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TEFAF Maastricht 2020 took place in that strange transitional period as widespread understanding of the coronavirus outbreak matured. Under tightening public health and economic conditions, the 33rd staging of the annual fair saw its share of challenges, closing four days early. But some important sales were reported.

Before opening its doors, three exhibitors – Wildenstein & Co, Fergus McCaffrey and Galerie Monbrison – had pulled out as had 12 out of 184 vetting committee members. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC was among the museums (especially those in the US) not attending the event in light of health concerns.

But as the event kicked off at the MECC on Thursday, March 6, many exhibitors balanced a sense of mounting anxiety with defiant optimism, praising organisers for carrying on. The fair offered hand-sanitising stations and extra cleaning services. Visitors appeared largely without masks and traditional greetings, from handshakes to hugs, were widespread.

However, by the following Monday, one exhibitor returning home to Italy tested positive for Covid-19 and on Wednesday, as reports hit the press, organisers took the unprecedented move of closing.

Days later, it’s easy to forget that sales, not shutdowns, were the main feature during the fair’s run.

Probably the most notable transaction was Vincent Van Gogh’s 1885 Peasant Woman in front of a Farmhouse, an early work by the artist, which was bought in the UK for just £45 in the 1960s. It was offered on the stand of Dickinson and went to a private collector for around €12m-15m.

Nicolás Cortés Gallery, meanwhile, sold a pair of 16th century panel paintings by Adriaen Thomasz Keys showing on one side a male donor with St Jerome and on the other a female donor with St Clare of Assisi. Measuring 6ft 10in (2.08m) high each, the panels were offered for €3m.

Several private and institutional purchases were made at the stand of Kunstkammer Georg Laue, including a Gothic agate saliera from 15th century Germany, which was offered for around £100,000 and bought by a European museum.

Strength from Europe

At TEFAF Paper, the Kröller-Müller Museum bought a self-portrait by the Ukrainian modern artist Alexander Bogomazov (1880-1930) from the stand of James Butterwick.

The manuscript De Laude Virginitatis (In Praise of Virginity), c.800, by St Aldhelm of Malmsbury, which had an asking price of €350,000 was a highlight on the stand of Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books.

Though Europeans seemed to lead the buying, dealers noted that there were still some significant US buyers in evidence too. Ancient art specialist Gaerlie Chenel, for example, sold an Egyptian, Middle Kingdom piece, c.1800-1640BC for €180,000 to a US museum, and a similar transaction took place at the stand of new exhibitor Enrico Ceci. It sold its 16th century Tuscan frame for a price in the region of €25,000-30,000.

“A dozen or so US museums did come,” said Dino Tomasso of the Tomasso Brothers. “They have been here. Ahead of the fair we were full of trepidation. But taking that away it was a successful fair.”

On the other hand, Rupert Maas, who specialises in British pictures, was among those saying he was affected by the lack of US visitors.

It is these buyers who normally gravitate to his stock. Instead, one of his standout sales was a pair of pictures by French artist Marcel Guillard, c.1920, offered for around €20,000.

In some cases, the fair encouraged sales in different formats.

“One of my top sales was to an existing international private collector who didn’t actually attend,” said TEFAF Showcase exhibitor Runjit Singh referring to two pieces of Tibetan arms and armour he had offered for six-figure sums. “He hasn’t come to the fair and wanted it after seeing photos. He knew I was bringing it to TEFAF and it is in my exhibition catalogue. Being at the fair created a sense of urgency as he knew he needed to make a decision.”

Lewis Smith, director of Koopman Rare Art, was not the only exhibitor to say that the quieter fair “helped us to focus on the clients we had here and give them more time that is otherwise interrupted by the flow of people when lots of visitors come in the first few days.” An early-17th century carved covered coconut cup with silver mounts by Andries Frederiks (1566-1627) with a price tag of £185,000 was among the London firm’s best sales.

Asian art dealer Ben Janssens also reported that many buyers had preferred the less crowded circumstances. He sold around 50 pieces across the first few days. These included a mid-6th century 15in (38cm) high Chinese pottery horse which went to a German private collector and an early 18th century Qing imperial silk and velvet dais cover which went to a Swiss client. Each was offered for around €50,000.

Last week it was announced that the next staging from the brand, TEFAF New York Spring, has been cancelled.