06 April 2015

Provenance was optional at 2015 TEFAF in Maastricht

by Angelina Giovani

The 28th edition of the European Fine Arts Fair, TEFAF, closed its doors on March 22, 2015, in Maastricht. It welcomed 75,000 visitors and collectors from 65 countries. It took place at Maastricht’s main convention venue, the MECC, which was splendidly decorated with floral assemblages, bringing together a total of 136,000 flowers. For those of you who have never been to a fair of this magnitude or never had a similar experience, it felt like fragments of history on parade.

TEFAF is where you go to view the finest works of art outside of museums. It offers you the possibility to walk away with a Picasso, a Rembrandt, or whatever you can afford. Almost all prices are available upon request and cannot be found on tags accompanying the images. One definitely needs more than just a day of wandering through the fair to get a feel for what really goes on. It is overwhelming and fascinating at the same time.

In most cases very little information accompanies the works of art, such as the name of the artist and the date of creation. In the instance where either of the above is missing, they are replaced with school and approximate date.

Provenance information is lacking in most of the 109 fine arts stands, including those in the paintings section color-coded in green and the Modern section in purple. Antiquities, marked in blue, are not included in the statistics below. A cursory study into the kind and amount of provenance included in the 59 stands of the Paintings area highlighted five categories in which to fit provenance information:

provenance on the wall,
provenance in the catalogue,
provenance in the gallery book,
partial provenance and
no provenance.

33 of the 59 painting stands included provenance information on the wall, next to the relevant work of art.

Out of the remaining 26 stands, 11 had no provenance information whatsoever, neither on display, nor in the catalogues.

Not every stand had catalogues. Most of those that did have one handed them out for free. Others were available for purchase at an average price of 20-25 euros.

10 stands offered partial provenance, meaning that there was ownership history only for part of the collection.

4 out of 59 stands confined their provenance information exclusively to the exhibition catalogue and only 1 of them was limited to the gallery book, which is not for sale.

The Modern section, in purple, is a different story. The provenance issue here is less acute because of the nature of the art. Although there were works by Ernst, Kokoschka, Kirchner, Klee, and an overwhelming number of works by Picasso and Matisse, most of the art was created in the post-1945 period, making the lack of provenance information barely justifiable.

Out of 50 modern stands only 6 had provenances on the wall and only 2 included partial provenance information. One of the dealers at the fair explained that the choice of what goes on the tag, is driven by aesthetics. “We like to keep our space clean and minimal, without a lot of text to distract the visitors from the actual pictures”. The Art Loss Register apparently vets all the works on display at each TEFAF but if history is any indicator, we should not hold our breath. The effort to document the ownership history of objects on display should be institutional and individual.

I looked for Caspar Netscher’s “Woman Feeding a Parrot” [Frau mit Papagei, or Lady with a Parrot] having become familiar with it during ESLI’s Provenance Research Training Program (PRTP) in Vilnius. I felt a sense of relief upon spotting it. 
"Lady with a Parrot" at Maastricht

HA 9-Frau mit Papagei
This painting had once been the property of a Belgian Jewish family, Hugo and Elizabeth Andriesse, who had to flee Belgium before the German invasion of April-May 1940. Recently restituted, the heirs—several American charities—decided to sell the painting through Christie’s in New York. Barely a year went by and the new owner, in an apparent attempt to cash in on the market highs, offered it for sale at Maastricht. Hope springs eternal, especially where millions of euros are involved.

There is something about standing in front of a work of art you know a lot about. But then I looked at the wall. The label accompanying the painting only contained basic information, even though unlike most works, it included the price, at € 6,700,000. But it somehow felt ‘naked’, without a story attached to it. The full provenance, sure enough, was included in the catalogue, which you had to ask for, since it was not on display. The painting is nr. 13 on the catalogue and the text retraced the Andriesse painting’s journey from Brussels, the ERR’s seizure of the work, its transfer to the Jeu de Paume in Paris, before going to Goering, the Bunker Kurfürst and leading up to the Wuppertal museum until it agreed to restitute it to the Andriesse heirs, without putting up as much as a whimper in 2014. Strangely, the work is not included in the fair’s sold highlights: did it actually sell?

This being said, melancholy sets in when one stands in front of a work of art that you admire, and the thought hits you that it could be the last time you will ever see it up close, before it ends up in someone’s private collection, probably in some faraway land.