Fair Preview

TEFAF In Focus

Although these days it faces no shortage of competition, TEFAF Maastricht is still considered the world’s premier fair for antiques and fine art. Each of its participating galleries, which this year number 275 and hail from 20 different countries, undergoes the strictest scrutiny before gaining entry to the fair; following this, every single item proposed for exhibition must pass through an exceptionally vigorous vetting system involving 175 experts in nearly 30 categories of specialization. The resulting display evokes a sprawling museum exhibition, the chief difference being that every item on view in Maastricht, be it a centuries-old antique or a work of contemporary art, is for sale.

There isn’t a single piece at TEFAF that doesn’t warrant a story in and of itself, but here, we’ve chosen to spotlight just a handful of highlights from six of our participating dealers, ranging from a Danish sofa of royal origin to a highly usual lava-top table. Grasp the rarity of these items — not to mention their exceptional provenance, condition and quality — and you’ll understand just why there is no fair quite like TEFAF.


Finn Juhl sofa, ca. 1941
offered by Dansk Mobelkunst, Copenhagen

 

Royals still reign in Denmark, so it seems fitting that the Copenhagen gallery Dansk Mobelkunst is showing, literally, a royal sofa at TEFAF this year. Constructed of finely grained dark rosewood and upholstered in white wool, the elegantly modern piece was designed in 1942 for the Royal Suite at the National Broadcasting House in Copenhagen.

At the time, Functionalist architect Vilhelm Lauritzen had been commissioned to create Copenhagen’s new radio broadcast headquarters and concert hall (today a national landmark and home to the Royal Danish Academy of Music), and he assigned the interiors to his young associate, Danish architect Finn Juhl. Especially important was the Royal Suite, where the king of Denmark would wait to deliver radio speeches and where he would bring his family before attending performances of the symphony orchestra.

“In the nineteen-forties, when there was no television, radio was very important,” says Ole Hostbo, the director of the gallery. The Royal Suite was the “green room” of its day.

For this oft-visited space, Juhl designed a sofa with a floating seat and a separate, large back with curved sides, giving a soft edge to a strict, modern outline. (The influence of Jean Arp, a sculptor he admired, is evident.) Danes, of course, are connoisseurs of wood. “We really care about finding the right wood for the right piece,” Hostbo says. “Juhl chose the finest-grained Brazilian rosewood, which is now extinct, and paired it with light fabric, to show off the shape.”

The manufacturer of the sofa was A.J. Iversen, one of the leading cabinetmakers of his time, who famously worked with another great Dane, Ole Wanscher. “In the 1940s, it was unusual to use exotic woods like mahogany from Cuba and rosewood from Brazil, and they were difficult to bend,” Hostbo notes. “It was also time-consuming; this piece could have taken nine months.”

The sofa has it all: quality, excellent condition and perfect — even regal — provenance, and it is the rare survivor to exhibit such craftsmanship. “Early Finn Juhl pieces are hard to find,” Hostbo adds. “We knew about this suite of furniture but thought it was gone. It was in the building until ten years ago, and no one knew where it was — it ended up with an employee.”

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Fernand Léger gouache, 1950
offered by David Tunick, New York City

 

Léger, Les Constructeurs, rectoThe esteemed New York dealer David Tunick is a recognized authority on prints and drawings from the 15th to the mid-20th century. A particular specialist in works on paper by Rembrandt and Durer, Tunick is offering an unexpected gem at TEFAF this year: a work by the acclaimed French artist Fernand Léger (1881-1955). This animated 1950 gouache study of Les Constructeurs (The Builders) represents a section of the painting of the same name that’s now in the Henie Onstad Art Center, the museum opened by Olympic-skating champion Sonja Henie outside Oslo in 1968.

In the gouache, which is signed “F-L 50” in pencil, two muscular workers scamper atop the metal girders of a factory under construction. Dressed in black and white, the men balance on beams outlined in red and white. Puffy white clouds float across a bright blue sky behind them. It is a dynamic, energetic scene representing a theme Léger explored many times and here executed in France’s national colors. (A similar 1950 Léger gouache in yellow sold at Sotheby’s in November of 2012 for $1.4 million.)

Working as an architectural draftsman, artist, stage designer and illustrator before World War I (during which he barely survived a crippling mustard gas attack), Léger eventually became a Communist and chose to devote his art to the common man. After World War II, he became fascinated by the flurry of new construction south of Paris. As Tunick recounts, “Léger said he got the idea for [the picture] while traveling to Chevreuse by road every evening. A factory was under construction in the fields there. ‘I saw men swaying high up on the steel girders!’ Léger said. ‘I saw a man like a flea; he seemed lost in the inventions with the sky above him.’”

