Tuesday, March 19, 2013

TEFAF Time in Maastricht

I love Maastricht. We're very fortunate to be so close to such a cosmopolitan city. It has everything: a thriving university, bustling squares, amazing restaurants, and some of the best-dressed Europeans I've seen together in one place. On any given day you can look inside the windows of upscale boutiques and see chic men and women sipping champagne as they try on sweaters easily priced at 300 Euros and above. Every time I go to Maastricht I feel like I'm an extra on a film set. The city is so breathtakingly beautiful and its history is well-preserved. Where else can you find a bookstore housed in a 13th century Dominican church? Or a 13th century town gate and remnants of medieval walls? Lovely parks, interesting museums, an 18th century fortress, and, according to the people of Maastricht, the oldest bridge in the Netherlands, round out a long list of things that make Maastricht unique and irresistible.

Maastricht outdoes itself for 10 days every March. Colorful welcome banners sway in the breeze alongside roads leading to the city. The cafes on the Vrijthof Square are frequented by wealthy patrons with enormous baubles dripping from their perfectly-manicured fingers. Michelin-starred restaurants are booked and luxury hotels are filled. The tiny Maastricht-Aachen airport becomes studded with private jets. It's TEFAF time.

TEFAF is an acronym for The European Fine Art Foundation. The world's best art dealers (and buyers) converge on the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Center (MECC). Admittedly, we aren't art critics. I don't think I'll ever be able to glance at an ancient object and determine its century of creation or place of origin. Despite our ignorance we decided to shell out 90 Euros (two tickets) for admission to the exhibition just to see what it was like and to hopefully catch a glimpse of a prince or celebrity.

On the chilly Sunday morning, we approached the MECC behind fur-coated dames clutching Louis Vuitton bags. But don't worry about us; we were proud to be sporting our J.Crew ensembles. The walk ended at the VIP parking lot where chauffeur-driven luxury cars sat waiting for their owners to emerge from the art cocoon. A red carpet blanketed the path to the door and even us commoners were allowed to stroll upon it. There were no paparazzi, sadly.

The Catalogue.
After we purchased our tickets we were given the TEFAF catalogue. It's 651 pages dedicated to this year's TEFAF, featuring photos and descriptions of countless objects and lots of paragraphs about the importance of being an art collector. There is also a page dedicated to the Committee of Honour. The list includes people like The Ambassadors of Argentina, Monaco, and the Eastern Republic of Uruguay, and the Governor of Cologne and Mayor of Maastricht. I don't know any of them personally.

The vetting process for exhibitors at TEFAF is often considered the largest and strictest of any show. From the catalogue's foreword: "Some 250 of the world's best dealers are committed to bringing more than 30,000 top-quality works of art spanning 6,000 years of history to TEFAF. All the works of art at TEFAF are checked by committees of leading experts before the Fair opens to ensure their authenticity, quality, and condition. This year 176 experts, working on 29 committees, will be joining us."

Intricate floral arrangement in lobby.
The sheer volume of exhibits was astounding. Everything imaginable was on display including antique jewelry, furniture, paintings, photographs, Chinese fish bowls, rare books and manuscripts, rugs, sculptures, and even a sarcophagus. We saw Picassos, Rembrandts, Andy Warhol's sketches, and seldom-displayed drawings by Van Gogh.

The price tags on these items were staggering. As I was gazing at a blinding sparkle of diamond rings, a man beside me asked the cost of one. "One hundred thousand Euros, sir," was the curt reply from the jeweler. Hearing this, I stepped slowly away from the case, taking extreme care not to accidentally bump into anything or smudge the glass.

The people-watching was second-to-none. Most people were exceptionally-dressed but then there were also the few who didn't feel the need to "put on airs." I saw a man dressed exactly like my Dad, sporting a checkered Western-shirt, tattered blue jeans, and cowboy boots. There was also a gentleman completely covered in tattoos, including his face, with his ears stretched into a circle by enormous gauge earrings. I heard all sorts of languages; of course there was German and Dutch but also French, Spanish, Chinese, and some languages I couldn't even determine.

When people tired of strolling down endless lanes with intersections named after landmarks such as Trafalgar Square and Sunset Boulevard, they took a break at one of the cafes where they sipped champagne and dined on oysters and canapes. Everything about the scene was extravagant.

We spent almost three hours at TEFAF and there were still lots of things we didn't see. I can understand why the exhibition lasts for 10 days; it really would almost take that long to see it all. We were satisfied with our experience but a little disappointed that we didn't see any foreign royalty or anyone surrounded by security detail.

After some research we discovered that the Private View was actually held on Thursday, a day before the public opening. I suppose it does make more sense for the truly serious buyers to see everything without being encumbered by a bothersome public snapping photos and gawking. I think the real deals were made during the VIP day. For example, a painting from the 1630s was purchased for $6.5 million on Thursday. And we thought 12 Euros for parking was steep.

If we had been invited to the Private Viewing we would have been able to rub shoulders with some of the rich and famous: American billionaire Robert Lauder, Qatar's Sheikh Saud al Thani, and.... Kanye West? Apparently he sauntered through the MECC wearing a tres fashionable grey hoodie. I weep for the future.

With a last look at the grandiose charade, we took our leave of TEFAF. I think it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience for people like us but it was an exciting glimpse into a world beyond my imaginings, one filled with society parties, swanky jets and Bentleys, and, evidently, sarcophagi.


  1. Glad to hear you enjoy Maastricht so much! I really enjoy living here in The Netherlands, and I also enjoy their appreciation for art & design! :) Danica

    1. It's a 20-minute train ride or 25-minute drive from here so we spend a lot of time in Maastricht. We are thinking about relocating there but we'll see!