Sunday, October 30, 2016

TEFAF New York

TEFAF, The European Fine Art Fair, was established in The Netherlands in 1988 by a group of art dealers under the umbrella of The European Art Foundation.  It takes place in Maastricht, The Netherlands on the German and Belgian border and not far from France.  This year it had an added venue—New York City. 

TEFAF is a fair that combines antiquities, old master paintings and drawings with European and Asian decorative arts as well as modern and contemporary art.  If you wanted to meet most of the art world you needed to show up in Maastricht every March.  I have written about it several times in years past but not in the last two.  Just enter TEFAF into the search engine on my blog  and you can read more.

TEFAF’s organizers decided, however, since art sales weakened everywhere with the recent recession and the United States has always been thought to be the holy grail for the art market they would take advantage of an opportunity.  There were two New York fairs that aspired to imitate TEFAF organized by Haughton International Fairs and Artvest.  The Haughton fair has now been bought out by TEFAF and Artvest in partnership.   They are replacing the Art & Antiques fair formerly organized by Haughton International Fairs and the Spring Masters fair previously organized by Artvest.  The first, presenting historical art took place last week and the next in May will concentrate on modern and contemporary.

 I regret not being there, but the coverage is excellent and, knowing many of the players, I cannot resist this temptation to write about it.  TEFAF’s exhibit hall in Maastricht accommodates 270 exhibitors from 20 countries but the far smaller New York Armory can hold only 94 exhibitors from 13 countries of the 300 applications they received.  In articles written for the New York Times by Judith Dobrzynski, she found that many collectors in this country did not know about the European Fair and says that the TEFAF organizers hope that the New York fairs will draw people to Maastrcht in March.

Why is TEFAF different from all other fairs?  Particularly, in the old master and antiques categories TEFAF distinguishes itself in that they always have a committee of prominent experts including museum curators vetting all the material submitted for sale.  This gives the public an extra degree of confidence in what they are buying.  The other major inducement is presentation.  Galleries can end up paying up to $250,000 dollars after they are finished with expenses of shipping, lodging and installation of their booth.   Though that may be unusual $100,000 is not.  Installation can also give confidence and highlight what should be especially noted in a booth helping to justify prices of prime works of art.  The Richard Feigen Gallery in New York asked Juan Pablo Molyneux, the Chilean interior designer to the wealthy, to do up his booth.  Axel Vervoordt, Belgian dealer and noted designer in his own right created his own space.  Here first is the Feigen booth and then Vervoordt’s.

My daughter went to school with Anderson Cooper so I have been interested in him beyond his newscasts.  I did not know he had an interest in art but, being the son of Gloria Vanderbilt, I guess that is not too surprising.  He bought an Old Master painting on opening night.  I happened to have seen it in the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “Unfinished Thoughts Left Visible”.   It is an unfinished painting by Anton Raphael Mengs, “Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento, Duquesa de Huescar (1775). Here is an image of Anderson Cooper at TEFAF, New York and of his newly acquired painting.

 Credit: Art News by Maximiliano Duron
Courtesy of the Met Breuer Museum

In Martha Schwendener New York Times’ article about the fair she mentions the combined booth of 3 dealers Julius Boehler and Georg Laue from Munich and Blumka Gallery, New York.  They have put together a Wunderkammer, a format made famous by the Green Vaults in Dresden for the display of  small Renaissance treasures in silver, gold and precious stones.  The dealers based theirs on a painting by Georg Hinz  (1630/31-16880 in the Hamburger Kunsthalle.

Hopefully I will be able to go personally next year and report on this very special art event.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Highlights from Southern Mexico

This will be the last of my 3 missives on southern Mexico.  I learned a lesson on this trip, if at all possible interview your guide before you put yourself in his or her hands.  In my case the guide was not a guide but rather an academic who only knew her own fields of archeology and sociology.  Thank goodness the Spanish Colonial Museum’s curator was with us since she could speak about the churches that we saw.

