The latest addition to the round of international art and antique fairs took place from 16 to 24 September at the Messe Basel, Switzerland. Organised by The European Fine Art Foundation who are responsible for the Maastricht fair each spring, it aimed to share the Maastricht reputation and participants. Many Maastricht stalwarts did indeed take part although the fair was considerably smaller. There was also a different balance of subjects: far more antiquities dealers catering to Swiss interest in this subject (London book dealer Thomas Heneage announced that of the books he sold at the fair, 30% were on antiquities); less in the way of textiles and Old Master pictures; less contemporary art (obviously not needed in a city which hosts one of the top contemporary art fairs); and no loan exhibition.
Displayed over three floors — furniture and works of art, pictures and Oriental art, antiquities, modern jewellery, books and manuscripts - the fair was gratifyingly plain in presentation and reasonably user friendly, if a little uninspiring. Well designed stands such as those of Bernheimer and Neuse were in striking contrast to some less experienced participants, one of whom placed her objects on the floor, arousing protests from other dealers.
There is no doubt that the choice of Basel provides a rich catchment area for potential visitors: many dealers interviewed by The Art Newspaper expressed confidence in the potential spending power of both Swiss and foreign visitors. However, the event got off to a very slow start, with only 1200 visitors on the first full day, and a total at the end of the week of 12,500 (compared to Maastricht's 45,000).
Of course, fairs take time to build up momentum, but one cannot help feeling that the TEFAF organisers really should have had a head start with this one. The suitability of the venue was underlined by the list of sales which did take place at the fair: Günther Antiquariat of Hamburg sold a Bohemian illuminated Gradual for SFr600,000 and a Latin lectionary for around SFr700,000, while Karl Mohler of Basel sold a group of topographical engravings published by Merian for around SFr600,000. The antiquities dealers saw lively sales, with Galerie Günther Puhze of Freiburg selling around sixty pieces. Among the picture dealers, Colnaghi sold a seascape with fisherman by Hubert Robert for £100,000 and Salis and Vertes from Salzburg sold a Renoir flower piece to a UK collector for around DM500,000.
There were many very fine pieces in the fair: Neuse's David Roentgen desk and their cases of Kunstkammer objects; a splendid printed cotton eighteenth-century Indian surcoat from the Deccan with Galerie Soustel; Gandharan sculptures with Rossi and Rossi (one of which sold for around $18,000, and German and Russian goldsmith's work with Payer. However, there was also a lot of not very good material, particularly among the antiquities and some of the Old Master pictures. Some more real artistic highlights might have helped.
At the end of the fair, a poll of the 139 dealers who took part apparently indicated that 95% would return next year. It is now up to the organisers to capitalise on this enthusiasm and promote the fair much more heavily within the city and region of Basel itself. These days, one can take nothing for granted.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A slow start but enthusiasm for the Antique'