A Dramatic Start for TEFAF

MAASTRICHT—There was plenty of excitement at TEFAF (The European Fine Art Fair) as 9,300 VIP guests tramped through the 227 stands during the Thursday preview, sipping champagne and consuming endless trays of canapés.

Amid that gala atmosphere, a gang of four thieves, apparently well dressed and sporting official VIP passes snagged from the Internet, snatched a €1.2 million ($1.8 million) diamond necklace, created in 1948 by the American goldsmith William Ruser, from an unidentified U.K.-based exhibitor and fled the giant exhibition hall, according to a source familiar with the heist. So far, three of the suspects—identified as two Mexican women and a Costa Rican man—have been apprehended. The fourth apparently remains at large with the hot bauble.TEFAF confirmed the theft but offered no other details apart from noting an ongoing police investigation. picture: http://www.artinfo.com/news/enlarged_image/27026/84025/

That escapade didn’t seem to affect business, which appeared brisk in the area dedicated to 44 modern and contemporary art dealers, the largest such representation since TEFAF first established that section in 1991.Preview action was particularly busy at Hauser & Wirth (Zurich and London), which sold a large, lyrical Joan Mitchell abstraction, Untitled (1958), for $4 million; Willem de Kooning’s minimal blue-and-yellow Untitled XV (1986) for $5 million; and a bulbous Louise Bourgeois bronze from an edition of 6, Avenza Revisited (1986), for $1 million. The gallery also sold a menacing-looking pair of figurative sculptures by Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere, both titled Pieta, for €180,000 ($276,000) each. “We have two tough pieces here,” said gallery owner Iwan Wirth. “People really wanted to know about them.”

Wirth also said the fair is “noticeably more contemporary than it was last year,” when the dealer debuted at TEFAF.First-time exhibitor Haunch of Venison (London), which is owned by Christie’s auction house, sold about ten works during the preview, including Gerhard Richter’s fuzzy Realist composition Portrait Schmela (1964) for a little less than $2 million, according to director Graham Southern. Haunch also sold two freshly minted ash sculptures on iron tripods by Chinese sensation Zhang Huan at $60,000 apiece. Both buyers were European, according to the dealer, which supported the widely held impression that few Americans were buying, likely due to the worsening exchange rate.

“We haven’t been here before,” said an obviously pleased Southern, “so we’re Maastricht virgins.” Not everyone was so upbeat. One London-based dealer noted, “It’s definitely slower than a year ago. The serious collectors I haven’t seen; the plutocrats haven’t arrived as yet, though there are plenty of museum curators.”

And several major galleries, including PaceWildenstein and Gagosian Gallery, were notably absent. Most observers linked this to their distaste for the slower pace and more deliberate style of buying and selling at this European fair. It was also hotly rumored that a pending legal battle involving the widow of Wildenstein gallery patriarch Daniel Wildenstein, who died in October 2001, and her stepsons could be responsible for PaceWildenstein’s low profile in Europe. The gallery could not be reached for comment, though a source close to one of the directors indicated a major legal battle was brewing.

Jewelry heist, scattered grumbling, and legal entanglements aside, the fair was off to a strong start at the preview. Commerce continued steadily at New York’s Sperone Westwater, with two new oils on antique maps by Julian Schnabel from his navigation series — Santa Catalina Island and Umpqua River (both 2007) — selling at €45,000 ($69,000) each. The dealers also sold a large new figurative painting of glamorous models in a luxurious, tapestry-dominated sitting room by Dutch artist Jan Worst, After Virtue (2008). The work was purchased by the Scheringa Museum for Realism in Spanbroek, The Netherlands, for €150,000 ($230,000).

“I take elements from different sources,” said Worst, who was standing by his painting. “It’s a literary technique from the novelists of the 20th century à la Thomas Mann.” The fair’s early transactions weren’t confined to the postwar and contemporary sector, as Munich’s Galerie Thomas sold a beautiful, double-sided painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner for €3 million ($4.6 million) to a private European collector. The work consists of Two Women in White in the Forest (1923), which portrays the artist’s wife and sister-in-law, on one side, and Flower Nursery in Dresden (1910), on the reverse.

With the fair running through March 16, gallery owner Raimund Thomas was expecting plenty more activity in the days to come. “We’re in a price range where you don’t make up your mind in two minutes,” he said.