(Bloomberg) -- Art dealer Otto Naumann has gone ultramodern with his Old Masters booth at the latest fair to hit Manhattan.
Instead of the usual ornate gold frames and salon-style hanging, the walls are painted black and each canvas is displayed on a board wrapped in bright velvet. Biblical scenes painted hundreds of years ago share space with a 1960s white plastic couch shaped as a pair of molar teeth.
“There’s all this talk about crossover,” Naumann said. “I am trying to show that the entire collection of Old Masters can look nice in modern setting.”
Putting a fresh spin on historic art for today’s investors and collectors is the challenge facing the inaugural TEFAF New York fair, opening Friday. Once the industry’s most-coveted segment and a magnet for wealthy patrons Henry Clay Frick, J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, European Old Masters have become overshadowed by contemporary artists seen as more fashionable. Auction sales for the category in the last decade peaked in 2007 and plunged 33 percent in 2015.
“Old Masters are not going to be suddenly hot,” said Adam Lindemann, a collector and gallerist in New York. “The high prices in the market are driven by the new money: the Russians, the Asians, the Brazilians, the Qataris. The new money wants to be in the new scene.”
The calendar may also be an obstacle. The fair arrives just as a global glut of trade shows coincides with a contracting art market, forcing collectors and dealers to evaluate how they allocate their time and cash. TEFAF New York opens two days after FIAC, a major contemporary fair in Paris. ArtBinder, which makes an app used by galleries, is tracking 52 fairs this month.
“Do we need another contemporary art fair? I don’t think so,” said Elizabeth Szancer, curator of billionaire Ronald Lauder’s collection. “But I see TEFAF as a stand-alone fair. If the standards of the Maastricht fair are brought to New York, it should prove enlightening for everyone.”
The European Fine Art Foundation, based in Maastricht, Netherlands, is co-producing TEFAF New York with consultancy Artvest Partners. It’s held at the Park Avenue Armory and features 94 international dealers. Offerings in fine art, design, furniture and jewelry span from antiquity through early 20th century. Highlights include a $12 million painting by Diego Velazquez at Richard L. Feigen & Co.; a 1531 map of the world valued at $10 million at Daniel Crouch Rare Books; and a Yuan dynasty thangka priced at $3.5 million at Littleton & Hennessy Asian Art.
Vetting works on view differentiates TEFAF from most other fairs. On the eve of the opening, installation was still in full swing as 75 members of the fair’s vetting committee broke into groups by expertise and took to examine the booths.
A squad of four book and manuscript experts was busy discussing the accuracy of a label. Then a digital microscope was rolled in to examine the quality and age of the paint.
“Inevitably there are attribution issues,” said George Abrams, the vetting committee’s chairman. Some are resolved by changing the label. Others require the removal of a work that doesn’t adhere to the fair’s standards.
“We have a room to store all items that have been removed,” Abrams said, noting that it’s locked.
Founded in 1988, the original TEFAF show takes place every March and is considered the top trade event for historic art. In recent years it has also lured major modern and contemporary galleries, along with museum directors and curators among crowds topping 70,000.
Organizers and dealers are pulling out the stops to stand out in New York. Phoenix Ancient Art is turning its booth into a miniature Pantheon, with a dome ceiling and central oculus illuminating the space. Feigen will exhibit Old Master paintings and sculptures in an immersive setting with curved walls and lighting by designer Juan Pablo Molyneux.
Naumann hired architecture and interior design firm Sawyer Berson to create its sleek booth.
“I don’t have the sensibility to do modern design,” Naumann said.
Despite the market drop-off, select Old Master works can also be savvy investments.
Naumann showed a $275,000 portrait of a Spanish noblewoman with an obliterated face by 18th century artist Anton Raphael Mengs. The canvas, part of the Met Breuer exhibition “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible” this year, was acquired for $61,846 at a Christie’s auction four years ago.
Two hours into the fair it was snapped up by television journalist Anderson Cooper, who remembered it from the museum show. He said he was drawn by “how contemporary it looks. I like the mystery of it.”
Lauder and Lightyear Capital’s Don Marron, president emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art, were also among those strolling the fair on Friday.
He said he saw a couple of 19th century works he liked. “These things haven’t gone up in price as much as contemporary art,” Marron said.
Buyers, however, need to be aware that historic works can carry issues of provenance, condition, authenticity and restitution. Sotheby’s recently had to reimburse a client after a $10 million painting attributed to Dutch Old Master Frans Hals was determined to be a forgery.
“You have to understand the nuances of that market,” said Aileen Agopian, an art adviser in New York. “These paintings have had very long lives.”