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Leisure: Fare Thee Well

Sheila J. Gibson

When art dealer Otto Naumann was ready to bring to market his finest acquisition, a $40 million Rembrandt painting of the goddess Minerva, he knew exactly where the grand unveiling should take place. He did not take it to Paris or London, nor did he stay home in New York. Instead, he waited for the 2002 edition of The European Fine Art Fair, which is held every March in the Netherlands and is better known as TEFAF Maastricht. "I am a proponent of open, honest dealing, which plays a role in why I brought the Rembrandt here," he said. "Part of my motivation is that I want everyone to see it. Every major museum in America and Europe is here, and every major collector is here."

TEFAF Maastricht has a reputation for amassing the best of the world’s available treasures. Not only do serious collectors make a point of visiting Maastricht in March; several museums—including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco—have sent representatives to scan and shop the exhibition floors.

This year’s edition takes place from March 14 through March 23, and 201 dealers from 13 different countries will attend. TEFAF Maastricht, it should be noted, is an invitation-only event that employs a committee of more than 100 expert vetters who scrutinize all items—from Asian antiquities to medieval sculptures to gilded leather wall hangings to old masters to modern art—before they are allowed on the exhibition floor.

In addition to the vetting committee, officials from the Art Loss Register, an international database of art, antiques, and collectibles that have been reported missing or stolen, will be on site to prescreen some works for sale and provide spot checks for interested buyers.

The following are some of the remarkable items that will tantalize collectors this year—provided they pass the vetters’ scrutiny.

Still Life and Death
The Dutch are famously fond of flowers, so it seems only natural that flowers were a favorite subject in 17th-century Dutch art. Abraham Mignon was one of the art form’s masters, and pictured on the previous page is his Tulips, Roses, Carnations, Morning Lilies, an Iris, a Sunflower and Other Flowers with Raspberries, an Orange, Berries, a Skull, an Hourglass with Snails and Butterflies on a Stone Pedestal, which will be offered by the London-based gallery of TEFAF founding member Johnny van Haeften and priced at just under $4.1 million. The exactness of the title reflects the exactness of the depictions. Each of the more than 25 blossoms that spill forth from the vase is botanically accurate. Mignon did cheat a little, however: Not all of the pictured flora flourish during the same season. Still, a darker message lurks in this rainbow bouquet: Mignon’s painting is a memento mori—a reminder of death, the most obvious symbols of which are the skull and the emptying hourglass that appear in the lower right corner of the painting.

Black Beauty
Contrary to popular belief, not all Dutch delftware is white with blue designs. Leading pottery workshops of the 17th and 18th centuries experimented with other background colors, the most notable innovation involving a glaze that became black when fired in the kilns. This technique enabled Dutch craftsmen to create pottery resembling Chinese and Japanese decorative objects with fine lacquerwork. However, black delftware proved difficult and expensive to make. The temperature of the kiln had to be exact: If it was too hot, the piece would burn; too cold, and the colorful details painted on the surface would fade into the black background. Robert Aronson, director of Aronson Antiquairs of Amsterdam, estimates that for every piece that emerged from the fires as its creator intended, 17 others were relegated to the trash.

Today, only about 100 pieces of black Dutch delftware are believed
to exist, and most of those take the forms of tea caddies (decorative storage units for tea), plates, and figurines. Aronson and his father, Dave, who is chairman of TEFAF’s executive committee, were thrilled to discover this $95,000 basin (left), one of only two or three black delftware basins believed to still exist. "It is very finely painted, even for black delftware. The colors are bright," Aronson says of the piece, which was created sometime around 1710. While he could not locate any written records describing the basin’s provenance, he is confident that it is genuine. "That’s the expertise," Aronson says. "I’ve studied Dutch delftware for 12 years now, and our gallery has been in existence since 1881."

Necessary Virtues
Nécessaires, as the name implies, were boxes that contained the items that the 18th-century woman could not do without. They could hold pencils, spectacles, grooming tools, vials of perfume, and sewing implements. Shown here (left) are two mother-of-pearl and gold rococo nécessaires. Offered by A La Vieille Russie of New York, they are priced at just under $200,000 for the pair. Manufactured in Germany sometime around 1750, both boxes will be sold with their full sets of original contents, including a tiny pair of scissors (shown in front of the box pictured on the left) that features eye rings made of gold.

While the contents of these boxes show some wear, A La Vieille Russie’s Mark Schaffer explains that fine nécessaires such as these satisfied needs beyond the practical. "They were not just embellished sewing kits," he says. "Part of the point was for them to be beautiful and admired. That was an end in itself." To serve that end, these nécessaires were fashioned from beautiful materials. The underlying framework of the boxes was probably made from gold, judging by the golden fittings found inside. Mother-of-pearl was laid over the frame, and then multicolored decorative goldwork was laid on top of the mother-of-pearl. Scenes of couples courting and cavorting grace the lids of each box.

While it is likely that the two boxes were designed as separate items, A La Vieille Russie has decided to present them as a pair. "Sometimes two pieces that are clearly by the same hand arrive by different means," Schaffer explains. "We are not making a special effort to keep them together, but they go well together and enhance each other by putting them in [this] context."

Engaging Art
The fascination with beautiful interiors is not a new one, as the work of Dutch painter Eglon Hendrik van der Neer demonstrates. One of his finest works is A Young Couple in an Elegant Interior (pictured above), which was made circa 1678 and, like the Mignon, will be offered by the Johnny van Haeften gallery, for just over $3 million. Van der Neer’s flair for depicting textures, fabrics, and surfaces is given full rein here in details such as the carpet on the table, the fur draped over the seat at the right, and the silver ewer in the lower left foreground.

As with the Mignon painting, van der Neer’s work is more than mere eye candy. The painting is commonly seen as depicting a couple becoming engaged to be married. The man is literally turning his back on his rowdy bachelor days, which are symbolized by the serving boy departing with the jug of wine and the discarded sword leaning against the chair at the right. The young woman, awed and perhaps apprehensive, takes her fiancé’s hand and holds fast to it. As they stride forward, they are looking into each other’s eyes rather than at the path ahead.

Island Treasure
Oceanic art dealer Anthony Meyer plans to bring a collection of objects from Vanuatu, an archipelago in the South Pacific, to this year’s fair, and a $200,000 tribal mask (pictured below) will be among them. Although it is impossible to fix a precise date to the mask, experts are certain that it was made before Captain James Cook’s voyage in 1774, during which he charted the archipelago and named it the New Hebrides (it became Vanuatu upon achieving its independence in 1980). "Metal only arrived with Captain Cook," Meyer explains, noting that this mask bears the marks of tools that were made from a native substance—bone, stone, perhaps even clamshell.

Carved from reddish hardwood and weighing between three and four pounds, the mask appears to have been an important ritual object viewed only by respected elder males upon their initiation into the highest rank of their tribe. Unlike most of this culture’s ritual masks, which were simply held in front of the face in the same manner as a Venetian carnival mask, this one displays wear on the parts of the interior that would have made contact with the forehead and nose.

How such a significant religious object came to leave its island home is a puzzle that Meyer believes he has pieced together. He has traced the mask’s provenance to a ship captain, Ernest Benier, who was sent to the area between 1882 and 1883 to search for a lost expedition. The captain apparently acquired the mask during his time there.

The European Fine Art Fair, +31.411.64.50.90, www.tefaf.com

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