Léger wanted to portray “the contrast between man and his inventions, between the worker and all the metal architecture, that hardness, that ironwork, those bolts and rivets,” says Tunick, quoting a 1971 Grand Palais exhibition catalog.

The gouache, which Tunick found in a private collection, has not been on public view since the Grand Palais show.

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Fabergé elephant, ca. 1900
offered by A La Vieille Russie, New York City

 

em258_4aAttending TEFAF is a must for any collector of Fabergé. A La Vieille Russie, a longtime exhibitor based in New York, specializes in everything from the workshop of Peter Carl Fabergé, jeweler to the Russian Imperial court from 1870 to 1917. The gallery’s arsenal includes jewelry, imperial Easter eggs, gold snuffboxes, cloisonné or guilloche-enameled picture frames, desk accessories and bibelots adorned with gold and semiprecious stones.

Fabergé hard-stone animals have always been popular, within Russia and beyond, and this year ALVR is showing an irresistible, elaborately carved example that fits in the palm of your hand. This charming, cock-eared elephant is sitting down, head tilted slightly, and has rose-colored diamond eyes. “Fabergé did a variety of elephants, but most have a standard pose, standing and looking forward,” says Mark Schaffer, a member of the family that owns ALVR. “This elephant is particularly nice because of its quizzical pose. He has real personality.”

Two-and-a-half inches long, the elephant is carved from semiprecious gray Kalgan jasper quarried in Russia. The Fabergé workshop produced all kinds of creatures — cats, dogs, birds, horses — but exotic animals of this kind are rarer. “Many of the exotic animal studies Fabergé did were modeled on animals at the zoo at the royal Sandringham Estate in Norfolk,” Schaffer explains. “Fabergé would dispatch someone over to England to sketch the animals sent to the king by his British colonial possessions.”

This elephant once belonged to Gladys Robinson, Marchioness of Ripon, a six-foot-tall Edwardian beauty and patron of the arts who was friends with Oscar Wilde, Vaslav Nijinsky and Sergei Diaghilev. Born in 1859, she was descended from George Herbert, 11th Earl of Pembroke, and the Russian-born Countess Catherine Vorontsov. She died in 1917, and her elephant went to the Duke of Gloucester.

Beyond its special provenance, this object exhibits carving of exquisite quality. “As Fabergé goes, it is one of the better animals you will ever find,” Schaffer asserts.

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Michael Powolny Neptune sculpture, 1915
offered by Bel Etage, Vienna

 

Wolfgang Bauer, who founded the Viennese gallery Bel Etage 30 years ago, is one of the rare dealers who specializes in the Viennese Jugendstil from the early 1900s. Despite the difficulty of such a task, he manages to find first-rate examples of furniture designed by Joseph Hoffmann, chandeliers by Koloman Moser, lamps by Dagobert Peche and exquisite silver, porcelain and glass objets d’art by members of the Wiener Werkstätte.

This year at TEFAF, Bauer is showing a four-foot-tall ivory-glazed clay sculpture of Neptune, here depicted as a massive, bearded nude standing amid swirling waves, a giant fish thrust under each arm. He is in mint condition and was made by Michael Powolny (1871-1954), a Viennese ceramicist, sculptor and glass and metal artist who is today probably best known for his putti representing the four seasons.

The Neptune, which Bauer says is from a private Viennese collection, is one of eight such figures commissioned in 1915 to decorate the Austrian capital’s Diana Baths, the largest public baths in Central Europe at the time. “The Neptune is the largest known ceramic figure designed by Powolny,” Bauer says. “Firing a figure of this size entails a great deal of skill, organization and expense. After a plaster model was created, a mold was cast. I think the head and two fish fins were molded separately and then fastened to the body. All this is very difficult to do, as big pieces got tension cracks when fired in the kiln and had to be thrown away.”

Powolny learned pottery-making from his father, then attended the Vienna Industrial Arts School. In 1906 he co-founded the Wiener Keramik, a workshop affiliated with the Wiener Werkstätte; in 1909 he became a ceramics instructor at his alma mater, and in 1932 became a sculptor there.

There is a smaller version of the Neptune in the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in New York, and another in the MAK, the decorative arts museum in Vienna. It is a miracle this version survived: The Diana baths were badly bombed in 1945, and the building was eventually dismantled.

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American Shaker cupboard, 1850s
offered by Galerie Downtown François Laffanour, Paris

 

Shaker sister's cupboard[3]François Laffanour, owner of Galerie Downtown Francois Laffanour, in Paris, is known to specialize in such early-20th-century French designers as Charlotte Perriand and Jean Prouvé, so he is bound to cause quite a stir at TEFAF this year when he devotes his entire stand to American Shaker antiques. He is partnering with Philippe Segalot, another dealer in Paris, to create what he is calling a “Shaker masterpieces event.” (They have also co-written a book on Shaker furniture that Assouline will publish this spring.)

