Why don’t we see more cross-period and cross-category collecting? We found ourselves asking this question repeatedly while wandering the halls of The European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf) this past weekend. And it appeared to be the question dealers were asking, too. One London-based gallerist we spoke with lamented the decline of the collector dedicated to his or her individual wants. Such connoisseurship simply comes down to wanting the “best” of what one likes, regardless of whether that is a Richter abstraction from 1984 or a Brueghel wedding dance scene from 1614.
The Maastricht fair is tailored to this kind of collector. It is really five fairs in one, with large sections dedicated to old masters, modern and contemporary works, antiques, works on paper, and design. Within these larger sections one can discover highly specialized booths offering jewelry from antiquity, illuminated manuscripts, Chinese relics, guns and armor, nineteenth-century Japanese prints, or 1930s photographs. Even the length of the fair (ten days) and the habits of its collectors (most transactions happen toward its end or after the close) speaks to an entirely different sensibility than what reigns at Art Basel Miami or Armory or Frieze. It is not uncommon to see collectors lost in conversation in front of works—and not about prices.
In short, at Maastricht, discernment reigns. But why is discernment in decline elsewhere?
For two reasons. The first is education: Maastricht demands a high base-line level of knowledge on the part of collectors. Only a solid grasp of world history, the classics, and religion will unlock the meaning and relevance of the work on offer. Barring that, one must have total faith and trust in the dealers dedicated to this work. Time and again, we witnessed impromptu master classes being conducted in the booths, with dealers delivering learned excurses on the form, content, material, and history of a given piece. Questions of provenance are left to the wall labels. Some press releases stretch on for five pages, replete with footnotes.
Second, market and institutional pressure: Collectors are increasingly encouraged to pick one medium or category – say photography or west-coast video – and stick to it. Others feel compelled to reproduce institutional habits in miniature, which is where the language of “filling gaps” comes into play. These approaches explain why so many strictly contemporary art collectors have the exact same stuff hanging on their walls. Only through one or the other of these strategies, it is commonly thought, can a serious collector hope to have museums, or maybe taste-maker magazines, come knocking.
Yet Maastricht seems to counter this particularist/generalist dichotomy. Its historical and material scope alone stands as a lesson in the necessity of discernment as a skill for today’s collector.