TEFAF – The Fairest of All Fairs

TEFAF 2011 – Pottery Figure, China, Tang Dynasty (618-907), Vanderven Vanderven Oriental Art, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands

All the art world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. And one man or woman in his or her time plays many parts, …say: a historian, a dealer, a connoisseur, an auctioneer, a publisher, a banker, even an (art) insurance provider and/or a collector. These collectors are, of course, to be differentiated from the far too many art buyers or investors whose buying practices may be described as anything but, well, collecting. Here, at TEFAF European Fine Art Fair, in Maastricht, it is a breath of fresh air to be among so many collectors who think beyond the financial or trophy values of their acquisitions. The majority are tastemakers whose involvement with the art world enriches the canon of art history in its myriad fields. And, yet, still there are those whose participation(s) question, expand or alter that very canon.

TEFAF is one of the most exalted stages on which these players perform their parts. Just ask anyone who attended the fair’s VIP preview on Thursday, March 17th. The several thousand invited guests consumed two thousand bottles of Bollinger Champagne to mark the 24thanniversary of world’s biggest and most prestigious art fair.

If all this sounds a bit too… too to you, it may be because you, most likely, have never attended TEFAF. When describing the ten-day event (March 18-27), a majority of visitors to the fair deliver superlatives trippingly on the tongue. Calling TEFAF the largest, most beautiful, sophisticated, glamorous & discrete … in summation, the fairest of all art fairs, is fair game indeed.

Founded in 1977, TEFAF has grown in size and stature to its present day status of hosting no fewer than 260 international dealers with more than 30,000 works on display, valued at $2.5-3 billion.

There are a number of reasons for TEFAF’s almost exponentially growing success, over the past quarter of a century.


Situated on the river Meuse (Maas), Maastricht is one of the (if not the) oldest cities in the Netherlands. Despite its relatively small size, Maastricht has cultivated a distinctly sophisticated hospitality industry that is well-suited for TEFAF’s discriminating visitors. “Oh, you are so lucky. Maastricht is very beautiful. It is not really a typical Dutch city, you know, … but very French, very continental,” was the response of nearly every Dutch friend in whom I confided of my visit to TEFAF. For a small city (120,000 population), Maastricht has a remarkably large number of exclusive hotels and renowned restaurants. Take, for example, Kruisherenhotel Maastricht that is housed in a 15th century church and monastery. The hotel’s very contemporary interior design creates a dazzling contrast with its late medieval Kruisheren (Catholic) architectural style. Other local cultural institutions that stage TEFAF-related special programming, include: the Bonnafantenmuseum and the Limburgs Symfonie Orkest (Limburg Symphony Orchestra).


Maastricht’s mere physical proximity to Belgium, Germany, France and Luxembourg renders it one of the most international cities in Europe. In fact, the city is bidding for  the European Capital of Culture, in 2018. This internationalism is an integral feature of Maastricht; a characteristic that is simply heightened during TEFAF. A casual mid-morning visit to Selexyz bookstore, for example, introduces visitors to various dialects of German, French, English, Italian and, of course, Dutch, including the local one from Maastricht. A friend, Annie Sanatgar, tells me, “Northerners don’t really understand us, you know. Maastricht accent is very difficult for other Dutch speakers to comprehend.”

Ceaseless Dedication

The organizers of TEFAF work on the annual event on a full-time basis. Titia Vellenga, the fair’s Director of Marketing, emphasizes, “There is no off-time for us. As soon as TEFAF is over, we start working on next year’s program.” 2012 also marks TEFAF’s 25th anniversary.

The work of TEFAF’s full-time, international staff is supported by an enviable group of twenty-nine vetting committees comprised of 175 internationally recognized experts, include a number of curators from some of the world’s most influential museums.

Nearly every curator with whom I met in Amsterdam, early last week, told me that I could catch up with them at TEFAF. Maite van Dijk, Nienke Bakker (both of Van Gogh Museum) and Pieter Roelofs (the Rijksmuseum) were only a few Dutch curators whom I saw chatting away with fellow curators and exhibiting dealers. That is, when they were not busy leading groups of collectors to various exhibitions.


Thanks to their due diligence, the qualities of the majority of works on display at TEFAF are outstanding. This is particularly true of old master objects and antiques, as well as those in the recently-introduced Works on Paper section. Modern and contemporary art dealers also present the cream of the crop of their collections that mainly include blue chip artists such as (numerous) Picasso’s not to mention, for example, a lavish exhibition that is dedicated to Pierre August Renoir courtesy of the Hammer Galleries, in New York City.


More than 260 internationally renowned exhibitors show the best objects from their collections in eight distinct categories of: i) Antiques; ii) Paintings; iii) Modern; iv) Classical Antiquities; v) Works on Paper; vi) Design; vii) Business Pavilion (various services including art insurance, etc.); and viii) TEFAF Showcase (of six new dealers).


TEFAF organizers’ attention to details may be compared to the design and management of a (very) temporary museum exhibition and a five-star hotel. From the nuanced choice of colours, fabrics and textures on the walls to the ways in which luscious bouquets of flowers modulate throughout various elements in the fair or the customized lighting of each individual exhibition booth… it is safe to say that no other fair has, yet, managed to compete with TEFAF.


There is something unapologetically opulent about TEFAF’s you can look and you can touchair. This naturally does not apply to every object on display. However, considering most works’ canonical/museological qualities, the fair offers its visitors a range of aesthetically luxurious experiences.

Luxury Redouble

Art that is not for sale – Another manifestation of TEFAF’s espousal of luxurious aesthetic consumption is the organizers’ choice to allocate a much-coveted, generous space to an exhibition that is organized by the (Dutch National) Rijksmuseum. Considering the exceedingly high costs of real estate space at the fair, this is a very seductive way of sensitizing (teasing) visitors, a noteworthy percentage of whom can afford to acquire many objects throughout TEFAF.

The exhibition is organized by Wim Pijnes, the Rijksmuseum’s Director. Happy Huntershows prints and drawings (c. 1485-90) from the museum’s permanent collection. The theme of hunting has been wittily adopted as a metaphor for passionate collectors’ pursuit of their next acquisition(s) at TEFAF.

The Rijksmuseum’s conservation booth, on the first floor, has been underwritten by the Dutch banking group ING (Internationale Nederlanden Groep).


On the day of the fair’s preview, I caught the sight of Princess Marilène of Orange-Nassau who is married to Prince Maurits, the nephew of Queen Beatrix. I thought to myself that only at TEFAF would a Princess from a ruling royal family feel this at ease to walk about alone and un-guarded, while carrying her own sitting stool. I also found out that it was no coincidence that the stunning brunette was spending what seemed like a long period of time with the Rijksmuseums’ representatives. In fact, for the past three years, Princess Marilène has worked with the Friends of the Rijksmuseum, on a part-time basis. Her first Friend recruit? The Netherlands’ very own Crown Princess Máxima.


Attending TEFAF is an audaciously sensual experience. That is, above and beyond the visual, and often tactile, pleasures of engaging with museum-quality works of art, antiques and antiquities.

Nearly every corner of the fair has its own special scent that is not only, or necessarily, derived from the tens of thousands of fresh cut flowers that are on display. My curiosity was (partially) satisfied when I heard, through the grapevine, that a German exhibit designer who specializes in scents is responsible for curating this aspect of TEFAF’s gracefully tender coup des sens.


Over the past few years, TEFAF has been moving toward expanding the fair by: strengthening its Modern and Contemporary art department, and, introducing two new sections on Design and Works on Paper.