It’s a thin silver lining to the current global situation that I have been able to “attend” as many art fairs in the past month than I usually would in an entire year. The most recent was TEFAF Online, which opened yesterday. TEFAF is a large and prestigious art fair with branches in New York, USA and Maastricht, Netherlands. It encompasses just about everything the art world has to offer – fine and decorative arts, antiquities, jewelry, illuminated manuscripts, armor, and more from ancient to contemporary. The E for European in TEFAF is a complete misnomer, since both the dealers and the art, come from all over the world. Unlike the American Art Fair, which I reviewed last month, I have never attended TEFAF in person.
TEFAF Online, which replaces the usual New York Fall fair, has a unique structure that I really enjoyed. Every gallery gets to show only a single item. With almost three hundred dealers participating, the limit prevents this massive event from being completely overwhelming. (To be honest, it’s still slightly overwhelming.) It’s fun to see which object each gallery has selected to represent itself; I wonder how difficult it was for them to choose. TEFAF prides itself in a very extensive vetting process, in which panels of experts determine that every object to appear at any TEFAF event is authentic, high-quality, and free of any title issues. I’m guessing that the single object rule probably comes from the difficulties in maintaining these high vetting standards virtually over a larger number of pieces.
Once you enter TEFAF’s online platform and click on “Artworks”, you will see a list displaying most recently viewed works first. I wasn’t a fan of this constantly-changing listing, although it does give the slight sense of connecting you with others. Instead, I sorted A-Z by gallery name, clicked on the first entry, and keep hitting the “next” button to move all the way through until I had seen everybody’s offering. The “Surprise Me” button that will show you a random artwork is also a nice touch.
What I enjoyed most about TEFAF Online was the element of surprise, because I never knew what I was going to see next. A work by Maurizio Cattelan might be followed by a pair of 18th-century globes, then a Cartier brooch, and then a 16th-century painting. I enjoyed the randomness of these juxtapositions, which helped me to better enjoy even the works I was less interested in. With about three hundred wildly-diverse objects, I’m not going to even try to come up with a list of highlights.
Each listing contains one or more photos, including some nice close-ups, and written information about the artwork. The text is often very extensive, with exhibition history, provenance, and references; many entries reach museum collection database-level comprehensiveness. Galleries commonly provide short videos about their offerings. The only thing you won’t find easily, however, is price. In typical art fair tradition, most dealers don’t make their asking prices public.
I found the overall format easy to browse either actively or passively as I saw fit. When I was interested to learn more about an object, I had lots of information available to me. When I was less interested, I could still enjoy a work more casually before moving on to the next. This is the type of virtual exhibition format I like best. In my opinion, the most user-friendly set-ups allow me to easily move from one object to the next by simply swiping, clicking on a button, or pressing an arrow key. This comes the closest to replicating the in-person experience of wandering around and browsing. If I have to go back to a gallery of thumbnails each time to select the next artwork, the experience is not as natural, and I will probably not view as many objects. Fortunately, TEFAF didn’t make me do that.
No matter how much TEFAF Online may feel like a virtual museum exhibition, it is a commercial venture designed to sell artworks. Accordingly, TEFAF’s platform makes it really easy for potential buyers to interact with dealers. There’s a “start a conversation” button at the top of every gallery’s page, as well as an icon that indicates when a dealer is currently online. I can’t imagine ever feeling comfortable committing to such a significant purchase without seeing the work in person first. However, I have never gone to any art fair, virtual or live, with the intention of actually buying anything. I guess that people who collect regularly must feel differently about the matter.
I really enjoyed my afternoon at TEFAF Online, so I recommend that art lovers check it out. Visiting is free and easy to sign up for. Attend from November 1-4, 2020 via the official website. You can also listen to three live virtual talks held November 2-4 or view several on-demand virtual events.