Having said that, I would have liked to learn more about the current archeology in that part of the world.  I spent about 5 years on the President’s Cultural Property Committee in Washington D.C.  and during the years I was there, the second half of the 1990’s, most of the claims of looting came from Central America.  I don’t remember how much if any discussion about Mexico.   A good part of our trip, however, was on the border of Guatemala, another artificial border so they must be related archeologically.  One of the archeologists on the Cultural Property Committee had spoken about the subsistence diggers, those who dig for archeological materials and sell them on the black market just to survive.  I have never seen such poverty as we passed along the road between the Yucatán and Chiapas. There were heavy border guards on the Guatemala border.  I am sure they were there for drugs but probably also for smuggled artifacts.  What a fascinating subject.

We did see some unbelievable archeological sights.  My wife took me to Pompeii years ago and you could walk around a town but most of it appeared more like rubble to a neophyte like me.  In Mexico many Mayan cities were well established by the 3rd century AD.  When the people left because they could no longer farm, the cities were reclaimed by the jungle until they were re-discovered by archeologists. 

There are obviously many spectacular ruins in Mexico and some even more elaborate than what we saw but Edzna in Campeche and Palenque in Chiapas were on the road we traveled.  We also stuck with the most easily accessible parts of the monuments They had the great advantage of not being overrun by tourists so we got to see them up close and personal.  At Edzna we saw just a handful of people, our group doubling the size of this village for the moment!  We could well imagine the leaders bringing their people together to address them from atop the stone pyramids.  Here are a few images.

In Palenque there are, according to the web over 1,400 temples, many still locked within the jungle.  Of course, many have reliefs and hieroglyphics on them as this was certainly a center for trade at its peak between 600 - 800 AD as it is a center for tourists today.  Here you have a couple of images of the monuments on the site plus an interior of the tomb of the Red Queen where my wife dared to climb!

An image I could not resist sharing was as we drove through Chiapas this beautiful view of the mountains through the abundant vegetation.

The site that I found the most incredible of all; was the church of San Juan Chamula.   It is actually the interior that is so exciting and not because of the art.  The church is full of individual worshippers praying in various Mayan languages in front of small altars with various numbers of candles on the floor in front of them, usually without stands just melted to the floor.  It seems that the number of candles depends on the seriousness of “the ask” from god.  One couple in the middle of the church was kneeling, there are no seats, and in front of them were maybe 25 or 30 candles. Their little daughter was lighting the last ones.  The man was holding his wife’s hand up in the air to the large altar in front.  I can only imagine that there was something seriously wrong with it.

One is not allowed to take photographs and one would feel guilty doing so because it is the people praying not the church you would be photographing.  I looked on line and could not find a single photo but in the market opposite the church I did find a postcard.  What a sight to remember!

Here too is an image in front of a church in the nearby village of Zinacantan where a priest is saying an open-air mass to a congregation mostly wearing traditional embroidered costumes.

Mexico is so well known for its music and what might be called their national instrument is the Marimba derived from both African an Central American traditions.  In Chiapas de Corzo we received a complete lesson on the various components of the instrument and how they affect the sound.  We had a one hour private concert at the home of a master Marimba maker, but here is less than a minute of the wonderful music.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Visit to a Hacienda and a Mayan Story

Outside of Merida we visited the Hacienda Sotuta de Peón in Tecoh, Yucatán.  It is a privately owned historic henequén plantation. We had a trilingual guide who was amazing as a storyteller and an actor getting totally into his tour.  He did not only have our group of a dozen but also a group of Mexican tourists and continued in two languages and though his English was fluent his rapid Spanish took half the time!

He first explained to us that henequén is a plant that is called sisal in English and is also known as agave.  It can make very strong rope, and hammocks and Tequila comes from the same plant.   One of the many Land Reform laws required that each hacienda owner only keep 10% of his original land and this property, which was originally 3000 hectares was now only 300 hectares making it impossible to make a profit from the henequén which sold for so little.  As a result they now rely on tourism.

