It’s the exclusive club that everyone wants to belong to, but only a few make the grade. TEFAF Maastricht in March and TEFAF New York in May and November is rightly regarded as the crème de la crème of art fairs, in part thanks to its rigorous vetting procedures.
To shine a light on emerging talent in the art and antiques world, TEFAF began Showcase 10 years ago: a handful of tiny, inexpensive stands allowing ‘younger’ dealers and galleries the chance to show at the prestigious Maastricht fair. It is, crucially, an audition for the main event, and only one or two make it through every year.
But for those lucky ones, it can prove to be a gamechanger. We talk to four previous and current Showcase exhibitors.
Otto Jakob, contemporary jewellery, Karlsruhe, Germany
Exhibited at Showcase in 2008; accepted into TEFAF the following year. Exhibits annually at TEFAF Maastricht and New York
Otto Jakob is, he says, a “rare species” of TEFAF exhibitor: a “self-producing jeweller”, with no gallery or shop, making unusual, meticulously detailed pieces that draw on a lifetime of art historical study. They are hard to categorise: strange, fantastical, occasionally unsettling creations that draw on Hellenic, Celtic, Gothic and Renaissance influences – in particular the Wunderkammer tradition.
“TEFAF was really impressed with my work, the way I made it, and the way I displayed it,” recalls Jakob.
“I think the feeling then, among their inner circle, was that it was necessary to refresh the fair with some contemporary dealers. Showcase was very important for me. I already had a market in the German-speaking countries, and I had exhibited in galleries, such as Colnaghi in London and Daniel Blau Gallery in Munich.
“But because my work is so specialised, I knew that I had to find an international marketplace.”
Showcase introduced Jakob to a wide range of European clients from Italy, France, Holland, UK, Spain and Russia. TEFAF visitors are “knowledgable buyers”, says Jakob, with a keen interest in art, and a disdain for “bling”.
“In my case if people start with just one purchase, they will almost always come back to buy again,” he says. “They all end up as collectors of my work. They are exactly the kind of clients that I wanted to meet.”
The exacting standards of TEFAF, and the pressure to maintain standards both in terms of objects and presentation every year, may be exhausting, but are essential, says Jakob.
“Showcase is a place from where you jump into an international reality. It’s a faster pace than before, but I like this situation where you are in competition internationally with the very best.
“I have to work hard every year, because if you are lazy, you would be eliminated from TEFAF very early. The competition is too intense – but this is a wonderful thing.”
Andreas Pampoulides, Lullo Pampoulides, master paintings and sculpture, London
Exhibited at Showcase in 2017; accepted into TEFAF this year
Andreas Pampoulides, former head of the European sculpture department at Christie’s London, started an antiques business 18 months ago with his partner and friend, Andrea Lullo.
Lullo, who is Roman, comes from three generations of an art-dealing family and specialises in western European painting, particularly the Italian Baroque.
The gallery applied to Showcase because TEFAF is the “principal art fair for people working in the Old Master world”, says Pampoulides. “Nothing else comes anywhere near. Collectors and museums like to know that they are buying from a TEFAF exhibitor. It’s a badge of reliability, it demonstrates quality.”
One of the great advantages of Showcase is the cost, which is surprisingly reasonable. Pampoulides and his partner paid just €5000 for their stand at last year’s 10-day fair. “The stands you get are minuscule – 11sq m – but you are still inside the fair and you’re surrounded by all the people you want to see, so it’s an incredible deal.
“It was a gamechanger for us. We sold 14 works that we took with us, at different price levels: multi-million-pound objects, but also £20,000 items. We met museum curators, hedge-fund billionaires, connoisseur collectors and people decorating their houses and just wanting a nice object for a mantelpiece.”
TEFAF’s famously tough vetting procedure is necessary to protect the fair’s reputation, and ultimately benefits everyone, says Pampoulides.
“We knew what to expect. We are quite conservative in the way we do things, anyway. We intentionally under-catalogued something because the art historians were all saying different things. TEFAF’s vetting committee went to the length of trying to find an attribution for us. It was a real conundrum, and they helped us to solve it. So, it can work both ways.”
