It makes a lot of sense that this reporter’s first time witnessing a Jeff Koons Louis Vuitton bag in the wild was at today’s VIP opening of the first TEFAF New York Spring. And what a glory it was, a $5,000 bag emblazoned with the words DA VINCI in gold, the Mona Lisa printed on the leather, hung nonchalantly on the arm of a collector as she perused the offerings at the Park Avenue Armory.
Of course, there were far pricier items than a $5,000 bag available at the opening of TEFAF’s first modern and contemporary fair in New York. The European Fine Art Fair made a bold play for transatlantic dominance when it announced in February 2016 that it would hold two fairs in New York City’s primo real estate, the Upper East Side’s block-sized armory. The first, which occurred in October, was dedicated to work from antiquity to the 20th century; this week’s fair asked galleries to bring modern and contemporary art and design.
That puts it squarely in competition with another European fair with a New York outpost, Frieze, which opens tomorrow on Randall’s Island. Of course, Frieze is much bigger (200 galleries across various sectors, as compared to the 92 at TEFAF), but local collectors showed up alongside those from out of town: Donald Marron, Steve Martin, John McEnroe, the Mugrabis, the Nahmads, and Beth Rudin DeWoody were among the potential buyers stalking the booths in the fair’s opening hours.
But were they buying? Somewhat, though dealers emphasized that this is a fair where patience is rewarded (and it runs a whole six days, twice as long as this year’s truncated Frieze) because the scholarly nature of the material on view attracts more contemplative buyers, not quick trigger-pullers. And this is a vetted fair, meaning each work needs to be authenticated and approved by the fair, and the provenance of works is often listed on the wall text.
“For me, I’m looking for the art fair that doesn’t have the crazy one-hour race—this fair is the right location, the right brand, and it’s highly vetted,” said Mathias Rastorfer, director of Galerie Gmurzynska, the Swiss gallery with outposts in Zurich, Zug and St. Moritz. He was standing in the middle of the gallery’s booth, which had been built out by Alexandre de Betak, the fashion world’s go-to set designer. It’s the first booth you encounter when you walk into the stately hallways of the Armory, and it’s quite the statement: all hot white lights and huge mirrors.
Anyway, it seemed to work, as the gallery sold Roberto Matta’s Ouvrir les bras comme on ouvre les yeux (1954) for around $1 million.
The spectacle continues up the grand center staircase, where a slew of galleries occupy the historic rooms off a narrow hallway in which servers wheel around fabulous canapés and the bartenders keep the Champagne flowing—oh, that’s right, everyone was drinking bubbly as if it wasn’t the very early afternoon. In this section Di Donna is displaying work in conjunction with the show that’s up at its gallery in New York, “A Surrealist Banquet,” with Salvador Dalí lobsters and Man Ray pears.
Over at Christophe Van Weghe there’s an Ed Ruscha drawing for $235,000 that DeWoody eyed but didn’t buy, and elsewhere on the top floor, Hauser & Wirth has a booth with work of particularly interesting provenance—senior director Graham Steele directed us to a small Philip Guston charcoal-on-paper that had been a gift from the artist to the critic Harold Rosenberg. (“To Harold Philip ‘69” is inscribed in a small note at the bottom right.)
But the booth’s blockbuster work is a Cy Twombly, Untitled (New York City) (1968), which was on reserve for $6.5 million. It was sold by Leo Castelli to Victor Ganz, who sold it at Christie’s in 1986. Then it was sold by Galerie Karsten Greve in Cologne to the Sony Collection, and then it went back to Galerie Karsten Greve in St. Moritz, and now it is being sold by the collector who got it from them.
“It’s not just New York collectors here, it seems very international,” said Hauser & Wirth partner Marc Payot.
As if on cue, four different conversations between dealers and collectors emerged in four different languages: English, French, German, and Japanese.
On the main hall, heavily built-out booths are stacked in three rows, with smoked-salmon stations dispensing nova, and Champagne everywhere. David Zwirner highlighted two new developments in its program—it decided to do the fair to emphasize its upcoming presence on the Upper East Side, where it will open a space in the fall, and to highlight the work of Ruth Asawa, whose estate it recently took control of when they poached Christie’s specialist Jonathan Laib in January.
In the opening hours, Zwirner sold Untitled (S.531, Hanging Six Lobed, Two Continuous Interlocking Forms), (1950), a large sculpture by Asawa, for $1.5 million, as well as a smaller Asawa sculpture for $400,000, and an ink on paper work for $100,000.
Elsewhere, Galerie Boulakia from Paris hadn’t sold its $8 million Jean-Michel Basquiat, Red Joy (1984)—first shown at Mary Boone, then sent to Switzerland via Bruno Bischofberger—but Sean Kelly found a buyer for Kehinde Wiley’s Akilah Walker (2015) for $250,000, and Petzel sold a work by Dana Schutz, Self-Eater (2003), for $400,000 in the first few hours.
And San Francisco dealer John Berggruen said that even though he hadn’t yet sold the giant George Condo in his booth, The Pilot (2012), which he had on offer for $1.3 million, he was optimistic.
“We do sales continuously,” he said. “We do OK the first day, and then we just keep on going.”
“I just try to keep myself amused,” he added.