BRAFA: Between Continuity and Renewal

BRUSSELS — Bernard De Leye has been an active member of the Brussels Antiques and Fine Arts Fair board since 2000, and the fair’s vice president since 2002. In a recent interview, he talked about new developments at the fair and the growing participation of foreign galleries.

How do you see BRAFA today?

“I think we can be proud of the work we have done and the status achieved by the fair. With around 120 exhibitors at an international level, I feel that we have succeeded in giving Brussels, the capital of Europe, an event on a European scale — and possibly even more.”

So would you like to enlarge it by increasing the number of participants?

“No, certainly not. I feel that we have reached a fair balance, in terms both of participants — with almost total parity of Belgian and foreign galleries — and of the special fields represented, none of which puts the others in the shade. Quite on the contrary, variety and eclecticism are as important as friendliness, among the greatest qualities of the fair, and we must preserve them at all costs.”

How do you see the current art market?

“In 2009, we were very worried by the economic situation, which was characterized by the serious repercussions of the financial crisis on the main Belgian banks. However, the 2009 fair turned out quite well – some exhibitors even had the best results ever! The fact that the BRAFA deals with mainly traditional items, with specialties of little interest to the purely speculative investment market, certainly contributes to safeguarding it to a great extent from major setbacks.

“However, the aftermath of the crisis is still making itself felt and confidence has not yet been fully restored. This means there is a low volume of trade, which in turn makes high quality works and objects harder to find on the market. Gallery owners are finding it difficult to renew their stocks. This is the main reason for the absence this year of some of its regular exhibitors. Some felt it better to stay away than to present the same items again.”

What trends do you see as surfacing at the moment?

“I have noted a certain return to the ‘traditional,’ to the old, safe values. I think this is a real underlying trend, not just a reaction to the fall in the most speculative specialties on the market. The slowing down of trade may also mean the end of galleries that cannot guarantee the best quality combined with real research work on the objects they are offering. For beyond an object or a work, art lovers are also looking for culture and knowledge, and only antiquarians can meet this need. In this sense, I think that we’re going to see greater specialization all round.”

What are the innovations of this 2010 edition?

“This year, we will again be welcoming around 15 new galleries. I am particularly pleased by the participation of seven specialists of world renown in the field of the primal arts, including, for the first time, Jacques Germain of Montreal, specializing in the arts of Sub-Saharan Africa, and Patrick Mestdagh, the president of the Brussels Non European Art Fair. This concentration is unique for a fair such as ours.

“Art Nouveau will be represented by the Tiny Esveld gallery, and we will also be welcoming four top Spanish exhibitors. We will be paying tribute to comic strips, of which Belgium is the proud progenitor, by featuring for the first time two exhibitors who will be presenting original drawings.”

And then there’s this exhibition of the treasures of the Museums of the City of Liège …

“An extraordinary event! More than 80 works and objects from the Liège collections, including eight of the night paintings from the famous Lucerne sale of 1939 (the Ensor painting is still on loan to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris). This was a historic purchase for the heritage of our country; opportunities like this are unique. We hope this will bring us closer to Belgian museums and curators and that we will be able to host other exhibitions of equal importance in coming years.

What changes do you hope to make during your term of office?

“First of all, I would like to continue to improve the general quality of the fair, while ensuring that it continues to be accessible. If visitors are to be able to find the best quality here at the best prices, exhibitors must be able to take part for a reasonable budget. This way we will guarantee the future of the fair in an increasingly competitive context.

“I would like to maintain the balance of Belgian and foreign exhibitors, while being able to welcome 15 to 20 new participants every year, because it is vital to be able to surprise and interest our visitors every time. We would also like to work on attracting new, younger visitors, who might perhaps not be such connoisseurs, while intensifying our attraction for the great international collectors.

“I would also like to be able to make the BRAFA a must for the primal arts and to open it up more to design, to the creations of the ‘50s and ‘60s, although this is difficult in view of the increasing number of events dealing with these specialties.

“Finally, the BRAFA must, above all, remain a friendly event, a typically Belgian quality that all foreigners emphasize and appreciate with us. For friendliness also helps understanding, discovery, exchanges…

“In general, I believe we must work for the long term; the quality of the exhibitors, the stringency of the expert appraisals, the constant renewal of exhibits and presentation, and the attention paid to market trends and the public are all guarantees of the future of the fair.”


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