TEFAF’s connoisseurship at your home

Just before the launch of TEFAF NY’s first online viewing, COLLECT spoke with brand new CEO Hidde van Seggelen. His team has had an eventful year. Maastricht 2020 closed its doors in the middle of the fair, Spring New York kept the gates closed but now it’s all hands on deck. TEFAF New York is taking along dealers from all over the world for its online edition and TEFAF Maastricht is looking forward to a warm live fair in May. 

TEXT: Els Bracke

TEFAF is the sum of many dealers who reinforce each other, as is made clear by the large number of participants of TEFAF online. Calling the current art market flexible, dynamic and innovative is an understatement. Van Seggelen: “When we switched to TEFAF Online and realised that the corona crisis was spreading wildly around the world, we thought it would be a good idea to involve the entire TEFAF community. Over the years, we have grown into an organisation with a total of 340 participants, 280 of whom are based in Maastricht. Each participant is only allowed to show one object. This requires a great deal of discipline on the part of the dealer but gives us the opportunity to show a broad diversity. Quality across disciplines, it’s a motto that TEFAF stands for. The participants were chosen from the selection of TEFAF Maastricht 2020 and the cancelled TEFAF Spring New York fair.”  

Brief and powerful

By analogy with a physical fair, the choice was made to create a short momentum: the dealers meets their audience and buyers – albeit online – at a set time. What’s more, the very best customers are given access to a preview after which the general public comes to watch. “At TEFAF, we sometimes talk about offering an online platform with selected participants throughout the year, but then we would become more of a gallery and that isn’t our goal”, says Van Seggelen. “Two things were at the forefront of this story: the attention span and the vetting. Two points of importance that ultimately made us choose one masterpiece per dealer. What TEFAF is and what it stands for can be seen online here, what goes on in the gallery and outside is left to the dealers themselves. What is most important to us and what we work hardest on behind the scenes is the inspection of the objects. It would have been a hell of a job to vet several pieces of each participant. On the one hand, it would have been impossoble to organise, and on the other hand, we cannot afford to let go of our quality threshold. One of our strongest characteristics is precisely this inspection. So ultimately it was the high quality of what TEFAF participants bring to the table that convinced them to present a single piece. 

© Robert Simon Fine Art, New York, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Workshop.

Cultural heritage

“The enormous restriction and reticence distinguishes us: we are concerned with exceptional quality and connoisseurship, we will never let go of that. At the same time, we have an enormous diversity. Not everything costs a million or more at TEFAF, we also show interesting objects that cost a few thousand euros. Of course, on this online platform you won’t find the cheapest pieces easily, but one of my favourite objects in this edition costs 12,000 euros, which is rather affordable. We have, for example, someone like Jörn Günther, a particularly academically trained manuscript dealer who‘s on one of the main aisles during the live fair and specialises in manuscripts and miniatures. The history of the art of printing and the transfer of knowledge is his specialisation. The fact that we pay as much attention to this as we do to a dealer trading in big names such as Picasso is what makes TEFAF so unique. At which other fair will such people be given this kind of platform? 

Support measures for the best

Some works of art are very much subject to the ravages of time, such as pieces from antiquity, archaeological finds, but also Old Masters or antiquarian books. You should be able to take a closer look at them. Buying online therefore entails a greater risk than with, say, modern paintings, where provenance but also the state are more perceptible. Do certain sectors require more attention and support from TEFAF today? “The market is what it is. TEFAF once started a collaboration with Claire McAndrew to publish the figures of the market. In recent years, we followed up with focus reports. As many analyses are currently being made about the market, we are still in the conceptual phase of how we can contribute this year. Supporting and addressing the less accessible sectors is also part of our job. This way, we’re not only helping dealers but collectors as well. But we do stick to the very best. If the best is not there, there is no point in dragging something forward. We have to remain realistic about this. There is no point in offering things that have no quality.” 

© Axel Vervoordt, Hong Kong/Antwerp, Monumental head of Min.

New technology

Anyone visiting the website will not end up in a stunning augmented reality with impressive 3D scans of antique vases and sparkling jewellery. After all, a lot depends on the merchants and some are more creative and innovative than others – just like when it comes to setting up a stand. Van Seggelen: “We don’t have teams travelling around the world to instruct people and set up cameras. We do provide guidelines, but everyone has to interpret them in their own way. With the new platform we mainly want to see people coming to us efficiently, but for next time we certainly want to implement innovative technology. It’s an expensive affair. But although only one piece is shown on our platform, nobody will be prevented from following the link and taking a look on the dealer’s website. In this way, we also make it easier for the participants. 

Collectors from the closet

Art dealers, fairs and auction houses are all doing their utmost to write this new story. Of course, they need collectors to join in. “Someone at an auction house down the street recently told me that some of their important Old Masters collectors don’t even have an email address yet. Because the auction house does not distribute printed catalogues, this employee personally makes sure to inform these collectors of interesting pieces by means of selfmade prints. But these are the same people who come to TEFAF and buy art there. TEFAF wants to bridge the big step towards an online story by avoiding screen fatigue from scrolling past too many photos and stories, and by showing just that one masterpiece from each dealer. You get to see a page with a carousel at the top where you can view the work and more details. Underneath you will see the details about the object and you will immediately see whether the dealer is online or not. If he is, you can ask questions or make an appointment after a click. It is the kind of window shopping where you knock on the door and someone welcomes you. Or there is no one there and you walk along.

The communication afterwards takes place outside the platform. If the piece is sold immediately, it will remain there until the end of the ride, there will be no changes. Some dealers have made surprising choices, while others pick a work that feels familiar. Especially an older generation of collectors has to overcome thresholds to be able to participate in this new story. That is why we make it as easy as possible to make contact and chat. And for those who miss the friendly fair talk: we never want a website to replace the fair, we want online and offline possibilities to reinforce each other.” 

© Pace Gallery, New York, Donald Judd.

Live in spring

Proactively and effectively, the TEFAF organisation decided at the beginning of October to move TEFAF Maastricht from March to the end of May 2021. “In choosing the start of summer, we opted for a time when temperatures are higher, where people can move more easily, come out of winter healthier, and where Maastricht feels safe, a city where people can move around in a relaxed way. Van Seggelen loves Maastricht and points out how accessible the city is from all over Europe without having to take a plane. “I hope that collectors will want to go to TEFAF again at the beginning of next summer and that they will be able to look at good art there in a very safe way.” 

Online only, prior registration. 
01-11 to 04-11