The Art Fair Curators Love

In theory, any collector who is willing to pay for a work of art is a good collector.

But art dealers favor having a museum as a client, since an institutional purchase confers prestige on the art, as well as the gallery that sold it.

TEFAF Maastricht has always prided itself on having groups of museum curators, directors, donors and trustees who attend the fair, and actually collect there. The famously strict vetting process, and the fair’s overall reputation, provide a comfort level for some of the world’s most prestigious institutions.

“I sold to two museums from my booth last year,” said TEFAF’s chairman, Hidde van Seggelen, a contemporary art dealer based in Hamburg, Germany.

Here are a few notable museum acquisitions that originated at the fair over the last few years.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / Bust of the painter Henri Nazon by Émile-Antoine Bourdelle, 1893

Marietta Cambareri, curator of decorative arts and sculpture at the M.F.A., saw this terra-cotta bust in 2019, in the booth of the Parisian gallery Talabardon & Gautier. It was the last time she attended TEFAF in person, and she is planning to go back this year.

She was with a group of several colleagues, who all agreed that the piece was worth buying.

The bust was love at first sight. “This was a no-brainer,” Ms. Cambareri said. “The M.F.A. did not have a sculpture by Bourdelle in the collection before this acquisition, so it filled a significant gap in our 19th-century holdings.” Beyond that, the sculptor and the subject were close friends, and Bourdelle once worked in the studio of Auguste Rodin.

But the appeal was more than just checking off boxes. “It’s so sensitively modeled, and it has a powerful presence,” Ms. Cambareri said. She added, “I am a big terra-cotta person.”

The curator had a heads-up from the dealers that the bust would be at the fair, a routine form of communication before a fair starts, which she said can be helpful for planning. “We go in prepared — we know what funds we have,” Ms. Cambareri said.

Museum purchases are rarely immediate. Typically, an institution puts a piece on hold before beginning what can be a lengthy process of getting a purchase approved by an acquisition committee, or courting a collector to donate it. And the museum needs time to look into a work’s provenance — the history of its ownership — and condition, too.

Everything checked out with this bust. “It just fits,” Ms. Cambareri said of its role in the M.F.A.’s overall collection. And having it on hand is giving her ideas for future shows. “We want to create an installation around this moment in turn-of-the-century sculpture in Paris,” she said.

Cleveland Museum of Art / Cigar box by the House of Fabergé, attributed to Feodor Ivanovich Rückert, circa 1896–1908

Heather Lemonedes Brown, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s deputy director and chief curator, was browsing at the 2018 edition of TEFAF Maastricht. Stephen Harrison, then the museum’s decorative arts curator, let her know that he had made a discovery. She recalled, “He said, ‘I’ve found something fantastic, come take a look.’”

The Fabergé cigar box, sporting a green and blue peacock, is made of silver gilt, enamel and gold, plus one sapphire. It was in the booth of the London dealer Wartski.

“There’s a riot of color in the enamel work,” Ms. Brown said. “The peacock was considered a symbol of imperial royalty.”

The House of Fabergé was a workshop, with many hands working on the bejeweled objects that made the studio famous, particularly the Fabergé eggs and other pieces commissioned by the Russian czars. “Silversmiths worked for him, just like they did for Tiffany,” Ms. Brown said; Feodor Ivanovich Rückert is thought to be the individual craftsman.

The only other cigar box that’s similar in size and style is in the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, she added.

The museum also has plenty of context for the acquisition.

“We have a wonderful collection of Fabergé already, with a gallery solely devoted to it,” Ms. Brown said. “Sometimes you buy to add to a strength, sometimes to fill a gap — in this case, it’s a strength.”

She noted that a fair visit by a curator can be considered a success even if nothing ends up being acquired from a particular fair.

“Being able to see so many works under one roof is helpful,” Ms. Brown said. “We also use it to remind dealers what we’re looking for.”

“Fairs are so important,” she added. “If we don’t go, we really miss it.”

Metropolitan Museum of Art / commode by Pietro Piffetti, circa 1760

On view now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an 18th-century Italian commode by Pietro Piffetti that made its way via a circuitous route into the museum’s collection. Wolfram Koeppe, a senior curator of European sculpture and decorative arts at the Met, spied the object at TEFAF in 2018, in the booth of the London dealer Luca Burzio.

Mr. Koeppe knew it would be a great addition to the museum, with one catch. “A rising enthusiasm was slowed down upon learning the substantial price tag,” he said. “The commode seemed not to be within reach at that moment.” The piece was shown again the same year at a New York edition of TEFAF, where a collector, Errol Rudman, snapped it up.

As it happens, Mr. Rudman lived only a block away from the museum. He learned of the museum’s interest in the piece and later, he bequeathed it to the Met; he died not long after acquiring it. Mr. Rudman also left the museum some Old Master paintings.

The Met did not previously own anything by Piffetti (1701–1777). Finding anything outside of Italy by his hand is “extremely rare,” Mr. Koeppe said. “He had a highly individualistic artistic personality. The patterns he applied are quite daring.”

The gilt bronze mounts on the commode are attributed to a different artisan, Francesco Ladatte, and the piece is one of a pair; the other one is in a private collection.

Mr. Rudman was known as a painting collector, and not a furniture specialist, said Mr. Koeppe, who speculated that the floral inlay may have reminded Mr. Rudman of a still life.

Nationalmuseum / “Bertel Thorvaldsen in His Studio” (1840) by Johan Wilhelm Gertner

In 2019, Magnus Olausson, the director of collections for the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, was notified by a dealer that a special picture would be on view at the Maastricht fair. (It was being shown by Talabardon & Gautier, the same gallery that sold the terra-cotta bust to the M.F.A. Boston.)

“But you always have to take a close look,” said Mr. Olausson. He inspected and thoroughly approved of the portrait of a well-known sculptor of the Danish Golden Age, “Bertel Thorvaldsen in His Studio” (1840) by Johan Wilhelm Gertner.

“It’s a glamorous picture of a glamorous person, done in a realistic way,” Mr. Olausson added.

The oil painting dovetails with the museum’s interest in art from neighboring Denmark. The Danish Golden Age is “one of our strongest fields,” said Mr. Olausson, who noted that the Nationalmuseum is Scandinavia’s largest museum as far as holdings, with around 700,000 objects.

The portrait is small, roughly nine by twelve inches, “but it has a great presence,” said Mr. Olausson. “It has an intimate feeling, and you can really look at him.” Thorvaldsen, who eventually lived much of his life in Italy, was an international art star of his era. “He was a great celebrity in Sweden,” Mr. Olausson added.

The portrait, which is on view now, managed to star in an exhibition of Danish Golden Age art in 2019, the same year it was acquired, because of the museum’s nimbleness. “Time is one of our weapons,” Mr. Olausson said of the lack of bureaucracy, and the fact that the streamlined staff can make decisions quickly. “That’s our competitive advantage.”

He added, “In this case we had to react immediately — the purchase only took a couple days.”

A note to eager dealers at this year’s TEFAF: The fast-acquiring museum is now focusing on making acquisitions of French art of the 18th and 19th centuries.

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