Small Treasures Light Brussel’s BRAFA Art Fair On First Night

courtesy Galerie Cybele; photo Peter Madden

Brussels’ Antiques And Fine Arts Fair (BRAFA) remains one of the crown jewels in the international overflow of art fairs, long my personal favorite; and this year continues to impress.  On the first of several nights of VIP previews, a small, select, and elegant crowd of collectors and socialites sipped Champagne, flashed diamonds, and strolled the fair’s 128 booths, exclaiming over treasures that range from pre-Columbian pottery and Egyptian burial figures to Rene Lalique pins and emerald jewels (once belonging to Elizabeth Taylor); from Wim Delvoye’s tattooed pigs and Peter Halley canvases in flashy neon pinks to robust Picasso sketches and eccentric mobiles by Man Ray.   Not, here, your predictable mix of oversized Hirst installations, massive Pace Gallery occupations, and multiple rows of Gerhard Richters; rather, BRAFA surprises and delights with the unexpected and too-often unnoticed, those kinds of works that shine only to the most passionate connoisseurs – and then, shine brightly.

Though previews will continue until the weekend, with the biggest sale night still ahead, dealers opened the fair optimistic and were largely not disappointed.  Among those highlights spotted in the first hours:

Epoque Fine Jewelsalways among my first stops at the fair, Epoque’s offerings this year include the Art Nouveau plique-a-jour and emerald pendant from Elizabeth Taylor’s collection, an exquisite little ornament sparkling with emeralds and diamonds.  Sadly, the owners have since sold what had been my favorite piece in their collection, a brooch containing an intricately-carved citrine figure of a woman, to a Japanese museum.  (“At least it’s to a museum,” I said to the owner’s son. “But still,” he said, looking forlorn), “it’s sold.” I can imagine how he must feel – I wouldn’t have sold it, either.)

At Galerie Cybele, Paris, a tender mosaic portrait of a young man, salvaged from a Syrian mosaic from approximately the first century AD, beams an almost magical light from the wall, where it hangs like an Old Master painting, rather than lying underfoot (priced at €48,000). If there are more such treasures lying beneath the sidewalks and streets of Syria these days, and surely there are, let us all hope that they can be retrieved and salvaged once the hideousness of the fighting there has ended.

A balletic George Rickey stabile takes center stage at Maruani & Noirhomme, another BRAFA regular who this year have expanded their usual presentation of 1980s New York stars (Peter Halley, Ross Bleckner, and David Salle among them) with more solid, classic works, including the aforementioned Man Ray “Obstruction,” a mobile created from 20 wooden coat hangers, complete with its original valise.

Signatures, a Paris specialist in autographs and photography visiting BRAFA for the first time, quickly grabbed our attention with its carefully curated sets combining photographs of artists, writers, and other intellectual leaders with their letters.  A photograph of Sigmund Freud coupled with a note about his recent birthday sold within the first hour of the preview at €45,000, though a colorful letter from Robert Matta, with bright sketches in the margin, was available at an affordable €5500.

The absence of Ronny van de Velde, a regular exhibitor at BRAFA, is palpable, however; his booth usually features some of the most exciting of the Modern Masters material, particularly DaDa and Surrealist pieces.  Instead, Van de Velde’s former business partner, Guy Pieters, offers the perfect example of the “if you can’t sell this, try that” approach, combining Belgian contemporaries Jan Fabre, Wim Delvoye, and Koen Vanmechelen with works by Pablo Picasso, Julian Schnabel, Christo, and Francois-Xavier LaLanne.

(And no, there are no Dutch contemporary art galleries, which, in keeping with my previous post, continues to tell the story of the Dutch art scene overall.)

However, perhaps too much Champagne, many run-ins with friends, a host of chirpy dealers and a lengthy dinner made a full visit to all the fair’s offerings last night impossible – but a more detailed report follows, with the larger-scale VIP opening this evening, and more treasures still left to discover.

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