At Brussels Antiques And Fine Arts Fair BRAFA, It’s All About Quality, Not Cool

CL-9 Chair. photo Peter Madden

“We arrived last night at 8 pm,” a collector friend told me when we met up on the second day of VIP previews at the Brussels Antiques And Fine Art Fair (BRAFA), “and by 8:07, we’d bought our chairs.”

And what chairs they were! Known as the “white ribbon” CL9 armchairs from 1961, they were designed by Franca Stagi and Cesare Leonardi for Edition Bernini, and look for all the world like – well, white ribbons, folded into simple armchairs and set atop a steel triangle base.   As space-age-60s as they are minimal and contemporary (and even comfortable to sit in), the chairs – offered by Galerie Martel-Greiner are, indeed, irresistible.

Nicholas Mullany at his stand-photo Peter Madden

Still, not everyone has approached this year’s BRAFA – the thirteenth edition of the fair – with the same impulsiveness my friends showed.  While quite a few sales were made in the first night, most dealers reported a cautiousness among interested buyers, who wanted “to think about it more” – code for “wanted to look the items up online.”

Interest, however, was strong all around, it seems, including at Finch & Co., which can always be relied on for the unusual; this year’s offerings include a hippopotamus skull, for instance, dated late 18th-early 19th century, at €22,000 (“lots of interest, “ reports the gallery, but still available as of this writing).

Hippopotamus skull at Finch & Co. photo Peter Madden

And at the extraordinary Steinitz booth, set among spectacular De la Fontaine Art Nouveau mahogany wall panels fitted with 18th-century Chinese wallpapers (the walls, at €500,000, were sold prior to the fair’s opening, though the wall papers remain available), a magnificent  Louis XV console stamped by Jacques du Bois and painted a rare robins-egg blue also attracted crowds, though by day two was still unclaimed at €1.4 million.

commode, c.1742, at Steinitz photo Peter Madden

And generally speaking, the kind of raw enthusiasm one normally finds, say, at Basel Miami, is not part of the mood at BRAFA. It’s a quieter vibe here, more refined, perhaps, and pensive, resembling the kind of thoughtful connoisseurship you’d anticipate in libraries.   In large part, this may be explained by the simple fact that BRAFA is not the fair for contemporary art and design  buffs;offerings are meager in that department compared with the antiques and antiquities on show.  (Though Spain’s Mayoral and Manuel Barbie galleries are showing some stunning modern master works, from Picasso drawings at Mayoral to Robert Delaunay paintings at Barbie, and Guy Pieters and Maruani-Noirhomme, both of Belgium, are presenting works by Christo, Wim Delvoye, Ross Bleckner, Peter Halley, and others).

Richard Serra at Axel Vervoordt. photo P. Madden

Consequently, you’ll find few if any hedge-funders here, or Hollywood stars flirting with the paparazzi – indeed, you won’t find the paparazzi, either.  The jewelry is big and beautiful and sparkles,and was largely inherited.  The hemlines are below the knee. Most of the “newer” sculpture dates from the Middle Ages. The catchword here is “quality,” not “cool.”

But for a chance to feast your eyes on the widest diversity of some of the most beautiful objects humankind (and sometimes nature) has ever crafted, there is little that can surpass the BRAFA fair. And if the impulse grabs at you – as it did my friends — within the first few minutes and urges you to take some of the fair’s many delights back home with you, so much the better.

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