To impress the TEFAF team and progress to the main event, you need to pay attention to detail, says Pampoulides, and presentation is key. “TEFAF want to see galleries making an effort: nice presentation, ‘commercial’ objects, good lighting, nice use of space, good labelling, good marketing, good research, good photography.
"I know it sounds all very obvious, but you’d be amazed how many galleries do very boring, overly academic write-ups on things.”
Oscar Graf, Oscar Graf Decorative Arts, Paris
Exhibited at Showcase in 2016; accepted into TEFAF New York in 2017 and Maastricht 2018
Oscar Graf is, perhaps, the model Showcase exhibitor. At 31, he’s ambitious and scarily young – he opened his first gallery in Paris in 2011, aged 24, specialising in European and American furniture and decorative arts from 1870 to the First World War, with a particular focus on arts and crafts at the turn of the century.
Although Showcase was set up to encourage the participation of ‘younger’ dealers, that’s not a qualification by itself, insists Graf. “They really want talented people, rather than young people. It’s weird to say, but that’s getting really rare. I personally fight against the common idea that we need to take in young people just because they’re young. Young doesn’t mean good.”
Graf was attracted to the Showcase because of its unrivalled reputation and rigorous standards. “I’m all for really, really strict rules. Unfortunately, the fairs that are coming down are doing so because they are too soft. They take average exhibitors. TEFAF is the hardest to get into, and I really like that.”
To be accepted, you must “give a good impression of yourself”, says Graf, painting an admissions procedure that seems comparable with an elite military unit. So, for example, making niggly, time-wasting complaints about your stand will not go down well, while a coherent, impeccably researched effort to display fine-quality, interesting work in the best way possible, will impress them.
“If you don’t show it the right way, they’re going to have a hard time imagining that you can improve within a year for the main event,” says Graf.
Showcase was successful for Graf. Within three months of exhibiting, he had sold 75% of the stock he had shown there, and he was accepted into TEFAF New York in 2017. “I made a lot of money at Showcase because the stand costs you practically nothing, whereas the regular event can cost up to €100,000. I met new clients, even though it was only a few months after the Paris terrorist killings, and there was still a very particular atmosphere, a very awkward climate.
“I have great memories from the show. But my main objective was to show the TEFAF people what I could do. When I was accepted into the main event, it was an incredibly satisfying experience.”
Stanislas Gokelaere, Galerie Le Beau, 20th century furniture and decorative art, Brussels
Exhibiting at Showcase for the first time in 2018
Stanislas Gokelaere and his partner Céline Robinson specialise in 20th century furniture and lighting, focusing on the years from 1940-60, from the best Scandinavian, American, French, Brazilian and Italian designers. They opened their gallery in the Place du Sablon, Brussels, in 2014.
“We try to select historical pieces that are still relevant in the context of today and to current tastes,” says Gokelaere.
“We have participated in several important fairs in Paris, Brussels and London. But TEFAF represents the highest standard of quality. The ability to participate in Showcase is an achievement, because it means we are doing things at the highest level. So that attracted us.
Also, the fair has expanded its design section. It is the most important art fair in the world and has become a major meeting point for design collectors.”
The vetting went very smoothly, says Gokelaere, “but we really experienced the TEFAF culture. It’s the highest level of vetting that we have experienced. It’s what we expected, but it really is at another level.
“It helped that we had met the team in the past at other fairs. They saw the way we curated our booths and made our selections. I think it reassured them that we would not ‘lower’ the level of quality at TEFAF.
“We always put effort into all our fairs, but it’s true that, for TEFAF, we’ve been holding on to pieces and building up our selection. We want to make a clear statement about who we are, about our ability to source high-quality pieces.
“So, it’s been a longer process in terms of curating, because we’ve held on to pieces that we didn’t want to show anywhere but TEFAF. That’s also why we have waited this long before applying to Showcase.”
Gokelaere hopes that Showcase will broaden their client base, which is currently mostly French, and introduce them to international buyers and curators.
The gallery will, “without any doubt”, apply to the main event next year. “It’s the right time for us now. We already have some very demanding clients, we have the experience, and we have the pieces.”