What was new and different a year ago is now more routine: a venerable art fair is completely digital.
The organizers of the European Fine Art Fair, which will present TEFAF Online 2021 from Thursday to Monday, decided that given the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, a virtual edition was the smart move – although several fairs have taken place in person so far this year.
“We’re not there yet to do it in person,” says Hidde van Seggelen, chairman of the fair and trader in contemporary art. “We don’t want to take the risk. We focus on celebrating 35 years of TEFAF next year in Maastricht.”
Founded in 1988 in Maastricht, the Netherlands, the fair normally takes place there in late winter. In 2016, it expanded with two editions in New York, in the spring and fall, but now plans to hold just one annual event there, starting in spring 2022. TEFAF had a previous online edition in November.
More than 260 dealers from around the world will exhibit this time virtually, with a limit of three works each.
“It’s good to limit it and focus the mind,” said Mr. Van Seggelen. “And over 700 objects is already a lot.”
TEFAF has long prided itself on its rigorous auditing process, which became even more rigorous in 2019 when the exchange tightened rules to ensure independent experts led the process, not dealers.
“We keep our auditing standards high, which is even more difficult online,” said Mr. Van Seggelen, as the process is usually largely in-person. “With 28 committees and 180 people, it’s complicated.”
The range of material, from antiquity to the present, is one of the selling points emphasized by the organizers.
“TEFAF is a trade fair without borders”, says Mr Van Seggelen. “We represent 7,000 years of art history.”
As Christophe Van de Weghe, board member and exhibitor, put it: “The future of collecting is cross-collecting”, which means a mix of eras, styles and media.
Based in New York City and East Hampton, NY, Mr. Van de Weghe will display works by Picasso and Keith Haring, as well as Alexander Calder’s 1972 cell phone “Petit Rouge and Bas”.
Traditional, older works – and the collectors who prefer them – have long been the mainstay of the fair.
Lutz and Christiane Peters, married collectors based in Hamburg, Germany, have purchased half a dozen paintings on TEFAF over the years, many from what Mr. Peters called the “classic modern” period of the early 20th century, including two by the German painter Max Beckmann.
“The great thing about TEFAF is that you can trust it to have the best art in the world,” says Mr. Peters, who owns and operates a country club. “If there is one work by Beckmann on the market, it will probably be on display at the next TEFAF.”
The couple’s collection also includes a 16th-century painting by Lucas Cranach the Younger and two works by Toulouse-Lautrec.
mr. Peters is the type of collector that art fair organizers had wondered when online art fairs really took off: Would high-end buyers, accustomed to face-to-face interactions, make a purchase through a click?
He said he was open to the idea.
“I haven’t bought anything online yet,” Mr. Peters said. “But why shouldn’t I? As long as I know the seller.” He stressed that working with trusted galleries, including Dickinson of New York and London, was his main concern.
Mr Peters said he would not be traveling to the Art Basel fair in Basel, Switzerland, which was due to take place in person this month, but only because of a scheduling conflict.
“Covid wouldn’t stop me,” he said. “As long as the regulations allow it.”
Some dealers display only one work on TEFAF Online, including New York’s Sean Kelly, who represents “Blue Moon” (2021), a painting by the German artist Janaina Tschäpe.
“Her work is somewhere between abstraction and landscape,” Mr Kelly said of the 10-foot painting, full of colorful markings.
Since the start of the pandemic, he has participated in several digital fairs.
“These online exchanges are an empowerment and a revelation,” said Mr. Kelly. “We are reminded that we are social beings. But by being digital, you reach a much wider audience.”
He added: “We are going to see these hybrids in the future. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Striking sculptures from hundreds and even thousands of years ago are among the works that can be scrolled by visitors to the fair.
Based in Hong Kong and London, the Rossi & Rossi gallery will display a Tibetan Buddhist bronze, an 11-piece Avalokiteshvara figure made circa 1400 with silver and copper inlays and studded with semi-precious stones.
“It was most likely made for worship, for a temple,” says Fabio Rossi, who runs the gallery with his mother Anna Maria Rossi. “It’s big and magnificent. You don’t see something like this very often.”
Mr. Rossi said that in a perfect world he would rather be in the same room with collectors. However, he noted that online exchanges can also act as a conversation starter that leads to an eventual sale.
“Especially when you’re dealing with classical works, they need dialogue and conversation with the client,” he said. “The customer wants to stand for it. But these are challenging times. We have to adapt.”
Charis Tyndall, a director of the London gallery Charles Ede, said that among her three works she would present a man’s head in quartzite, made around 1320-1292 BC, during Egypt’s 18th dynasty.
The votive statue depicts a man intoxicated, the commissioner of the piece, and on the back it begs the pharaoh to ask two gods to take care of the man in the afterlife. (Mortals could not speak directly to the gods and used the divinely descended pharaoh as an intermediary.)
“This funeral request is a formula, like the Lord’s Prayer,” Mrs. Tyndall said. “The goal was to party in the afterlife. The most common requests are for bread and beer.”
She added: “I think they had that right.”
The quality of the carving is unusually good, she said, and the sculpture has survived more than 3,000 years without being damaged.
“The 18th Dynasty was the pinnacle of Egyptian artistry,” said Mrs Tyndall. “This is as good as it gets.”
A beauty object that can also provide a window into a distant, ancient world exemplifies the power of art that collectors like Mr. Peters to return to TEFAF and other art fairs, online and in person.
Viewed in one way, he noted, collecting is simply a more rewarding form of investment.
“We love our paintings,” said Mr. Peters. “Instead of looking at anonymous bank account numbers, we enjoy these assets on a daily basis.”