Although TEFAF Maastricht closed four days ahead of schedule there had been major sales. Dickinson reported the sale of an early Vincent Van Gogh painting for around €12m-15m to a private collector. 'Peasant Woman in front of a Farmhouse' (Paysanne devant une chaumière) from 1885 was bought for just £45 in the 1960s in the UK.

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Dealers and fair organisers have been making difficult decisions about planned events as they face the health and economic risks of coronavirus, which could be “catastrophic for business”.

Some have already taken steps to postpone or cancel fairs. Despite pushing for the March 25-30 event to go ahead earlier in the week, the organisers of the Paris drawings fair Salon du Dessin at the Palais Brongniart finally took the decision on Friday to postpone the event.

On March 8 the French government announced it intended to prohibit events that brought together more than 1000 people at any one time. It is hoped the Salon du Dessin will now return at the end of May.

TEFAF closes early

A dramatic moment came last Wednesday as TEFAF Maastricht closed four days ahead of schedule. It followed the news that an unnamed exhibitor tested positive for the virus on return to his hometown on Monday, March 9. Nanne Dekking, chairman of the board of trustees at TEFAF, said: “Given the recent developments in the regions around Maastricht and increasing concerns, we no longer feel it is appropriate to continue as planned.”

In the UK, Art & Antiques for Everyone became the first major fair to cancel its run, planned for April 2-5 at the NEC in Birmingham.

“The demographic profile of the antiques trade means that a large percentage of our dealers and visitors are in the high-risk category. We know from speaking to exhibitors that the appetite for the fair was greatly diminished,” said organiser Dan Leyland of MAD Events. The next event on July 16-19 remains in the calendar.

Exhibitors also proved reluctant to stand at Caroline Penman’s Chelsea Antiques Fair, which was called off last week. “I am sorry to have to take this decision at such a late stage, but many exhibitors have contacted me to express their nervousness at the current situation in London,” Penman said.

It was set to run from March 18-20 down the road from the simultaneous The Open Art Fair (March 18-24). At the time of going to press, however, TOAF is among the events going ahead, with plans apparently solidified following the Prime Minister’s address on Thursday.

Organiser Thomas Woodham-Smith said: “Exhibitors who have health issues or relatives with health problems may not attend but over 90% have said they will be putting their best feet forward. We feel this fair is important as a statement to the art world that we can and must continue to trade. Wisely, judiciously but above all we must continue.”

However, the organiser later announced that "due to various factors surrounding the current crisis we have decided to forego vetting this year". 

New boutique fair Eye of the Collector announced on Friday that it will postpone its inaugural staging scheduled for May and will run at Two Temple Place, Victoria Embankment, on September 8-11.

The Edinburgh Premier Fair, run by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association (ABA) & Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association (PBFA), has called off for its March 20-21 event.

Cooper Events sent out a statement asserting that its next three fairs would go ahead as planned and that alternative dates for later in 2020 had already been secured in case any needed to be called off. Its next scheduled event is The Cotswolds Decorative Antiques & Art Fair from April 17-19.

The organisers said: “Dozens of dealers exhibit every year with Cooper Events and we feel a strong sense of responsibility to ensure trade and business must continue.”

Galloway Antiques Fairs opened its three-day Scone Palace fair on Friday as scheduled and organiser Susan Galloway confirmed that “at the moment we intend to keep going” as long as reasonably possible.

The various IACF fairs, including two events in March at Newark and Newbury and the large Peterborough Festival of Antiques on April 10-11, were also proceeding as planned at the time of going to press. Managing director Will Thomas stressed that the fairs will take “extra precautions to keep the showground as safe as possible and will continually monitor, assess and listen to government advice”.

Cancellations carry major financial implications for exhibitors and organisers alike. The travel ban imposed by the US government on visitors from continental Europe could affect TEFAF New York Spring (May 8-11), which attracts many European exhibitors.

A spokesperson for the fair said last week that “the TEFAF team is considering all factors right now and staying aware but at this time, they do not have plans to postpone or cancel the fair”.

An international audience is also key to the major UK summer fairs. Book and map dealer Tim Bryars of Bryars & Bryars said The London Map Fair which he helms in June is proceeding as normal, but added: “Government decisions and advice will be crucial in the coming weeks. Advice to avoid crowds, avoid unnecessary travel, anything which feeds panic, will hit us hard.

“An actual Italian-style lock-down would be catastrophic for business. I’ve been in touch with the ABA, BAMF and DCMS. All we can do is work on the fair as usual, in the expectation that we will go ahead.”

Government help

Christopher Battiscombe, director general of the Society of London Art Dealers (SLAD), highlighted these economic fears.

He said: “I am seriously concerned about the potential impact of the coronavirus crisis on the finances of the UK art trade as a whole over the next few months and do hope that the Government will be thinking how to try to provide short-term help.”

Freya Simms, CEO of LAPADA, said: “We were pleased to see decisive support in the Budget, including cash grants for micro-businesses (those with rateable value of under £15,000) and help regarding Statutory Sick Pay. This will be welcomed by members who have small numbers of employees and for whom prolonged sick leave could have a devastating effect.”