Going Dutch

BY Anna Brady / Mar 8 2017 / 16:00 PM

Now in its 30th year, TEFAF Maastricht is a European institution, a fair with an unrivalled variety of art and antiques. Yet it is little known in the Middle East. Anna Brady talks to the fair’s Indian and Islamic art specialists about the fair and what is on show from the region this year

Going Dutch
Detail from Isfandiyar slays the dragon, from Firdausi’s Shahnama. Iran, Shiraz. circa 1580-1585. Opaque watercolour and gold on paper. Sam Fogg.
Going Dutch
TEFAF Maastricht 2016

Within the European and UK art world, going to The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht has been an annual March pilgrimage for the past 30 years. Each year, collectors, dealers and curators in every field from Old Master paintings to antiquities to Impressionist art fly in from all over the world to this quaint, historic little Dutch city on the River Maas. 

In 2016, over ten days 75,000 visitors attended to peruse the 270 galleries participating, with some 400 private jets landing at Maastricht’s small airport alone. The fair features everything from European Old Master paintings–the core of TEFAF, harking back to its roots as an Old Master fair–through to Modern and Contemporary art. Alongside is tribal art, antiquities, antiques, modern design, Asian, Indian and Islamic art and haute jewels–the Graff diamonds stand is guarded by thick set suits every year. 
A visitor at TEFAF Maastricht 2016. Image courtesy of TEFAF Maastricht
TEFAF is known for its quality and breadth, spanning continents and millennia. Yet it’s relatively little known in the Middle East, something that the organisers and exhibitors are keen to change. “Often referred to as the cradle of civilisation, the Middle East has a sophisticated culture and long history,” says CEO Patrick van Maris. “This, combined with current taste, wealth and time to enjoy quality, makes the Middle East an important region for TEFAF.” Due to confidentiality, van Maris will not disclose details of Middle Eastern visitors, but says, “It is generally known, however, that several members of the royal family from Qatar have visited TEFAF Maastricht as have many museums such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the National Museum of Qatar, and The Museum of Islamic Art of Qatar.’’
The fair, he says, is keen to attract more collectors from the region. “We are aware that the Dutch city of Maastricht may appear quite remote for people who are not familiar with this part of Europe, but it has an excellent airport that accepts both private and scheduled flights and we have a dedicated concierge service that can take care of literally everything, from arranging flights, hotels, private tours, restaurant bookings and cultural excursions.’’ Van Maris predicts that “As the market for contemporary and modern Indian and Islamic art develops, we anticipate that this will be reflected in the offering at TEFAF Maastricht’’ adding that the inaugural TEFAF New York Spring, taking place from the 4-8 May, “is dedicated to celebrating modern and contemporary art from around the world.’’
Detail from an Iznik tile, Turkey. Second half of the 16th century. This polychrome tile would originally have formed part of a larger panel. Courtesy Amir Mohtashemi.
Middle Eastern content at the fair had been thin on the ground, aside from the Near Eastern, Yemeni, Anatolian and Mesopotamian antiquities seen around the cluster of galleries focusing on ancient art. TEFAF has a long and competitive waiting list for stands, galleries generally speaking have to wait for another to depart before getting in. But, in 2013, the organisers invited two Indian and Islamic specialists to bolster the field: Galerie Kevorkian from Paris and Amir Mohtashemi from London. Corinne Kevorkian says before they joined “Ancient Near Eastern art was barely represented and Islamic art was not at all in the fair.” The lack of presence at TEFAF, she believes, is indicative of a wider problem of Islamic art being marginalised, of “the narrow, if any at all, space that was granted to Islamic art in Europe despite a long history of collecting and the late realisation of its actual importance.” The Louvre, Kevorkian adds, only opened a dedicated department for the Arts of the Islamic world in 2003; until then, it was a mere section of the Ancient Near Eastern antiquities department. 
Amir Mohtashemi, a British-Iranian based in London’s Kensington, says he and Kevorkian are still the only two dedicated Indian and Islamic stands at the fair, although others such as the longstanding exhibitor Sam Fogg, a medieval art specialist also from London, always exhibits a few pieces. More on Fogg later.“The fair doesn’t get enough Middle Eastern clients, but strangely I actually don’t have many Middle Eastern clients, they are nearly all European and American, I don’t know why that is,” says Mohtashemi. He muses that perhaps it is due to a lack of serious connoisseurship within the region. “The Middle Eastern clients I do have are normally focused on one area, for example some only buy arms and armour and others focus on Iznik.” At Maastricht, he sees “maybe one or two Middle eastern visitors” but their attendance is sporadic.