We got to see how the henequén leaf was originally carded by hand by pulling it by hand through sharp spikes into strands and then how it was later done with machines.  These could also string it together and mae into bales of 250 pounds which sell now for something like $50.  We also received a tour of the owners lavish home brought back to its original nineteenth century splendor through original art and reproductions.

We were then all put on two sides of a large flat cart pulled by a mule at a relatively high speed.  The cart was on rail tracks and sure enough at one point we all thought we were done for when the cart went off the tracks.  We then understood why the crew carried walkie talkies... to call for help.  Another crew member showed up with a large piece of wood to pry up the cart as they pulled and pushed the cart back on the tracks. 

We were taken to the home of an 83 year-old Mayan gentleman who had worked on the Hacienda for his entire life.  Our tour guide did a running translation from the Mayan dialect into Spanish and English as if he had never heard the spiel before... what a performance! The same transportation took us to an open covered porch with a thatched roof where we had a hearty lunch. Here are pictures of the Mayan and our guide as well as an image of his house and interior.

On another evening we were taken to Chichen Itza  the most famous of the Mayan ruins in the Yucatán.  Projected on the great Pyramid, originally hidden by the jungle, we saw a sound and light show telling the history of the site.

Near by was an ancient ball court where the Mayans played a game called pitz that was part of their political, religious and social life.  The rubber ball ranged in size from a soft ball to a soccer ball. The players could not touch the ball with their hands but bounced it off their hips trying to get it through stone hoops along the ball court.  The loser also lost his life... that is one way to reduce the population!  Here is a bronze demonstrating the technique.

More to come...

Sunday, October 9, 2016

My First Trip to the Real Mexico

My wife is on the Board of the Spanish Colonial Society and Museum and she never does
 anything halfway so she has immersed herself in Spanish Colonial art and its history.

We were in Mexico once about 15 years ago but it was at an Eco (ecological) resort meaning
that there was no internet and you went to sleep when the sun went down. There were a
 minimum of modern conveniences, in other words, a total rest! But it could have been pretty 
much anywhere.  There was, however, always delicious fresh fish which was brought in by the
local fishermen.

Penelope studied Spanish, and still does, so she went to Mexico for two weeks for an intensive 
Spanish course a number of years ago. This time, however, she decided we would share in a
tour offered by the Spanish Colonial Museum. We are only going on one of the two tours offered
and that starts off in the Yucatan state in the city of Merida. One of her fellow trustees owns a
house down there and arranged for a native guide who speaks English. Also, the museum's 
curator, Robin Farwell Gavin, who is an authority in the field and also speaks Spanish was there
to fill in the gaps.

Robin Gavin Discussing the Mission Church
in Mani, Yucatán

The guide's concept was not just to show us sites but to explain the culture from the social,
 Mayan and historical points of view. Therefore, the first day we were taken to different districts 
in Merida including where the foreigners live and the commercial districts. The shops are very 
small and plentiful and in the tourist areas each shop has its hawkers and owners yelling for you
 to come into their shop. A man sitting in an outdoor cafe decided that I looked like a smoker and
wanted me to buy the cigars he was selling. When he started to follow me I had to yell, "I
 DON'T SMOKE" so that he would go back to the table with his buddies.

There are a great many abandoned houses and we learned that if you want to buy one of them, 
they are not expensive but cheaper if the "For Sale" sign is in Spanish and it is best if you send in 
a local to negotiate with the owner.

Because of the poverty it is difficult to keep the economy going in the smaller villages and they
 have found artificial ways to continue and in some towns it is through fashion. Though the
 pattern may remain the same, each year the women are expected to wear a new dress in a
 different color. These dresses can cost as much as U.S. $250 which can represent 6 months
 salary for someone if they do not have a seamstress in the family. Those who cannot afford it 
and wear last year's color are marked as of a lower class. The plus side, though I am sure the
 impoverished don't feel so, is that the ones who could afford the new dresses are also expected
to pay more to the Church. Someone in our group asked if one moved to a new village would
 you be accepted, the reply was, only through marriage. It is the same everywhere, the keys to
 success and social acceptance are marriage and money.

