At the end of the famous fair's first online edition, which replaced the New York event in the fall, the Dutch president of the Foundation, who is also a contemporary art gallery owner, shares his impressions and vision of the future.
© Bodine Koopmans
Are you happy with this first online edition?
I think we can be. It's the first time we've created a platform like this, and we've already received a strong signal: the day after closing, the head of the Old Masters section manager confirmed two or three sales that might well go to museums. So the institutions have also taken this initiative seriously and seen opportunities in it, which is very encouraging.
Do you think some collectors didn't dare buy because they were wary of something new?
Some are afraid of digital, but I'm not: I see that online auctions have gone well this year, and several auction houses have increased them by 50%—even if it's partly because this is sometimes the only way to sell nowadays. With the top-end price segment, collectors want to get an expert assessment, above all; that's why each exhibitor had to provide a recent condition report. The twenty-eight members of the vetting committee were involved too, backing up our desire to ensure the same standards for digital as for our physical fairs.
How could you be absolutely sure of the reliability of this digital vetting from a scientific angle?
As far as jewelry, antique sculptures and antiquities were concerned, it was impossible to provide virtual vetting for unknown objects based on photographs. That's why we didn't authorize them on the platform. But this was not a problem for works with well-documented provenances or exhibition histories; it was enough to check their condition. We were coordinated and we worked hard, without taking the slightest risk, and no dealers overstepped the committee's authority. Some objects had already been shown at previous editions of TEFAF, so the vetting members knew them, and so did the public. But as these were all top-quality works, there was nothing to be ashamed of.
Were all the exhibitors happy with having to present only one work or object?
In addition to facilitating the vetting, this rule helped dealers to avoid revealing all their new products to the rest of the world, and concentrate their energies. Everyone felt it was a good strategy; they know, too, that customers get tired of trawling through thousands of items on digital fair sites. It also meant we could increase the content of pages, with visits to galleries, exchanges with experts and so on—and to showcase works even before dealers did.
Did this first edition enable you to pinpoint a typical customer profile?
We haven't yet collated information on customers' zones of origin, but what really pleased me was the huge number of visitors from the US. This proves they still represent a reference market and have an unflagging interest in European culture. In addition, American museums are still highly active at TEFAF New York and Maastricht alike. We have also noticed customers from the Gulf region.
With this first edition, exhibitors didn't have to pay a fee. Will this continue with other editions?
All I can say is that building a platform is like building a house and constantly maintaining it: there are costs involved. As a foundation, we have to balance our expenses, but with the cancellation of both fairs—the final days of TEFAF Maastricht in March and TEFAF New York this fall—we felt we had to offer this to our exhibitors for free, to show our support. As far as the future goes, we haven't decided anything yet.
Is modern and contemporary art easier to sell online than Old Masters?
As it happens, we have observed a fascinating phenomenon: most sales involved classical works. This surprised me because I thought it would be far easier to move towards modern and contemporary art. This first edition has already proved that Old Masters sell just as well. But I think that, actually, any work will sell if dealers have done their work as regards research and documentation.
Does digital have a future, and can it meet the needs of fairs like TEFAF?
Five or six years ago, the director of the Rijksmuseum decided to remove all copyright from archive photographs, making them free and accessible to the whole world, but this did not detract from the value or rarity of the objects represented. Exhibiting new works of art in virtual showrooms is perhaps different, and we need to be careful about what we decide to share with the rest of the world. But in terms of art history, digital has proved how valuable it is. It definitely has a future and will develop hand in hand with our physical work.
Doesn't the digital solution lead to a generation problem with collectors?
Things are changing. Older generations sometimes spend hours online, while the younger generations don't have the time to immerse themselves in it: they have to work and take care of their families, and perhaps they use other media. I don't think you can generalize about that. But when they reach forty or fifty, I would love it if millennials came to the physical fairs. The digital aspect helps TEFAF stay young.
Are you optimistic about the financial situation of galleries in the post-Covid world?
Covid is having an undeniable impact on business. Even if some TEFAF exhibitors are very powerful, the entire model of fairs has been affected, not to mention transportation and auctions. But I am optimistic about the art market's ability to bounce back. As far as we are concerned, we would really like to open the fair in Maastricht in late May or early June. To do this, we will take every possible step to create a safe environment for the public and exhibitors alike. We've already received a large number of applications: that also says something about the market's robustness.