Each March, the MECC—a huge trade show site under a single roof in Maastricht in the southern Netherlands—becomes a self-contained fantasy world of art. For ten days it houses the European Fine Art Fair—TEFAF—which its organizers claim, probably with some justification, is the largest and most important art fair in the world.
The wares brought by the dealers to the stands they rent and decorate at great expense are rigorously vetted. No vetting committee at other fairs approaches the distinction of the TEFAF Old Master Paintings Vetting Committee. Its membership is over twenty strong, and comprises museum grandees—directors, both sitting and emeritus, and curators—who among them boast something approaching a thousand years of artworld experience. Some have been committee members from the very beginning; others appear once only. Somewhat to my surprise, I have been what in Dutch is termed a keurmeester (literally “choice-master”) since 1994.
Over the course of two days, with the dealers absent, we move from stand to stand, looking for anomalies. We pass over the good stuff with little more than a glance: our attention is supposed to be directed at the problems. “Call that a Velázquez (or a Rembrandt, or a Master of the Dead Parrot)? No way!”—and we gather round, examine it, downgrade it (“Attributed to the Master of the Dead Parrot…”) or give it the pink slip, and it’s out. Two conservators are on hand to shine their powerful lamps on suspect paintings, giving them the third degree. If there’s too much new paint hiding old damage, it’s a goner.
Dealers can appeal, and defend their questioned paintings to the committee, which reconsiders its earlier decision, sometimes confirming it, sometimes rescinding it. This is not a perfect system, but the committee is excellently chaired, and the process is probably as fair as any that could be devised. The idea is not to settle academic disputes about the attributions of works of art, but to give the buying visitor confidence that the descriptions of the things they see are reasonable.
I have learned to wear comfortable shoes—slip-on suede leather clogs—because sauntering from stand to stand from nine in the morning until seven at night, with only a short break for lunch, takes its toll on the feet. In the last couple of years we have been accompanied by two servers who dispense refreshments appropriate to the hour from a cart. In this world apart, the appearance of juice, coffee, tea, or wine, by turn, is the only vague indication of what time of day it might be. I’m invariably amazed by the stamina of my older colleagues: scholars in their sunset years who trudge uncomplainingly from picture to picture, making piercingly acute observations, while relative youngsters like me wilt while searching for the nearest seat for a moment’s respite.
The appeals continue into a third day until the press is admitted. Then at noon the opening party begins. Glitzy collectors from all over the world arrive in throngs to pick up bargains while seeing and being seen, sipping Saint Emilion and grazing on endless canapés for the next nine hours. Eventually, champagne is poured into row upon row of flutes on bar tops—not ersatz, but the real juice of the Widow. I make a discreet grab for a corner glass, beaded bubbles winking at the brim, only to be reprimanded by the server: “Not until five o’clock!” (It’s ten of.) How unspeakable! How Dutch! “But by then it will be warm,” I riposte before withdrawing.
But there are people, people, people: dealers and collectors, museum scholars and flâneurs (“You’re so elegant! How chic! Did you hear who bought the Michelangelo, and for so much? No! Really?”) An adviser to a New York collector, miffed that his employer has been beaten to a star painting by a celebrated collecting couple from Boston, wonders whether he should buy a charming little Circumcision (a drawing) for himself. It’s a snip. The good pieces, priced in the millions (euros, dollars—who cares?) find buyers. The very rich remain very rich, and are looking for secure investments, which, if attractive, serve another purpose, too; so blue chip Old Master paintings—not the equivocal, inflated contemporary stuff—hold steady. The dealers, unsure beforehand how things might turn out, are relieved.
After eight hours, I meet my dinner companions and leave, but am back the next day for another eight hours. By the time I get on the train to Amsterdam I’m glad to be on my way home, yet I wouldn’t willingly miss TEFAF for anything. Next into the MECC, after the fantasy world of art from ancient Egypt to Andy Warhol has dissolved, will be—I guess—a trade show of agricultural machinery. Such is commerce.