In the villages the Mayans live in thatch roofed houses which allow the air to go through them 
giving cross ventilation since they cannot afford air conditioning. Only sleeping is done indoors 
as cooking and most activities remain outside. Many of the gift shops sell beautiful hammocks 
and they also hawk them at the outdoor restaurants in the tourist area. But it surprised me to
learn that 80% of the local population still sleeps in them.

Hammock on wall
 hook in a wealthy persons home

We visited a number of churches one dating from 1549 in Mani, Yucatán, most of the paintings
 and sculptures were replaced in more modern times, but here we saw 17th and 18th century
carved painted and gilded altarpieces. Many were built on top of what had been Mayan
pyramids, reusing the same stones. As these were Missions, impressing the Indians with the
vast vaulted spaces was part of the effort to convert them. Mexico today is still mostly Catholic 
but I had not heard before that there has been a large Evangelical movement in recent years.

Mission Church in Tecoh, Yucatan

The trip will continue and I will report more as time goes on.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Eric Stiebel, My Father

In July of 1911 a doctor and his wife had a little boy who grew up in their home town of Frankfurt am Main, Germany.  He went to school in Frankfurt and then, following the German system attended colleges in Frankfurt, Munich & Berlin.  One day in 1933 he was told that he would have to leave school because he was Jewish and shortly thereafter he left Germany.  When his American-born son asked him how he knew it was time to get out he replied, “when I was thrown out of school I knew that I was not wanted” and that was all I ever heard from him about that experience.

Eric Stiebel ready for University

He did, however, impart another interesting lesson from his experience in his homeland.  He told me, “It can happen here” which was a shocking statement to a child growing up in the United States.  Frankly, I remembered it but could not fully comprehend or internalize it until the 21st century when I watched a fair percentage of my country turn on all Muslims.

The two senior partners in our family art dealership moved to establish the firm in Amsterdam. My father moved to Paris where his brother had already established a private art dealership in the 1920’s because he loved everything French.  There was one problem, however, visa issues.  You could only stay five months on a travel visa so every five months my father went from Paris to London and then back again.  My mother joined him in Paris where they were married in 1937.

As you may have gathered my father was the youngest member of the firm and Intelligently his cousin, Saemy Rosenberg, had set up a company in New York in anticipation of the necessity of leaving Europe and in 1939, seeing the writing on the wall they sent my father to New York, to wrest the firm from the lawyers who had ben the nominal officers and set up the business.  The “office” was my parents’ apartment and because it had to represent the new art dealers in town they were allocated enough for an apartment on Central Park South.  I was born in 1944 pushing the business out of our two-room abode to a gallery upstairs in an office building on 57th Street.  The original space on the back of the building eventually expanded to the entire fifth floor.

I asked my father what he did during the war and he said, “mostly work with lawyers to prove that my relatives were vital to this country’s interests.”  Soon, however, a great deal of art was pouring in from Europe and he and his partners, who he had gotten into the country via Mexico and various countries in South America, had to start to field all the requests from cash starved Europeans and the demands of the American Museums who were eager to collect old masters and other European art.

My father was the consummate European Gentleman.  Like in any store or gallery we usually gravitate to the person that we believe will be the greatest help and many clients gravitated to Eric Stiebel just because of his calm and dignified matter.

Whenever the doorbell rang in the 57th Street gallery our secretary (today known as an executive assistant) would go to the door and announce who was there.  The first thing that my father would do was pull a slip of paper out of his pocket and write down who it was, so that he could report to my mother that evening.  She usually demanded that he repeat the conversations verbatim!  Today he might have emailed.  I actually caught him taking the time to write his note when Jackie Kennedy was announced.  The Secret Service agent waited outside in the hall.

In the film we made of the history of the firm in 1989 in celebration of 50 years in the United States my father said,  “I definitely have enjoyed my life as an art dealer tremendously.  Whenever somebody asks me… I say that I don’t know any other profession which brings you in touch with beautiful objects and also with the most interesting people, constantly.”