The Shakers, originally founded in England in the 18th century, established utopian, self-sufficient communities in America that were separate from the rest of the world. They held property in common and devoted themselves to religion, each member contributing his or her own talent to the whole.

Shaker furniture craftsmen were highly skilled, and they made pieces that were both functional and visually appealing. In design, their work offered vernacular interpretations of the neoclassical style popular in the early 1800s but devoid of all decoration. Their aesthetic was one of simplicity, with great attention paid to balance, symmetry and scale.

“To me, Shaker is the origin of minimalist design in the twentieth century,” Laffanour says, explaining his passion for this type of furniture. An exemplar of the style is a cinnamon-red painted-pine piece from the Shaker community at Mount Lebanon, New York. Probably made in the 1850s, it consists of a small cupboard atop a six-drawer chest-of-drawers, with white porcelain pulls and cast-iron turn buttons. “It is both simple and unique,” Laffanour adds.

This piece and others he is showing in Maastricht are drawn from a widely admired collection of Shaker furniture assembled by the late American physicist J.J. Gerald McCue and his wife Miriam, who lived in Lexington, Massachusetts. In 1946 at age 33, after spending World War II developing radar beacons for bombers at M.I.T., Jerry McCue started collecting Shaker furniture, and he continued until his death, at 97, in 2011. In his free time, he visited and bought directly from the Shaker communities in Mt. Lebanon; Hancock and Canterbury, New Hampshire; and Sabbathday Lake, Maine. The auctioneer Willis Henry sold the McCues’s collection in two parts, in September 2012 and September 2013. It is a golden provenance.

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Jacques Ignace Hittorff tabletop, 1833-42
offered by Carlton Hobbs, New York City

 

11103 main snapNew York dealer Carlton Hobbs, who sells fine 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century English and Continental antiques, is famous for ferreting out rare pieces everyone else has overlooked — and then doing the scholarly research to prove just how important they are. At TEFAF he will show a real curiosity, and a splendid one, too: a colorful French tabletop, nearly 10 feet in circumference, designed by the 19th-century French neoclassical architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff (1792-1867).

Like a kaleidoscope, the polychrome tabletop features four classical heads that represent the four seasons, each depicted in its own medallion and flanked by birds, flowers and grotesques. The handsome walnut tripod base sits on three paw feet. It was manufactured between 1833 and 1842 and is signed “Hachette et Cie, Paris.”

Apart from its dazzling design and utter rarity, what distinguishes the table is the novelty of its manufacture. It is painted with a special enamel that was then fired onto its lava-stone top, making it very durable, both waterproof and impervious to heat or cold. Quarried in the rural Auvergne region of central France, prehistoric lava has been used as pumice stone and as a building material, most notably for the gothic cathedral at Clermont-Ferand, France, begun in 1248. But the quarries were abandoned centuries ago.

Although he is less known today, Hittorff was one of the most prominent architects in Paris in the first half of the 19th century, while the city was on a building spree. Born in Cologne, he must have been both clever and talented. He trained as a draftsman under Charles Percier, Napoleon’s favorite architect, and worked for Francois-Joseph Bélanger, a neoclassicist with many royal patrons. Hittorff designed the layout of the Place de la Concorde, several buildings on the Champs-Elysées and the church Saint-Vincent-de-Paul in the 19th Arrondissement. “He was also hired to organize all the royal parties, transforming Paris for coronations, funerals and baptisms,” says Stefanie Rinza, Hobbs’s business partner.

In 1827, Comte Gaspard de Chabrol, Prefect of the Seine, decided to find new uses for the old lava quarries, so he engaged chemists to study how to paint on lava stone. A few years later, when one chemist finally succeeded, he showed his tableau at the Exposition of Products of Industry in Paris and won the silver medal. “In 1831, the chemist confided his invention to his son-in-law, Pierre Hachette, who then collaborated with Hittorff to found a new firm specializing in enameled lava products,” Rinza explains. “These products are now hard to find, but Hittorff’s beautiful, full-sized designs for them, in watercolor, are today in the archives of Cologne University.”

Hachette et Cie promoted the enameled stone. Hittorff designed elaborate tabletops that were then sent to royals across Europe. The idea was to start a new branch of the decorative arts.

“People were amazed by it,” Rinza says. “But by 1837, Hachette was out of business and Hittorff went on to other things. When the company was gone, the enameled stone was never used again for works of art.” How often do Hittorff-designed pieces show up on the market? “Almost never,” Rinza says.

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