High style in the low country

BRUSSELS, Belgium – This city has grown to become the capital of the European Union, and a lavish January tradition has now placed it among the leaders in the world art markets. The 2008 Antiques and Fine Art Fair of Belgium is a feast for the eyes, whether one’s tastes run to Old Master paintings or startling contemporary creations.

The fair – now in its 53rd year – is an amazing cultural event, especially for American tastes used to Spartan settings and a more casual approach to the antiques trade. In Brussels, presentation is everything for the 130 exhibitors, and the atmosphere is more in line with what one would expect at a museum or fine gallery. The fair’s catalog is a fat, glossy hardbound book running to more than 600 pages!

Brussels 9054.jpgDating from the late 17th century, this Swiss-made pine table has a 3-inch-thick sliding top and a drawer in the splayed base. “It’s like a sculpture,” said dealer Bruno Speybrouck of Kortrijk, Belgium. It was priced $35,000.

Though the show’s official dates were Jan. 18-27 (exactly the same as the Winter Antiques Show in New York) a press preview was held Jan. 16, presided over by the event’s president, Grethe Zeberg. She welcomed dozens of visiting journalists from Europe (and a lone representative of the United States), Tour and Taxis 2-20.jpgwho were then allowed to wander through the facility known as the Tour & Taxis.

The 2008 Antiques and Fine Art Fair of Belgium was held in the former mail-sorting facility known as the Tour & Taxis, built in 1903-4.

It was the fifth time that the Antiques and Fine Arts Fair of Belgium took place in the large halls (about 40,000 square feet) of this former mail-sorting station that dates to 1903-04, located along the Willebroek Canal. On this occasion, the postal workers were replaced by dutiful waiters in white, serving champagne and hors d’oeuvres, and catwalk-thin hostesses wearing the designs of Nina Meert, who has been dressing the likes of Isabelle Adjani and Meryl Streep for almost 30 years.

Following the fair’s official opening by His Royal Highness Philippe, Duke of Brabant and the son of Belgium’s Queen Paola and Prince Albert, Jan. 17 saw the “vernissage” (literally “varnishing” in French) or VIP preview. Dealers at the fair know this day is more about being seen than closing a sale, and politely field questions from both potential buyers and curious journalists.
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Offered by Flore of Brussels, this piece of Louis XV furniture may be used as a settee “canape,” or disconnected to create three chairs ($88,000). Owing much to Jasper Johns, the contemporary lighted American flag is a collaboration between two artists, one of them an optician (about $13,000).

Outside the hall, a fleet of customized Audi sedans delivered collectors (who had parked in a lot a few hundred yards away) to the show’s main entrance, which was patrolled by stern security guards accompanied by beefy, muzzled dogs.

Brussels 9046.jpg(Right) Galerie Martel-Greiner of Paris specializes in decorative arts, sculpture and paintings of the 20th century. The chrome chair (one of a limited edition of 20) in the center of this eclectic display was priced at about $30,000.

All of those in attendance (estimated at 35,000 people) passed though swinging doors into an inky blackness lit only by large screens looming overhead, on which played images of the fair’s featured exhibit: “The Legend of Alexander the Great,” a pair of 15th-century tapestries from the Princes Doria Pamphilj Collection in the Palazzo del Principe, Genoa, Italy.

The Royal Manufacturers De Wit in Mechelen, Belgium, (who were also among the fair’s exhibitors) restored the hangings. Each tapestry required two years of work.

Passing from the tapestry exhibit into the fair, a visitor is struck by the unique drama that each booth exuded. Many had jet-black walls, the setting broken by bright cones of light that focus on a single sculpture or painting. One contemporary-art seller positioned his lights on the 12-foot ceiling so they would shine through a sheer cloth, the effect being a diffuse yet brilliant aura without shadows. One jewelry dealer’s walls were simulated marble; another had panels of Circassian walnut lining the entire 100 feet of wall space.Brussels 9048.jpg

Except for the wares offered by a dealer from London, none of the antiques and art was priced.

