| By Dawn M. Barclay
A new name, an appearance makeover, a guarantee of exhibition quality and, for the first time, the appearance of American exhibitors is a powerful combination that’s putting the 54th edition of the Brussels Antiques & Fine Arts Fair in the top echelon of European antiques fairs.
Known until last year as Foire des Antiquaires de Belgique, the show began in 1955. In the past 53 years it has grown from its original 20 exhibitors to its current count of 130. Its exhibitor mix has gone from strictly local to its current blend of 50 percent Belgian and 50 percent international. The show also moved from its previous home at the Palais des Beaux-Arts to its current spacious location of 133,472 square feet at the Tour & Taxis building, a prime example of Belgian industrial heritage, located in the heart of Brussels.
The makeover of the show’s appearance and a change of name are just a continuation of the changes that have resulted in an increase in popularity of the fair over the past five years. Not only did the move to the Tour & Taxis building give participants a respite from weaving through different corridors, levels and rooms to approach exhibitors, it gave the show the opportunity to grow its attendance to an anticipated 40,000 in 2009. And now the name — in English rather than French — will give the show a more international flavor, according to Grethe Zeberg, BRAFA’s Chair of the Board.
Zeberg says that their new English language catalog (it was formerly trilingual, featuring English, French and Dutch) makes the fair easier to promote abroad. In addition, BRAFA has turned to the Consulate-General of Belgium in New York, Visit Belgium (the national tourist office) and a U.S.-based public relations firm to pique American interest, coupled with advertising placed in specialized American publications.
BRAFA will truly feature a more international flavor in 2009, not only because two American galleries – Sophie Scheidecker Fine Art from New York and Tony Anninos Asian Art from California – will have a presence among its 18 new exhibitors, but also because galleries from Hungary and Russia will also make their debut.
The diverse nature of the fair’s exhibitors will also be reflected in their disciplines and experience, Zebert said. Unlike other European shows, BRAFA dealers are not separated by specialty. “We have all the galleries from different art fields mixed … old paintings, contemporary furniture, Africa, Asia – they can all sit happily side-by-side. This creates more interesting contrasts and fields of tension within the fair, while letting dealers feel more like colleagues than competitors. We also have top dealers as well as some young, new, talented galleries, which creates an interesting synthesis of what the market has to offer at this moment.”
Zeberg says that items at BRAFA tend to be more affordable because “the prices of the art at Belgium fairs are among the lowest of all the European fairs, while the quality we offer is the same. Maybe this is because we are in the center of Europe but not in a world-class city like Paris, or hyped like the world-famous TEFAF fair, for example —all things which affect the pricing politics.” Guaranteeing the high quality of the pieces are 14 committees of international experts, each covering their own field that examine all items before they are exhibited.
The dates of the show, Jan. 23-Feb. 1, also play a part in its success. C. Michael Hedqvist, Managing Director of Phoenix Ancient Art SA, with galleries in both Geneva and New York, said “In terms of timing, we like January. It’s typically slower than at year’s end, and this provides the perfect venue to kick-start the year, he says.
All of these factors played into Tony Anninos’ decision to start showing his antique Asian art at BRAFA in 2009, in addition to the Brussels Oriental Art Fair (BOAF), where he has exhibited for the past four years. He says that because of the upscale reputation the show has developed through its strict vetting process, where you can exhibit “only if you are exceptional in your field, ” his presence there will add to his credibility among the collectors he’s met and those he’s yet to meet. Also, because of the eclectic nature of the show floor, “there may be interest from people who wouldn’t necessarily go to BOAF, and crossover interest from those visiting other disciplines.” When asked about his anticipated return on investment in this of all years, Anninos admits he signed up for the show before the economic downswing but still seems realistic, even optimistic about exhibiting. “I don’t want to go in with the expectation of certain money or sales goals. I already have connections with people who are working with me in Belgium and I’m hoping to meet more, perhaps some who never saw me at BOFA or only came to that show for a few hours from London, where another show runs concurrently. When people see you at a lot of different shows, there’s a cumulative effect. Some may contact you later in the year to buy or let you know what they want so you can contact them once you’ve found it.”
Because Anninos feels that art has a very important place among Europeans, he says it’s not necessarily an area where they’ll cut back their spending. “Some buyers from Hong Kong told me that the money they used to put into securities is now going into high quality art. They may be a bubble in contemporary art but good quality antique art has a limited supply and will retain its value. When dealing with the best of its type, there shouldn’t be too much of a drop in prices. There are still examples of antique Asian sculpture out there what are selling for two to four times as much as they did in the year 2000.”
The other American making her first appearance at BRAFA, Sophie Scheidecker, concurs. “It’s a high quality fair and there are very few that combine furniture, antique, and modern art. Those fairs are rarer today and you still have a lot of broad-minded collectors who love to shop for objects of different kind, period or media. In fact, Belgian collectors are very active in the art world. The economic climate this year doesn’t make any difference to them because they are not speculators who expect to double their money in a short period but are buying to enrich their collection with specific objects. I think this is a time where people who are real experts will continue to buy art and amateurs will stay still. Prices might be lower than before that that is healthy for the art market.”
Zeberg agrees with both newcomers regarding their potential return on exhibiting investment. “The clientele will change. When there is a financial crisis, certain investors turn to art, because its value is safe. People who normally invest in the stock exchange and don’t normally buy objets d’art will start to take an interest. On the other hand, people who bought art with the income from their shares will pull back. It will balance out in the end.”