Ah, early spring in Holland: it’s a time for flowering bulbs, creaking windmills, and incredibly rare art objects.
The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) is an organization whose shows are where institutions and serious collectors of Old Master paintings and fine antiques often head to make acquisitions, with sales trends and prices providing valuable information on the health and direction of the art market. It’s held semiannually in Maastricht and New York, and over the years there’s become something of an expectation around these events that major rediscoveries in fine or decorative art will be presented. Some dealers will hold on to particularly rare pieces for months ahead of TEFAF, in order to build hype about their offerings. For the upcoming Dutch edition of the fair, which opens this weekend, the prestigious Amsterdam-based dealers Aronson Antiquairs will be presenting a type of ceramic art object so rare that I, for one, didn’t even know that they existed.
If you’re familiar with the term “Delftware”, you’ll know that it refers to a type of blue and white glazed ceramic, which is still produced today in large quantities. It was created by the Dutch beginning in the early 17th century, usually in imitation of traditional Chinese blue and white porcelain, which had begun to be imported into Holland around this time. These imports were very expensive, and difficult to obtain; since the Europeans hadn’t yet figured out how to make porcelain themselves, only the wealthiest collectors could afford to acquire these objects.
The production of what came to be known as Delftware, because of the large conglomeration of factories manufacturing the stuff around the city of Delft, met a significant consumer demand by creating a locally-made knockoff at a much lower price than that of the imported originals. While Delftware wasn’t quite as durable or as attractive as porcelain, it looked nice on the sideboard, and was much more suitable for daily use. If you broke or damaged a Delftware platter, replacing it would cost you far less than replacing a Chinese porcelain version.
Unbeknownst to me until now, it turns out that as the East India trade expanded, some Dutch collectors became even more fascinated by imported Japanese lacquerware than they had been by Chinese porcelain. These objects featured boldly-colored, inlaid, and gilded designs, often set against jet black backgrounds. They required countless hours of painstaking, highly detailed work, in order to allow the multiple coats of lacquer to dry. At the time, such techniques were too difficult for Dutch manufacturers to try to copy, so for a very brief period in the early 18th century, a few enterprising potteries started experimenting with recreating these designs for the domestic market in what is known as *BLACK* Delftware.
Ultimately, it proved far too difficult to successfully reproduce the look of lacquerware on a large scale, so very few pieces of Black Delftware were ever made. Currently, only about 60-odd objects are known to exist in the world, and nearly all of those are in museum collections. One of the few examples that, so far, remains in private hands is the bowl shown below, which has been owned by the Philips family (of Philips Petroleum fame) for a number of years.
The bowl was only recently rediscovered by Aronson’s, who have previously handled examples of these extremely rare objects over the years: if they tell you that it’s a very rare thing, it’s because they’re the experts. This particular example is on the small side, at just under 3 inches high and a bit over 6 inches in diameter, but presumably the asking price is not, because no price estimate is provided in the firm’s listing. As is often the case in any kind of collecting, if you have to ask what an object costs, you probably can’t afford it.
For those who want to trundle along and see this rare piece in person, TEFAF Maastricht opens this Saturday, March 7th, and runs through March 15th.
And now, let’s turn to some other art world news from the week gone by.
Dig that Dagger
Speaking of rare objects, while not quite as rare as a piece of Black Delftware, 2,000 year-old Roman daggers certainly qualify as things that you don’t come across every day – and certainly not if you’re a 19-year-old intern. Last year Nico Calman was working on an archaeological dig in Haltern am See, in the Westphalia region of northern Germany, when he spotted the weapon in a ditch and immediately recognized what it was, even though it was coated with rust and muck. The dagger, which has spent most of the past year being cleaned and restored, is made of silver and brass, and comes with a fitted sheath of iron inlaid with wood and colored glass; part of the belt from which the weapon was suspended was also found nearby. The Roman officer who carried it either died or was killed sometime during the reign of Caesar Augustus, roughly between about 27 BC and 15 AD. The now-cleaned and preserved blade will eventually go on display at the Haltern archaeological museum, located near the site of the major Roman-era encampment where the artifact was found. In the meantime, someone had better give this kid a permanent job, as he clearly has a good eye.
El Greco on The L
Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614), better known as “El Greco” (“The Greek”), is the subject of a major new exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago opening this Saturday, which just closed its run at the Grand Palais in Paris last week. Born on the island of Crete, trained in Italy, and for most of his working life a resident of Spain, El Greco’s fusion of Byzantine icon painting with the late Renaissance style known as Mannerism, and the incorporation of strong, almost hallucinogenic contrasts of light and dark to be observed under the baking sun of the central plateau of Castile, made him something of an idiosyncratic figure in art history. For centuries after his death, he was mostly forgotten or disdained as being something of a weirdo, until artists like Manet and Picasso began to look closely at his work, and incorporate his influence into their own art. Today, he’s considered to be an artist who was far ahead of his time, and the starting point for what’s usually referred to as the “Golden Age” of Spanish art. For those of you who find yourselves in Chicagoland over the coming months, you’ll definitely want to check out this show, as it incorporates not only works from the Art Institute’s own collection, but also loans from the Prado, The Met, and private collections in America and Europe.
“El Greco: Ambition and Defiance” is at the Art Institute of Chicago from March 7th through June 21st
Pachyderm as Pad
One of the most famous examples of what’s usually referred to as “novelty architecture” can now be yours – for the night. “Lucy the Elephant” (1881) was built in Margate City, New Jersey as a tourist attraction and seaside real estate marketing tool. Over the past century and a half Lucy’s had her ups and downs, along with the fortunes of the Jersey Shore, but the building gained National Historic Landmark status back in the 1970’s, thus saving it from demolition and helping to provide for its restoration. Now a new round of preservation work is needed to keep the seaside landmark standing, as even an elephant’s skin can only take so much exposure to the sea air before needing a bit of TLC. As the Architect’s Newspaper reports, for three nights only in mid-March “Lucy” will be available to rent on AirBNB as part of an effort to raise funds for the project, but if you’re interested you’ll need to act quickly: the listing will be posted today, and competition is expected to be intense.