Girl with a Cow by Henry Luyten (1859-1945) in an amazing Art Nouveau frame, offered by Stefan Campo of Antwerp.

Besides Belgium, countries represented also included Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Luxemburg, Monaco, the Netherlands and Switzerland. They offered a huge variety of antiques, antiquities and art. Quality is guaranteed by an independent vetting committee. These experts are not exhibiting at the fair, and are mostly museum curators and specialists from all over the world.

9053 AT 2-20.jpgA buzz of languages might leave American ears puzzled, but they were all talking about the same thing: Where to buy, where to sell, where’s the market?

Figure of a jester, carved and painted wood, probably made in southern Germany, 18th century, about $30,000 in the booth of Bruno Speybrouck, Kortrijk, Belgium.

The firm of Maier & Co. Fine Art, Stuttgart, Germany, specializes in the artists of the Barbizon School (circa 1830-1870), who were influenced by the works of John Constable. His rural scenes inspired some of the younger artists of the time, moving them to work directly from nature. Natural scenes became the subjects of their paintings rather than mere backdrops to dramatic events.

“When you are talking about the traditional collector of 19th-century art, you can’t compare it to the market 30 to 40 years ago,” said dealer Thomas Maier. “The market for contemporary art has gotten so strong, while sales of Barbizon and Impressionist art have gone down somewhat.”Brussels 9043.jpg

This German-made Wanderer W3 Puppchen, 1913, was displayed at the 2008 Antiques and Fine Art Fair of Belgium. Bank Delen was the show’s main sponsor.

“Yes, it has gotten easier to buy less-expensive paintings, but no one wants the cheaper works,” he added, echoing the sentiments of many American dealers.

“We have joined the fairs in Belgium and the Netherlands because the younger collectors here have more knowledge about art than those in Germany,” Maier said. “When you see young people at fairs here, they are often with their parents, so they are learning about art and antiques from their families, not in the schools. The circle of people who understand this kind of art is getting smaller and smaller.”Brussels 9059.jpg

Desk with three armchairs designed by Andre Sornay (1902-2000), aluminum and red-lacquered wood, original glass top, circa 1930, offered by Galerie Alain Marcelpoil of Paris.

So how are Maier and his colleagues reacting to this changing market?

“That’s easy,” he replied, “We are always trying to buy higher-quality works. It’s much easier to sell works by, for instance, Corot (Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, 1796-1875) for, let’s say, 200,000 euros (almost $300,000) than it is to sell a painting for 7,000 or 10,000 euros. We trade up always.

“We also serve as experts and consultants, even to American auction houses. My colleague and I, we have also studied economics, and are actively managing art portfolios for investors. We care for these works in our gallery, and when there’s an exhibition planned, we arrange that these artworks are included. The investment period for these portfolios is about five to six years.

“Everyone is talking about art consultancy, but we are one of the few galleries in Germany actually doing this. The average portfolio is worth about 250,000 euros (about $366,000).”
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Massive Chinese stonewall sculpture featuring a Kylin, a mythical creature said to be an omen of prosperity. At more than 5 feet tall, the 17th-century creation was about $58,000 in the booth of K. Grusenmeyer of Brussels.

Several dealers said the Brussels fair compares favorably with the prestigious European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, the Netherlands, coming up on March 7-16. That event, known simply as TEFAF, features about 220 dealers, and has grown so popular in the last few years, organizers actually wanted to cut attendance. After more than 84,000 people visited in 2006, ticket prices were raised, which resulted in a drop in attendance to about 71,000 in 2007. According to the fair’s Web site – www.tefaf.com – “Many exhibitors commented that the lower visitor number had made the fair more comfortable and the atmosphere more conducive to buying.”

For more information on the Antiques and Fine Art Fair of Belgium, including hundreds of images of guests, dealers and merchandise at this year’s event, visit www.antiques-fair.be.