front of the one hundred LED lights of Cylinder II, a Leo Villareal installation hanging over the information desk like a lighthouse perched on a pitch-black ocean. Even the smells spoke of novelty: furniture, decorations and flowers all rivalling each other, purposely on display to welcome the world's wealthy.

The 2012 edition of TEFAF in Maastricht, Netherlands marked the silver jubilee of this annual event and attracted 72,000 art lovers and collectors from all over the world. One of the most important events in the field, TEFAF is more than an exclusive marketplace for rare and precious art and antiques: it is a breathtaking journey through centuries of human genius.

Ancestor of modern graphic design: The Imhof
Prayer Book dates back to 1511 and was priced 
at €3.5 million at TEFAF 2012. Image courtesy of
Harry Heuts, exhibitor Sam Fogg.

The more I wandered through the different sections of antiquities, paintings, photography and design items, the more apparent it became that what was really on sale were pieces of history. Thousands of tiny drops of lives long gone, immortalised into a medieval ring, an Egyptian statuette or a Picasso painting, all at the mercy of potential buyers. And, despite the economic crisis, buyers made some remarkable purchases: "On March 20 a collector from Beijing paid [US]$2.5 million for a monumental two-handled vessel of the sixth-or fifth-century B.C.," reported the New York Times.

As I moved through the pavilion's alleys, all named after some of the world's most famous locations such as Trafalgar Square, Champs-Élysées, Madison Avenue or Place de la Concorde, I eavesdropped on a German visitor asking for the price of a geometric, abstract painting. "The price for Still Life with Flame is 105,000 euros, sir," said the art dealer as he slipped a business card into the potential buyer's hand. I moved closer to see the name on the tag attached to the painting; it read, "Jankel Adler, 1948." Maybe not a hugely popular name, but famous enough for the gentleman standing in front of the piece to seriously consider signing a cheque to secure the transaction.  

"What is it exactly that collectors want to buy?" A form of entertainment? A source of pleasure for their egos or senses? Maybe a place in history for themselves?

The accessibility of art is a century-old discussion, but I only realised the absurdity of turning art into business as I stood amidst that vortex of beauty, history and almost orgiastic flow of money. How funny to think that Van Gogh, Caravaggio or Da Vinci probably never imagined that their paintings would one day end up in some Chinese billionaire's lounge, completely detached and sheltered from the reality of life. I could not help but ask myself: "What is it exactly that collectors want to buy?" A form of entertainment? A source of pleasure for their egos or senses? Maybe a place in history for themselves?

From the art dealers and buyers to the enthusiastic visitors enraptured by the shapes and colours peeping through the hundreds of stands, from the young woman behind the reception desk to myself, one day we will all be gone, erased from history, never to return. The art we gathered to see will be the only thing that remains. Even the most affluent humans are only a vessel for art to survive untouched through time. So I thought, as I stood in front of an ancient Greek war helmet, wondering about the life of the men who once wore such protective gear. Did they die in battle or return safely to homes so distant in time and place from us now? I walked on.

My eyes were restless and could not take in all the splendour around me. I was eager to know all of the stories those objects were ready to reveal but time forbade me from doing so. I wondered if the art dealers themselves would be able to satisfy my thirst for knowledge, or if their skill was simply to create longing in potential buyers for something unique, without being able to define it. Were they just salesmen, or were they also storytellers?

I stopped at the stand of Swiss antiques dealer Heribert Tenschert, where some beautifully decorated medieval manuscripts were on display behind glass showcases. Some of the books of hours, Bibles and songbooks before my eyes dated back to the 12th or 13th centuries. Their miniature drawings and mysterious calligraphies brought my imagination back in time to the dark silence of cloisters in Bologna, Antwerp and Bruges, where monks worked in deep concentration on the pages I was now contemplating. Letter by letter, they embellished the silhouettes of dragons, animals and saints that brought those tales and sacred texts to life. Their mastery was accompanied by endless dedication, patience and devotion. To draw a sacrilegious comparison, this expertise could be seen as the medieval equivalent of modern graphic design. Will our descendants feel this same sort of reverence when looking at the illustrations of e-books in a few hundreds years' time? Hard to imagine, but never say never. 

Fashion of a time long gone: 
Giovanni Boldini’s Portrait of
Ena Wertheimer. Image courtesy 
of TEFAF 2012, exhibitor 
Robilant + Voena, London-Milan.

My tour continued and brought me to the contemporary art section, where an extremely elegant lady caught my eye. Her face was familiar, and yet her name escaped me. She wore a soft pink and white dress that left her shoulders naked, her skin as pale as that of a porcelain doll. Where did we meet before? Suddenly a name came to my lips: Giovanni Boldini. The woman who gazed back at me from the majestic height of her canvas was Ena Wertheimer, portrayed by the Italian artist Boldini in 1902. Although I had never seen her portrait before, I immediately recognised Boldini's touch, and the unmistakable style that immortalised so many members of Europe's wealthiest classes at the turn of the 20th century.

As I left most of the exhibition behind, I approached the design section: surprisingly enough, the space TEFAF reserved for presenting the best items on the design market was limited to only ten stands. Most displayed furniture by Johnny Swing, George Nakashima, Koloman Moser and Poul Kjaerholm, among others.

Finally, it was time for me to leave and go back to the real world. I could only take so much excessive beauty, and the abundance of it permeating throughout TEFAF overwhelmed my senses. I took a deep breath as I stepped back into the sunlight, where my mind struggled to readjust to the reality around me.

The first thing was opulence. And so was the last.  

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