Isfandiyar slays the dragon, from Firdausi’s Shahnama. Iran, Shiraz. circa 1580-1585. Opaque watercolour and gold on paper. Sam Fogg.
Andrew Butler-Wheelhouse, Indian and Islamic art specialist at Sam Fogg, thinks TEFAF has built up a name in the Middle East with established collectors. However, “More could be done to spread the word amongst the newer generation of collectors that TEFAF really is a unique place to get to know the quality and the breadth of the art market.” The fair, says Butler-Wheelhouse, used to have more dealers offering items from the region, and “this has started to come back in recent years as it has shown that visitors to the fair do really value its diversity and global outlook.”
“Of course,” says Kevorkian, “European visitors are a majority but there is also a fair proportion of Middle Eastern visitors. The key visitors from these regions are essentially institution representatives, reflecting the growing will over the last years of some countries and Emirates to build and enrich a cultural and artistic heritage.” Although wary of defining trends, she notes that with European collectors, Ancient Near Eastern pieces are most successful, “whereas American collectors in New York show a strong interest for Indian but also Persian miniature painting.” The so-called ‘cross over buyer’, a fashionable term, also dabbles. Some collectors in Modern and Contemporary art show a “spontaneous taste and unpremeditated interest for Ancient Near Eastern as well as Islamic art and some of them end up building up fantastic collections,” adds Kevorkian.
Butler-Wheelhouse finds newer collectors tend to focus on works of art connected to their own background or ancestry, although in general, clients “tend to buy simply because they appreciate the beauty of an object and its refined craftsmanship regardless of its place of origin.” 
So what is particularly desirable in the field of antique Indian and Islamic art, and what is hard to come by? Top quality Persian and early Mughal miniature paintings are, says Kevorkian, both desirable and increasingly hard to find, while Butler-Wheelhouse sees a trend for works on paper, particularly refined manuscripts and calligraphy pages. Given the conflict, instability and widespread looting of cultural sites in some areas of the Middle East, as with antiquities, provenance is becoming ever more important, says Mohtashemi. “I’m always hunting out top quality pieces with good provenance; for museums especially, the provenance has to be bullet proof, with a paper trail. It’s no longer good enough to say your grandmother brought it years ago.”
 South Arabian Female torso. circa 1st century BCE. Alabaster. Galerie Kevorkian.
Cross-cultural material is also fashionable at the moment, such as export wares. These may be pieces made in the Middle East for the European market, or those imported to the region such as Chinese blue and white porcelain, the demand for which was driven by Turkey and Persia, rather than Europe, in the 16th to 17th century. Such pieces are rich with history, telling a story of changing national tastes, trade links and cultural exchange with their blend of stylistic influences. Imperial connections, or a demonstrable link to a specific ruler or patron, are much desired too, says Butler-Wheelhouse. “These are hard to find as court production was focused more on quality of the highest order rather than quantity.” He is ever on the hunt for works which are in good condition, those lucky survivors of the region’s turbulent history. This is just a slice of a minority discipline at a fair so broad in the range of quality art and antiques on show that it is often likened to a museum, albeit one with commercial intentions. Past editions have witnessed the unveiling of Van Dycks, Van Goghs and Rembrandts. 
As Van Maris mentions above, the TEFAF brand has just expanded to the US, with two fairs in New York. The inaugural TEFAF New York Fall ran last October to rave reviews and the organisers hope for a similar response to the first TEFAF New York Spring this May, focused on Modern and Contemporary art with exhibitors including international giant contemporary galleries such as White Cube, who don’t exhibit at the more traditional Maastricht original.“At the moment people in the Middle East just don’t know about it,” reflects Mohtashemi. “But if they came they will be astonished. It’s such a great fair, a real destination. Make a holiday out of it.”  
CEO of TEFAF Maastricht Patrick Van Maris will be doing a live Q&A with Anna Brady, Features Editor of Harper's Bazaar Art and Interiors, on Saturday 11 March at 12pm at the AXA Art Lounge.
TEFAF Maastricht runs from March 10-19 2017 at the MECC, Maastricht, Holland. For more information see Tefaf.com