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At TEFAF’s Second Fine and Decorative Art Fair in New York, Old Is New Again

A view of TEFAF at the Park Avenue Armory.

ARTNEWS

The European Fine Art Fair has once again jetted from Maastricht to Manhattan, stuffing the classic block-sized cavern that is the Park Avenue Armory with a couple millennia of fine art and artifacts, rare items and the objects of ancient civilizations. At the VIP opening today the fair felt very much at home on the Upper East Side, this despite it only being the second time it’s taken the space—the first edition was one year ago, and then TEFAF held its modern and contemporary fair at the Armory in May.

Perhaps the feeling of familiarity comes from the appropriateness of place—the old-money collectors can saunter over from Fifth Avenue addresses and stock up on stuff from old-world art dealers. But Old Masters and antiquities also seems to have more of a kick this time of year, when we’re wedged between Frieze Masters in London and the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sales in New York.

Plus, old is new again: In November, Christie’s will offer in its postwar and contemporary sale and very prewar and non-contemporary work, Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi, a portrait of Christ said to be the last work by the artist in private hands. It is guaranteed at $100 million, though could go for much more.

Naturally, there were plenty more depictions of Jesus in various booths at TEFAF—at the Blumka Gallery booth alone there were paintings of Christ from the Upper Rhineland, Nottingham, and 17th-century Rome. But the offerings ran the gamut across all of human existence, until the cutoff at 1920. The Phoenix Ancient Art booth had a bronze carving of an ancient Egyptian mongoose called an ichneumon from the third intermediate period, which took place between 1070 and 713 B.C. This is old! And there was also an extremely chill bowl from Ancient Greece that if referred to as a kylix. It was used to drink wine—a lot of wine apparently, as it’s a big bowl—during some Dionysian symposia, and when you finished all the wine there’s a cool image of a dude wearing a tunic. This rad object will set a lucky collector back $400,000.

Much more expensive were the much more modern works across the Armory at the booth of London Gallery Richard Green, which I was excited about because a pre-fair notice said they would have work from a variety of old-world categories, including “British,” “Sporting” and “Marine.” I was not disappointed by a lack of Englishness, sports, and boats, but I was most taken by a Monet, Plage et Falaises de Pourville (1882), which was being sold for $7.8 million. A work by Picasso also in the booth, Verre et pichet (1911), is on sale for $3 million.

The Monet and the Picasso have clear provenance, but even in this vetted fair, it’s not to hard to find objects with a slightly murky ownership history. A bronze sculpture of Samson and the Lion by Giuseppe Piamontini was “probably” from the Borri Collection in Florence in the 1750s. A truly immaculate set of alabaster swans listed as its provenance the following: “almost certainly the Earls of Pembroke, Wilton House; by descent to Lady Juliet Duff (1881-1965), niece of the 13th and 14th earls.” And so on.

But those who streamed into the VIP opening didn’t seem all too concerned with the wall text, what with the popped bottles of bubbles, generous plates of smoked salmon canapés, and bearded guys shucking fresh oysters from buckets. Anderson Cooper was checking out bibles in the Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books booth, while the billionaire beer baron brothers Andres and Alejandro Santo Domingo were deliberating over the purchase of an ancient stone vitrine. Do it! Auction head honchos Guillaume Cerutti (the CEO of Christie’s) and Ed Dolman (CEO of Phillips) were there, as well as Frieze Fairs director Victoria Sidall. But there was no sign of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who was listed on the tip sheet, presumably because he has to finish work in Washington, but also maybe because he was at home, admiring his Magrittes.

Even without a member of Donald Trump’s cabinet, the opening of TEFAF is a lavish, if somewhat high-tension affair. As I was leaving, a man working the event standing by one table of canapés bent to an earpiece and said, with all the intensity of a secret service agent following protecting the president, “Crudités Two needs another endive plate right this moment!”

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